Courage at the nocking point

The ancient craft of archery and the deadly art of the bull's- eye can calm the soul, reports Eric Kendall

HAD I tried archery before? they asked me. No not really, or at least not since I was about six, when I reckoned I was rather good - and in those days I even had to make my own bow.

It's all very different when you join a club. For a start, you never, ever arm a bow when people are in the field of fire, let alone aim at anyone. In my day that was the whole point, especially when General Custer and his mates were down to their last roll of caps.

Then there's the tackle, which ranges from traditional-looking wooden bows to things with pulleys at each end and all manner of technical gadgetry. And there are lots of quivers: one for your arrows, one stuck in the ground for your bow, and even a shoulder quiver - which could be what happens when you try too hard.

The first thing to do when learning to use a bow is to establish which is your dominant eye, using a procedure that looks like a stretching routine: extend your arms in front of you and put the tips of your thumbs and forefingers together to form a hole through which to frame the target. Sight it with both eyes open, then close one eye. The image will either remain the same (you're looking through your dominant eye), or it will shift (you're looking through your weak eye).

Once you know this (King Harold would have been one step ahead here; he also learnt a thing or two towards the end of his career about the importance of remaining behind the shooting line), you can adopt the stance. Space your feet hip-width apart, sideways on to the target, left foot forwards if you are right-handed. If your right eye is dominant then you're all set, but if it's your left eye, you need to close it to make sure it doesn't try to take over from your sighting eye, which looks along the arrow at the target. Some people even use a patch, lending a piratical air to proceedings. Trying to use the left eye with a right-handed stance would lead to all sorts of trouble. Naturally, everything is reversed for left-handers.

Load an arrow into the bow by snapping the "nock" (a groove in the end of the arrow) on to the string at the nocking point, letting the shaft of the arrow sit on the rest, just above the bow handle. Now the bow can be drawn. Hold it out vertically in front of you, arm extended but not locked, while drawing the string back with the first three fingers of your other hand. This is the point at which things can go horribly wrong: over-drawing or using too short an arrow could bring the business end inside the bow, risking damage to both, not to mention possibly skewering your hand at point-blank range. It's probably best to use extra-long arrows to start with.

To aim, turn your head towards the target and sight down the arrow. Then loose the arrow as smoothly as possible, continuing to hold the bow steady. This is where it all comes together: focus, balance, breath control. Your mind has to zero into the centre of that target before the arrow will.

Once you've settled into the first few shots, the simple actions start to feel natural. You can concentrate on minimising all extraneous movement, developing a rhythm, smoothly drawing the bow before loosing the arrow almost silently. It's calm and totally absorbing, with no room for any thought beyond the next shot. The build-up of tension seems to demand a violent release of energy; the archer's skill lies in channelling the power of the bow to drive the arrow cleanly to its target with almost impossible precision, time after time. Considering all the variables, it's a miracle two arrows ever fall within feet of each other, never mind fractions of an inch.

Thanks to Christian of the archery club at the Parc International de la Canche at Le Touquet (Pas-de-Calais tourist board, 0033 321 833259, http: //wwwpas-de-calais.com)

Archery Ancient and Modern

GOOD ARCHERS were considered such a vital military resource in the Middle Ages that all Englishmen were required to practise regularly. "Dishonest" games such as football, which might distract them, were actively discouraged; James II of Scotland made an order against playing golf, for similar reasons.

The sport reflects its ancient past both in terminology and in some of its variations. Target shooting is the standard form, but there are some spectacular branches of the sport, from an age when safety was less of an issue, which seem a bit happy go lucky today. Popinjay shooting involves firing straight up in the air at dummy birds perched high on a mast (tin hats optional). Apparently archery golf is also played in competition with golfers (possibly introduced by James II), which brings a whole new meaning to the term, "Fore!" and could seriously affect your handicap. It should at least discourage slow play. Clout shooting is a form of long-distance archery where arrows are fired into the air to drop on to the target zone - obviously to do with raining arrows down on to your hapless enemy from a safe distance. Field archery - bow hunting for vegetarians - uses different targets around a course where the distance to the target is usually unknown, calling for instinctive skills from the archer. Real bow hunting, if you're that way inclined, must give the most complex challenges, what with locating your target and then persuading it to stand still long enough for you to take a pot shot.

For obvious practical and safety reasons, you shouldn't just head off to the local woods to have a go; the modern-day version of an arrow pinning a knight's armoured thigh through his saddle to his horse's flank doesn't bear thinking about, either. Contact the Grand National Archery Society (01203 696631, fax: 01203 419662) for information on local clubs. First- timers need no special kit or even green tights; just don't wear excessively baggy clothes.

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