[Excepcionalmente escribo esta reseña en inglés como cortesía a los organizadores y asistentes]
[Empleo fotografías de Luis García y Yamila Moreno al igual que las mías y evito mostrar a personas que mostraron su preferencia de no aparecer en ellas o de niños de los que no tengo permiso expreso de sus padres]
A week and a day. That is the time it has passed since we last shot an arrow at the XXV St. George'a Shoot, one of the most exciting events of the SPTA. If it sounds like a prison sentence it's because it probably feels exactly like that for us arrow-deprived SPTA members and friends.
We loved so much our first contact with this event last year that not only we decided to come back this year but we also encouraged some of our friends to join us for our little adventure to the Huish Woods in Taunton.
The St. George's Shoot is a weekend event where dozens of archers gather to have fun around many different archery challenges, including one field course on Sunday morning. Since the SPTA promotes traditional archery, only wooden arrows are permited. Recurves, American Flatbows, English Longbows and other historical or primitive bows are the only ones welcome to take part too.
Apart from Angela and myself, Alex F, Ana, Alex G, Yamila and Luiyo came too. The seven of us took a plane to London, then rented a 9-seat minivan which I drove to Taunton, stayed for the weekend before going back to Gatwick Airport on Monday and returning to Madrid. The bows and arrows had previously arrived via TNT to our hotel, the Ruishton Taunton Premier Inn. Kudos to Ruishton Taunton Premier Inn for such an amazing help with our stuff, btw.
Only Yamila would understand the latin inscription...
We arrived a bit late on Friday so we decided to simply double check the bows and arrows had arrived and then head to the Hankridge Arms pub just a few minutes away. We ordered some nice burgers and pies while we enjoyed the first beers and ciders of the weekend. We also gave Luiyo his birthday present, Hilary Greenland's book "The Traditional Archer's Handbook" bought many months ago and kept for this occasion [Luiyo would ask Hilary to sign it for him the next day].
Back to the hotel we were far from being sorted out. We had to unpack the bows and arrows and take a first look at Luiyo's recent purchase, the Bodnik Raven Longbow, that had been sent directly to the Premier Inn from Germany. He had been very lucky to find such a nice American Flatbow at a low price due its discontinued status. I think everyone present at that time will agree with me when I say we all liked his new bow very much.
A happy owner with a great bow, the Bodnik Raven
We wished each other a good night and we went to sleep. The next day we shared breakfast and we went to the Huish Woods. The weather was looking good enough, perhaps leaning towards an overcast sky that might pour some rain during the morning but that would be it.
It was clear to us when we arrived at the location that we were not the first ones. On the contrary, we were probably the last ones if we were to judge from the packed full parking lot. We didn't waste much time and we were soon stringing our bows while we hugged and kissed some old friends like Jonathan and Angharad. We rushed to the building where Hilary Greenland was waiting to hand over the scoring cards, saying Hi to many others as we passed by, and we were soon ready to head to the open field where some of the archery challenges awaited.
The first few arrows we all shot were the whistling ones and we used them to signal the beginning of St. George's Shoot. Forming a long line, each archer would shoot three of these whistling arrows and hear the combined high-pitch sound of dozens of them as they covered over a hundred meters' distance before hitting the ground. On Hilary's signal, we immediately turned our attention to the Bhutanese target which was at a 145 meters distance and with our bows fully drawn and our best guess for a 45-degree stance, we shot another three arrows. Lighter bows were allowed to be shot at a closer distance (~120 meters). For many of us, this is a wonderful yet somewhat bitter experience because you are allowed to shoot as far as you can with a vast field in front of you and at the same time you seem unable to reach the target's distance (let alone hit it).
Wow, that's a nice shot, and a good picture too
The Bhutanese target. Ana proudly points to a very close arrow
On our way back from the Bhutanese target we then shot Clout archery with relatively similar results. It was great to see arrow after arrow circle the sky in beautiful flights that went up, up and then fell fast to the ground. At such distances (between 120m and 150m) it's often impossible to say whether your last arrow got close to the target or was off by 5 meters (in the line) due to the challenging perspective. It was not uncommon to arrive by the target and see a nice grouping of three arrows ten meters past the target.
On our way to discover if we had had any luck!
We did the Bhutanese and the Clout targets several times. During that it actually started to rain a bit, but it was just a drizzle and nobody cared much about it. It was the soggy terrain what was perhaps making the process of going backwards and forwards a bit more tiresome than usual. Any menacing tiredness was swept away when the French army "Le Army" was stationed close to where the Bhutanese target had been placed. 10 full-size soldier silhouettes at a considerable distance (again, 120-140m) stood still waiting for our arrows to hit. Different scores were awarded depending on the actual soldier (smaller, more points, bigger, fewer points). I have to admit that trying to hit a human shaped target does have an extra appeal. It's still a game, of course (similar to the zombie shoots we attend), but the brain does seem to release 10% more endorphines when you found your arrow stuck in a knee, heehee.
