Yesterday morning I spent two and half hours flinging fibreglass sticks at plastic models of animals that were dotted around a mile-long path in some woodland. This is my new hobby. Actually it’s an old hobby that I’ve returned to – field archery, which involves various kinds of targets set up at various un-measured distances in rough terrain, in contrast with target archery which uses the classic roundel type target at fixed measured distances indoors or outdoors. Field archery involves some of the same skills that are needed for hunting – an adaptive approach to unpredictable conditions based on intuition informed by experience. Archery is sometimes called toxophily, a word deriving from the first English-language book on archery, Toxophilus (“lover of the bow”), written by Roger Ascham in 1545 and dedicated to Henry VIII. Below is its nicely-structured hierarchical table of contents.
I used to do field archery in my teens as the ‘sport’ part of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, which also involves an expedition, voluntary work and a skill. I did it over 2 or 3 years for the silver and gold awards. Gold awards were presented by the duke himself at St James Palace. I remember only three things about that experience: I was uncomfortable wearing one of Dad’s suits that was too big for me, Prince Phillip didn’t speak to me personally, and the urinal in the palace (the big trough type, designed for multiple people, not the individual sort) had a gilt-edged glass screen in front of it from about knee height to the floor to prevent splashback onto shoes – I’d never seen one like that before and haven’t seen anything like it since. I didn’t continue with archery after that, partly because I didn’t have a bow of my own. But I bought one recently after deciding to get back into it. In fact, I think it was wanting to buy this particular bow that finalised my decision to take it up again. It’s a Black Hunter 60″ take-down by Mandarin Duck, with an attractive stained wood one-piece riser (pictured below) and laminate limbs of bamboo and fibreglass. This was recommended via Twitter by Julian Oliver who has been a keen archer since childhood, and it’s generally got very positive reviews as a cheap but surprisingly good bow. Its draw weight is only 30lb, as it’s recommended to start with a lighter draw to focus on technique and to build up strength before moving up to heavier weights. It looks and feels good. It’s like owning musical instruments: the aesthetics, tactility and ergonomics is important. If you love how it looks and it feels comfortable and it does what it you want it to do, then that can motivate you to use it and – hopefully – learn to use it well.
Because archery clubs were closed due to COVID restrictions, I looked for information to help get me started again. Julian Oliver shared some links to useful videos (Wolfie Hughes, NuSensei and Clay Hayes) and kindly offered some advice (in summary: 1. Don’t overgrip bow 2. Don’t ‘lock’ bow arm elbow 3. Achieve proper back-tension 4. Ensure bow-arm shoulder is down). I ordered a book that looked interesting, even though it wasn’t suited to my kind of bow – Shooting the English Longbow by Pip Bickerstaffe. The author emailed back to tell me the book was out of stock, but invited me to visit him to get some advice. Pip Bickerstaffe is a highly-regarded bowyer with years of experience making traditional English longbows – the kind famously used in the Battle of Agincourt and associated with Robin Hood. I gratefully accepted the offer, and went along to visit his workshop last week. Bickerstaffe Bows is housed in what was originally a small Victorian hosiery factory. Located between an old pub and a small wood, it’s long and narrow with two floors and lots of natural daylight, having windows all round. Downstairs (pictured below) is for gluing and forming the laminates and for rough shaping the staves, containing a couple of electrical sanding machines. Upstairs is for hand-working only and is where the final shaping (’tillering’) takes place, containing little more than some vice benches and a tillering tree for checking the curve of the bow and scales for measuring draw weight, with a small separate room at one end for making strings. There’s a nice little series of short videos by the company on how a bow is born. Pip re-did the serving on my string to centre it and set the nocking point, and he tailored my leather arm guard and finger tab to fit better. He offered some tips on shooting and practicing, and encouraged me to find a local club through the National Field Archery Society (his family established the NFAS in 1972 to provide a society that concentrated solely on unmarked field archery). I’d like to get into traditional English longbows in future, so I hope I’ll be seeing Pip again at some point to order my own Bickerstaffe bow.
I met a local field archery club yesterday, based not far from where I grew up, located in a mix of pine and deciduous woodland managed by the Forestry Commission. With 6 other members I did around half of the course, which meant 16 or so targets of different shapes and sizes scattered throughout the wood at distances from 10 to 40 metres, some on the flat and some shooting up or down hill. I lost or broke nearly half my arrows, which were very cheap ones with fibreglass shafts. Their black colour meant it was hard to find the ones that went off-target into the brambles or into the ground. So I’ve ordered a set of carbon shaft arrows with bright-coloured feather fletchings instead of plastic vanes, which will make for smoother flight off the shelf of the bow. I intend to learn how to construct arrows from parts, which means you can tune them better to your bow and draw length and also save some money. I hadn’t appreciated how much arrows cost or how many you need – I’ve already spent more on just two sets of cheap arrows than on the bow. I really enjoyed shooting a the club, and will be going along again soon. I think it’s something I’ll stick with this time. I’m not into sports and don’t do much exercise apart from walking, so this is a good way to do a bit of both in a way that suits me. The upper-body exercise also appears to be helping sort out a trapped nerve in my shoulder and alleviate the pain. The fact that it takes place in woodland – my favourite habitat – means that you get to enjoy some fresh air, and even if you don’t feel like shooting you can just sit still and appreciate the surroundings.