I fell in love with the longbow on the battlefield near Hastings where the Norman invaders settled the course of English history in 1066. I had turned up in 1989, a little after the event, to cover a medieval festival for the local newspaper.
Your Girl Reporter was earnestly taking notes while a big fellow in chainmail explained in some detail the intricacies of recreating the armour and weaponry of Ye Olden Tymes. “And it’s heavy too,” he said as he stuck his broadsword into the ancient turf with a manly smirk. “Go on, see if you can lift that.”
I obliged by failing to budge the thing an inch and that would have been the end of it except for the arrival on the scene of a man in Lincoln green. “Hey Robin, show the Girl Reporter your longbow,” he said and then, in case I was expecting an effete experience, “you have to be really strong to use one of these.”
Well, Gentle Reader, I surprised us all that day.
All I can tell you is that something resonated in me when that stick of wood was placed in my hand. I heard the striking of an ancient chord and everything else seemed to fall away. Instinctively I answered, drawing the bowstring easily back to my cheek.
“Oh you’ve done it before,” Robin said as my arrow skated across the grass, well short of the target. “No. I haven’t. But I will be doing it again,” I said. “Where can I get one?”
Turned out I was in the right place. Robin directed me to a bowyer in Hastings called Steve Ralphs who made me a longbow of lemonwood and hickory – a yew bow being well out of a struggling Girl Reporter’s price range.
Even so, it was months before I could place my order and I filled in the time on a battered old recurve with a dressmaker’s pin for a sight at the Hastings Sports Centre’s archery sessions, run by my first coach and mentor Don Jackson.
He did everything he could to dissuade me from the longbow. I would never be accurate with one. It was hard to learn. Why not a nice little recurve bow? Anything would be better than a longbow. And he was right. Every development of modern archery has addressed deficiencies in the traditional wooden bow.
Sir Muscles wasn’t far off the mark when he said it took strength to shoot in a longbow. It is heavy and hard to draw but, like most things, it’s about technique rather than brute force. Even so, modern materials and design make for lighter work.
Music and poetry sprang from our weapon. The bow is the old first lyre, the monochord, the initial rune of fine art… no sooner did the soft, sweet note of the bowstring charm the ear of genius than music was born, and from music came poetry and painting and sculpture
– Maurice Thompson, 1878
A traditional wooden bow contributes little to the business of shooting. All the work belongs to the archer alone. There’s no sighting mechanism. At all. The slightest difference in draw and release has a huge impact on where the arrow ends up.
And every time you shoot is like the first time, as the bow has no ‘memory,’ which is a harder thing to explain to a non-archer, but even a longbow with fibreglass in it becomes an easier beast to master for that reason.
But that wasn’t the call I was answering. And when I brought my new longbow to Don he heard it too. There was no more talk of a nice little recurve. “Oh Sally,” he said. “She’s as sweet as a nut.”
Don said it would take three months to work myself into the bow, and they were three long, hard months. He stood at my shoulder sustaining me with stories of the remarkable accuracy which had been achieved with the wooden bow.
He spoke of Howard Hill, the great American longbowman, who could hit silver dollars out of the air, and of the mysticism of Japanese kyudo which was brought to the west by Eugen Herrigel in his book Zen in the Art of Archery.
“The Zen archers can hit a candle blindfolded in the dark,” Don said, in a tone which I think was supposed to be inspirational. It was hard to tell through the screaming pain of my shoulders, neck and lower back as I tried to do nothing more complex than three successive draws. Hit a target? That would be months away.
Even when it came, bang on the three month mark just as Don had predicted, it was always more miss than hit but there’s nothing to compare with a hit.
My first outing from the sports centre was a spot of ‘stump shooting’ – said to be the forerunner of golf – in the woods on some private land just outside town. A target is nominated – a branch, a stone, a shadow on the grass – and whoever’s arrow gets closest to it nominates the next target.
Someone had nominated a hole under a tree and we took our shots. We all thought I’d got close but we couldn’t find my arrow anywhere – until we looked deep inside the hole. Bullseye.
I have heard many traditional archers say that there’s no such thing as a lucky shot. I’m not sure that’s entirely true but they are right that the traditional archer is aiming with instinct and experience alone and it’s hard to know where one begins and the other takes over.
Archery is: Two sticks. One has feathers, the other a string. Anything else is called shooting. It’s why the Olympic sport is as cold as a fish, no soul. Drawing a longbow connects us via our DNA to our oldest ancestors and is a link to our past, an art and the oldest musical instrument that had a string. Who remembers the drummer? Everyone knows who the guitarist is…..
– Steve Ralphs, The Bow & Arrow Man 2016
More exciting than the lucky shot is the perfect shot, also rare but always possible.
An arrow from a traditional bow travels relatively slowly so there’s a long drawn out moment to savour when it finally all comes together – the relaxed stance, the calming of the breath, the stillness of the mind, the loose as natural as the way a child lets go of your hand to catch a butterfly – all to achieve a shot so true the archer already knows the target is hit as the arrow leaves the bow.
The great archers can do that every time. The rest of us chase after it, taking aim without aiming, knowing that the worst thing you can do is try too hard. It’s a one-sided love affair, but an intense one.
C Sally Baxter 2016
Want more? Try this:
Steve Ralphs – the bow and arrow man now lives in Norfolk, still going strong and supplying bows (just like mine!) to numerous film and television productions, including Game of Thrones. Permit Your Girl Reporter a small fangirl moment *sigh*
Straight as an Arrow Howard Hill – a very cheesy video of the American longbow legend, complete with rampant sexism. It was the style at the time. How things have changed, hey ladies?
The Archer’s Paradox in slow motion – Smarter Every Day. The pesky paradox explained with some Howard Hill-style archery wizardry but without the sexism. Includes a comparison of traditional longbow and modern compound bow. Enjoy.
Want more Baxter? Some memories of a colonial childhood in Hong Kong here