"Are you sure we can trust them with this task?" "I don't know... but they felt so excited about it!"
"I took an arrow in the knee" (by Yamila)
I didn't have to ask our Spanish friends if they were having a great time, their faces, their concentration, their shouts and jumps and their smiles said it all. I don't know how many arrows we shot that morning, but they were many and when we were politely told to stop and have a lunch break nobody dared to complain. We had some nice beef burgers, bacon rolls, veggie options and tea and coffee as much as we liked. Some people stayed in the outside enjoying the comeback of the sunshine while others sat rather nonchalantly on the many chairs available inside. Some of us ordered a second burger while we commented on the morning events, re-celebrating the most awesome shots and sharing the best moments.
It was then when Hilary offered me to use one of her "have-a-go" English longbows instead of continuing to shoot with my (her) Carriage English Longbow that had started to show a dangerous twist in the limbs (the metallic socket was off by 5 degrees). I had the intention of leaving the bow with Hilary after the weekend but I decided to follow her advice and stop shooting that bow at once. Instead I got one nice ~40# hickory longbow that felt nice. Sure, it would not be as fast as my laminated carriage longbow but it would allow me to continue to shoot the rest of the weekend. It's always nice to test oneself this way so I saw this as an opportunity to check whether I could master this bow in no time.
A nice group of archers and bows
There was no need to rush so we savoured the time among friends but at some point the announcement was made, "The Popinjay and Tibetan shoots are ready!". We went back to the field and saw the ~15m tall popinjay shoot as well as the ~50m Tibetan target. We started with the Tibetan one, where spontaneous groups of 3-5 archers lined up to shoot up to three arrows to the pyramid shaped small target while the rest were allowed to make all sorts of unnerving and mischievous noises (not touching, though!) so that the archers would miss. On a hit (a rare ocassion), the whole group would have to dance (awkwardly?) to the target before collecting their arrows. It was great fun despite the few dances! I shot fine with my "new" longbow but I struggled to get "distances" right and all my arrows fell short of the target. We all got a nice souvenir from the Tibetan shoot, whatever noise-making device we had taken from the huge bag!
Dance, dance, dance!
Time for the long-awaited Popinjay shoot! This is one of the highlights of the year for us. It's only at SPTA's shoots that we can shoot a vertical target. No matter if you have done it before, you always feel unprepared when you reach the mast's base and look up and you see the long pole and high above the tiny yellow rubber duck stuck at its point moving with the tracherous wind. And beyond the rubber duck it's just the sky everywhere. Only the archers that have experienced popinjay shoots know what I'm talking about. You have to flex your body in a way that you face upwards yet your frame remains (almost) the same. The majority of us try to do it standing upright while a few (like Angela) kneel down, either way feels very challenging.
(left) Raph shoots two arrows. (centre) the angry mob. (right) Angela kneels down for a special challenge!
We formed a long and winding line waiting for our turn to try our luck. One by one, we went to the pole, nock the arrow, look upwards, smile while muttering some very personal WTF-style thoughts, flex our body, draw the bow, wait a second, release, see the arrow fly upwards, and miss. Sometimes we would miss by half a meter, sometimes it was just an inch. Some people, like Raph, would try with two arrows, but to no avail. The rubber duck stayed above dancing with the breeze. One could think we ended up feeling frustrated but that was absolutely not the case. The popinjay shoot does have a special nature that makes it very difficult for you to stop trying or to not enjoy it even if you keep missing. With the morning drizzle being a blurred memory by now, we were all enjoying a beautiful sunny evening. After a while some of us decided to stop and just sit on the grass to watch others keep trying. It was bliss.
Exactly my point
I had accepted Hilary's invitation to give a talk before dinner so I decided to go back to the dinning hall and review my notes. Also, I wanted to test the projector that Richard Hornsby had very kindly brought. In a few minutes I was able to leave everything ready for later. The talk covered a quite relevant yet mostly unknown military event in the late Middle-Ages, the Battle of Aljubarrota that took place in 1385 between the forces of Portugal (and English allies including archers) and Castile (and French, Portuguese and Aragonese allies). It was a decisive battle (~6.600 Portuguese troops versus ~30.000 Castilian troops) where the Portuguese side inflicted a massive blow to Castilian aspirations to Portugal's throne and secured its independence from Castile. Hilary had suggested this battle as the topic because she remembered something about unruly English archers raiding the Portuguese villages while they "waited" to take part in booty-filled battles. What started as a fun anecdote quickly turned into a massively fractal reasearch that took me to many (primary and secondary) sources. Having a science and engineering backround, I know how to do proper research but without proper historian skills I didn't know when to stop reading books. When the information overload started to feel too painful I decided it was a good time to halt and so I prepared a short talk where an audience could enjoy and discover a particulary amazing piece of history stuffed with fun stuff (alliteration anyone?).
