My namesake, the Norse goddess Freya, was pretty hardcore: love, war, beauty, fertility, spring, magic are a few of the areas she’s associated with. I’ve always liked the fact she drove a chariot pulled by cats. A warrior goddess, she knew her way around weaponry so I felt no pressure when I joined the Crystal Palace Bowmen for an indoor archery session.
The club’s been going for over 60 years and has been based at Park Langley in Beckenham for more than 40 years. But Britain’s history with archery goes back a long way – a bow dating from 2690 BC (+/- 120 years) was found in Somerset. Archery was mainly used for hunting but, after the Battle of Hastings the longbow was developed as a weapon of war and successive kings made sure their subjects practiced their archery skills by banning games like football, bowls and golf.
Sadly no monarchs have kept that tradition but apparently some companies in SE Asia give their workers time off to practice archery. That’s a workplace benefit I’d like. Archery is still popular in England and Italy but the USA now has the largest number of archers – partly due to the fact hunters are banned from using guns in the first weeks of the hunting season.
Archery was first included as an Olympic sport in 1900 for men and 1904 for women – one of the earliest sports for female competitors. It was included in 1908 and 1920, then dropped out for a few decades before being reintroduced in 1972, since when it has been a mainstay of the Games.
Bows and bosses
Our coaches Phil, Alan, and Mike explained the different bow styles (recurve, compound, long bow, Syrian) and, after kitting us out with armguards (to protect the left forearm from the bowstring) and fingertips (to protect the three tips of the shooting fingers), showed us how to hold and aim the recurve bows we would be using for the session.
As Phil kitted Trace out with a quiver (to hold her arrows), she told us she’d learned archery at school until she was asked to leave the archery club for undisclosed reasons. I coveted the quiver and worried about unresolved archery issues from Trace’s past.
The bosses (made from English straw) and the foam danage (for compound archers) had been set up in the banqueting hall, under the chandeliers and glitter ball. They were a long way from where we were standing.
Our coaches explained a few safety procedures then decided we’d start shooting at 10 yards.
Standing on the 10 yard line, Alan showed me how to place the arrow on the nocking point, draw the bow, and release the arrow. Before letting me try my hand at shooting an arrow he reminded me where my arm and thumb needed to be to make sure my arrow flew straight.
I let loose the bowstring and my first arrow hit the boss. Not the pin hole. But in the red ring. I was happy – and surprised. Alan handed me another arrow. Again I hit the red ring. And so we went on, with Alan handing me arrows and giving coaching tips: ‘Shoulders back. Draw. Draw. Hold. Release.’
After Trace and I had each loosed six arrows (it took us a bit longer than Medieval longbow archers who’re reputed to have been able to loose about six arrows a minute, although I’m not sure how anyone measured minutes in the Middle Ages) and we walked to the boss to inspect the groupings of our arrows, learn about scoring, and find out how to release the arrows safely from the boss.
We loosed and retrieved a few more arrows, and talked about how characters wielding bows and arrows on TV and screen had affected the popularity of archery. I made a note to catch up with the exploits of Princess Merida in Brave, apparently the film-makers have done a good job of capturing the movement and trajectory of the archer, the bow, and the arrow.
Flirts and sights
Our coaches were happy with our progress and moved us back to the 15 yard line.
I loosed an arrow. It missed the boss and skittered across the floor to land in the backstop netting. My first archery flirt. I couldn’t believe I’d lost my archery mojo. But Alan reassured me the sights on my bow just needed a slight adjustment.
He tweaked the sights and I was back on target.
But I was starting to feel the sessions I’d done in the pool earlier that day. Alan spotted my shoulders were rolling forward and I was peering around the bow: ‘If you’re feeling tired and your arms are shaking, drop the bow, take a breath, and reset the bow. It’s better you learn to use the bow properly than just push yourself and develop bad habits.’
I took his advice and my aim improved.
Phil suggested a competition. What could go wrong?
We moved back to the 20 yard line and adjusted the sights on both bows while Phil blew up three balloons and fixed them in a diagonal line across the boss.
Trace hit the balloon on the pin hole with her first arrow. It took me a couple of arrows to hit the balloon in the top right corner, then Trace hit the one in the bottom left corner.
Phil blew up more balloons, of different shapes and sizes, and fixed them to the boss.
I hit the balloon on the pin hole with my first arrow, and our next two arrows hit the remaining arrows. I’m still not sure who was more surprised at our archery skills: our coaches or Trace and I.
We checked the time, realised we’d been practicing for over 90 minutes, and decided it was time to stop. If we hadn’t I suspect we’d have gone on until the evening archery session started. And my shoulders and back were reminding me about that morning’s front crawl drills. Which made me think archery might have been a good sport to have tried in early remission because it builds focus, strength, and control – all of which I desperately craved at the time.
Like many archery clubs, Crystal Palace Bowmen hold regular practice sessions every week (two during winter and three during summer), and tournaments. I’ll definitely be back for another session and may enter a tournament.
Archery. 23 February 2016
Crystal Palace Bowmen, Park Langley, Beckenham
Cost: £60 for 2-hour 6-week group or 1:1 session