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I’m all of a quiver

13 July 2022

Archery is one of the few sports you can start in later life and still hit international level. And it’s fun pretending you’re Robin Hood... By Jonathan Margolis.

Journalist Jonathan Margolis holding a bow shooting an arrow
Jonathan Margolis tries archery for the first time. Photography by John Millar

It’s a beautiful sunny Sunday morning and I’m standing on a sweet-smelling, freshly mowed playing field. I’m holding a longbow not much different from those English archers used at Agincourt and Crécy, and ahead of me is a traditional archery target – the boss in archer speak – reputedly designed for, or even by, Henry VIII.

Under the careful eye of an instructor, I delicately place a wooden arrow with a metal tip into my bow and turn my body sideways to the target, twisting my head to the left.

Humming the theme tune to the 1950s TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood, I can’t help thinking, ‘Hang on, this isn’t how Richard Greene shot arrows. I’m sure he just looked ahead and fired.’

But the first of many things I learn today during my introductory session at the Royal Richmond Archery Club, south-west London, is that practically every TV and film depiction there has ever been of archery is wrong.

The other thing I learn is that I love it, to the extent that I wonder if this could be my sport. I’m 67, in reasonable shape and strong – if a couple of stone overweight – but only ever do a little cycling, some indoor exercise and walking to keep fit. Golf doesn’t attract me, I’m no good at tennis, I don’t have the puff or the knees for parkruns, and there’s no way I’m doing bowls for at least another decade – snooker or darts, ever.

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Jonathan with archery instructor and club chairman Kevin Varney.

For now, I do like this archery thing, especially when members of the club explain that it’s not only a fine way of developing upper body and mental power, but also one of the few sports you can start in the autumn of life and be competing at international level within a few years. Three clubmates I meet have done just that. Under their watchful gaze, I forget Richard Greene and I do it the proper way. I draw back the string – it needs a bit of strength but not too much as this is a beginner’s bow – and carefully aim the tip of the arrow, choosing to fire a bit above the target to let it drop in flight. And, release. There’s time to register that this was an exceptionally satisfying sensation before, just a fraction of a second later, I see the arrow twang into one of the rings not far from the gold dead centre.

‘Ha,’ I think to myself a little smugly, ‘I reckon we’re done here. Not bad for 30 minutes of coaching.’ The same happened when I had a similar first-shot success on a shooting range once. And my instructor, Kevin Varney, a former railway signal engineer and now the club chairman, is as unimpressed as my shooting tutor was.

Nobody quite understands the psychology of beginner’s luck, but all archers are aware of it. Indeed, club members diplomatically point out when we chat afterwards that my target was about 20 metres away and several of my arrows missed altogether. A master bowman would expect 90-plus per cent of their arrows to be clumped closely around the yellow – from 70 to 100 metres.

I have to admit it’s the romance of archery that is so compelling, especially to the English. This is not to say shooting arrows isn’t big in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the US or South Korea (the world leader). Or to the French, who lost a lot of people to English arrows, while one of theirs felled our King Harold in 1066.

‘Archery is one of the few sports where people of up to five generations compete against one another’

It’s just that England and archery connect culturally. When you think about it, we have The Archers on Radio 4, many towns have areas called Butts (meaning archery practice grounds), and when we had phone books, they were stuffed with Fletchers (arrowsmiths), Bowyers (bow makers) and Archers.

Retired oil and gas engineer Nick Coleman, from close by in Richmond, is a prime example of the lateish in life archer who rises to considerable success. Nick, 70, did archery at school but abandoned it until he was 61. Within four years, he ranked among the top 150 of the estimated 30,000 archers in the UK, and competed in the World Masters Games in New Zealand.

‘I didn’t come anywhere,’ Nick says, ‘because I was up against archers who’d been Olympians in their twenties and thirties, but at least I was there in my GB strip, aged 65. And my ranking of 130 or so in 2016 was alongside muscular young guys in their twenties, because archery is one of the few sports where people of up to five generations compete against one another.’

At 66, fellow Richmond member John Cavanagh’s archery career has been even more impressive. A university rower, he had a skiing accident aged 32 that left him in a wheelchair and with limited function in all his limbs.

While being treated at The National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, John got into archery and, from 2000 to 2016, he competed in five Paralympics, winning a gold in Athens and a silver in Beijing.

‘Even with limited hand function there are lots of devices you can use, such as a mechanical release aid to let go of the bow strings,’ he explains. ‘Other disabled archers release from their teeth.

‘Archery isn’t one of those sports which requires huge physical prowess, and you start off with lightweight equipment that doesn’t require much effort. Then, as you build up your strength, you can go to something more powerful. But international archers are proper athletes, training 24/7, going to the gym, physio sessions, sports psychologists and so on. And it’s very common for people who did it as juniors to come back in early middle age, after they’ve had their family. You get people from ages six to 95 trying it.’

‘It’s quite a gentle pursuit, but not that long ago archers were our weapons of mass destruction’

Club member and project management consultant Barbara Wanzenried, 63, was a keen fencer before archery and is now concentrating on making it from Bowman, the second level of skill after plain Archer, to Master Bowman.

‘It’s a very addictive sport,’ she enthuses, explaining how women typically make up a third of archery club memberships, with ages ranging from ten to 70-plus. ‘What I love most is that the only person you’re really competing against is yourself, so all you want to achieve is your next personal best.’ She has several apps on her phone to keep track of her performance with each of her four bows.

Today, lobbing arrows at a target on a green and pleasant playing field is quite a gentle pursuit, but not that long ago (in the 64,000-plus-year history of the sport, at least), archers were our weapons of mass destruction.

England had forests of yew trees, which made for especially powerful bows. At Crécy in 1346 it was the deployment of clouds of arrows that enabled an English army to defeat a French force as much as ten times bigger. Half a million arrows were fired, according to estimates, with hideously barbed tips that could penetrate armour from 225 metres.

Medieval war bows required the archer to pull with a force of 100-200 pounds – five times or more of today’s competition bows. The immense strength needed accounts for the lopsided skeletons of archers found on Henry VIII’s sunken flagship, the Mary Rose.

Thankfully no such occupational hazard for today’s archers. Although, the medieval law that said you couldn’t be charged with a crime if you accidentally killed someone while practising archery at your local butts on a Sunday after church, no longer applies.

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