During the talk I made sure everyone was aware of the geopolitical context
By 19h everyone had gathered around the projector and I was ready to start the talk. I won't go into much detail here as I plan to share part of my research at some point in the future but it's fair to say everyone had a great time. I enjoyed giving the talk and sharing my findings and judging by the feedback during and after the talk, I was able to entertain the audience. I believe I was able to deliver sound evidence as well as a nice collection of fun historical facts. It covered the years before the battle, the days before the battle, the battle itself, the perimortem analysis on the bones found in the fifties and the political and military consequences of the Castilian defeat. I hope I will find be able to share some of this in "article" format later this year.
I was glad I could contribute back to a wonderful event such as St. George's Shoot, which was my primary reason to give the talk in the first place.
The talk should have lasted 30 minutes but it went up to around 50 minutes. I admit I got carried away but also, contrary to my own personal discipline, I hadn't had time to rehearse it. Anyway, we all turned our attention to the delicious pulled pork and other delicacies that were now being served through the kitchen window. The "throughput" was so high that in a matter of minutes everyone was enjoying a fine dinner. I was then able to watch videos taken by Yamila and Luiyo where an evergrowing archer mob tried to hit the popinjay shooting many simultaneous arrows. I think no-one was able to hit it so they had to dismantle the whole thing to get rid of the rubber duck, alas!
Dinner on Saturday
The dinner was filled with beer, cider and laughs and all of us enjoyed our groups coversations, sometimes even migrating from one group to another to join others. It was a very relaxing time and I personally enjoyed it a lot.
At some point we decided it was a bit late and we drove back to the hotel to rest a bit.
Awaiting instructions before going into the woods
We arrived at Huish Woods by 9.30h. This time we were not the last! Actually, more people eventually turned up for Sunday (thanks in part to the presence of some Nepalese archers!). I learned that two Portuguese archers that had to leave early on Saturday and could not enjoy the talk had asked if I had said that the Portuguese had won the Battle of Aljubarrota (they take part in reenactments of such battle!), unsure as whether a Spaniard would admit such massive defeat publicly. I'm pretty sure their concerns were put to rest.
Mark, Angela and me
Yamila, Luiyo and Álex G
The first "archery challenge" was the 2D Field Course. A 28 target shoot in the woods. We all gathered at the dinning hall to listen to the patrols' listing. Angela and I went with Mark Evans while our Spanish friends were also split into two patrols. It's much nicer not to be put together with your friends (whom with you shoot every week anyway) when you're in these type of shoots or else you would have a tougher time meeting other people. Mark shot with an English Longbow, Angela carried her "travel" American flatbow and I brought Hilary's have-a-go bow. The rules were the same as last year. On every target you would shoot a first arrow (kill 10, wound 5), you were then allowed to take a second arrow from a second peg but then missing would grant you -10 points. One would think that people applied tactical shooting here but as far as I know, everyone shot both arrows. That meant that more often than not, people would end up with negative scores!
Twigs everywhere. Angela managed to kill the animal anyway
Luiyo just loosed that arrow. Alex G and Yamila watch. Photo courtesy of Claire Miller
The three of us had a great morning and enjoyed every single target, even the tricky snakes! The woodlands of Huish Woods are really great with plenty of opportunities for course layout designers to be as mean as they want. We had a nice variety of shots, with some really good downhill ones and also some trick shots that put our patience and skill to the test. The squeaky rats were there too as well as a big Komodo dragon. Angela hadn't shot much this year (Winter!) and had only trained once with her travel AFB and her wooden arrows but she clearly was able to land wonderful shots, particularly first-arrow kills. Mark was also doing quite well but was unlucky with some of the borderline shots. He told us he was an active member of a Birmingham archery club and there might be a nice opportunity to visit his club next year if we finally attend the Tolkien Society's 50th anniversary at the University of Birmingham, we'll see. I felt very comfortable with my borrowed bow and except for the long distance shots where I was unable to make for its lower speed compared to my trilaminate, I mostly shot the same way I should've done with mine.
Mark and his longbow
Álex G and his takedown
Mark was very happy to end up with just -35 points. Angela was also glad with her +20 points and so was I with my +50 points. We didn't do the 28 targets in one go, of course, we had a small break when we were only half-way. We made sure not to eat too much but coffee was very welcome. During the field shoot we were able to keep track of our fellow Spaniards and they looked like they were genuinely having a great time, how not so?
One of the long downhill shots
Ana, pregnant, and her borrowd AFB makes the whole thing way cooler!
When we finished the field shoot we did eat something more tangible and we rested a bit to see if we could march to the open field with Mark and some of our friends. Unfortunately, many of us were un-synced so Angela and I decided to pay a visit to the open field once we were satisfied with the break duration.
On the open field, new archery challenges were set-up.
- Mongolians surs.
- Nepalese target.
- Horizontal popinjay.
- Speed shoot.
- Horse-less-back archery
- Flu flu in the bin
We started with the Flu flu in the bin, trying our best to put one arrow in the big bucket 10m away. No luck but a lot of fun!
Angela decided to un-learn all she knew about proper archery technique!
We then went to try the Horse-less-back archery where you had to run through a small lane and shoot from 5 different locations, 2 frontal, 1 sideway, 2 backwards simulating you were on horseback and so placing your feet accordingly. You get scoring based on target's faces but for very second beyond the 45 sec mark you get 1 minus point so you need to move very fast.
We tried this one twice but we never got below the 45 sec limit. I felt super-clumsy this year and I even managed to trip and fall absurdly trying to get to the finishing line (which was witnessed by MANY people).
Álex G abruptly stops on the third set of pegs to take the sideways shot. You can see the first two sets too
We then joined Mark again for the Mongolian Surs, which was shot with spare blunt arrows. We didn't do well but we kept trying anyway hoping to see those tiny buckets at 60? meters collapse (to no avail).
After that I think we tried the horizontal popinjay where eight or so rubber ducks were placed on top of a horizontal wood beam and you could use flu-flu blunt arrows to hit them and score accordingly. I hit the wooden beam so hard I made two or three ducks fall off but I was told that didn't count, that's so unfair!
Angela focuses on the rubber ducks while we focus on her
Speed shooting was next and I was terrible, terrible while Angela was hitting with every arrow (except one). She emptied her quiver of 9 arrows when she still got 11 seconds left. I then went to help her find her only missed arrow only to hear a crack beneath my boot. Angela was not impressed.
Yamila and Luiyo make sure they have all available arrows handy for the speed shooting
We saw the Wand challenge was available so we walked there. You had vertical coloured stripes, the center-most gave you more points, while the outer-most gave you fewer. We liked this one a lot probably because we did very well. Angela looked like she had some sort of magnet on the golden stripe because nearly all her arrows went straight to that one. Amazing to watch, probably you'll see a glimpse in the summary video I made.
Yamila faces the Wand!
After that we went to shoot the Nepalese target, the small-sized monolith with the small iron-enclosed gold. We didn't do bad but we were unable to claim the big prize. We then turned our attention to the Wand target again because our Spanish friends were with Angharad and Jonathan trying to learn the thumb-ring release with a Korean-style bow.
We all lined up to listen to Angharad's instructions and try it for ourselves. We all felt like absolute beginners, of course. Alex F in particular felt quite natural with this other technique, which is great because he is probably leaning towards shorter more horse-back bows already. Ana also shot many arrows, as well as the rest of us. All of us had to accept the fact that no matter how much we tried, we were unable to put a single arrow on the target. All of them went to the right by a decent margin. Of course, that only encouraged us to keep trying and making sure we were placing the fingers the right way, as Angharad was teaching us. She seemed pleased at our (tiny) progress!
Angharad makes sure Ana uses the right thumbring technique. Arguably one of my favourite pictures of the whole weekend
This is a bit more relevant to Angela and me because we will be going to South Korea this year for the first time and thanks to Hilary's contacts and Richard's advice, we will be ordering a fine Korean bow. While we should be able to shoot using our split-finger technique, Angela really wants to learn the thumb-ring one. Expect a full report on this (September).
We then heard some whistles or horns, I can't remember now, telling us to go back to the dinning hall. It was raffle-time, awards time and thanks time. We were tired but not exhausted! I bid for a nice set of French Epiphany's King's Cake's artisan figurines and the instant karma (and plenty of yellow raffle tickets) produced 5 prizes, many of them destined to be enjoyed that very evening, of course, as they contained alcohol or chocolate. As a token of gratitude, the seven of us gave a nice small placque to Hilary on behalf of our traditional archery club in Spain, Ithilien.
Our token of gratitude with the silly inscription
After all the prizes had gone (not for scoring! as SPTA's ethos goes) and all words of appreciation and gratitude had been said, we were all free to enjoy a bit of free time before dinner. We decided to help collect all the hardware from the field course and the open field and put everything in convenient "hubs" for later retrieval with vans, etc. It took us the best part of an hour but the collective work made the whole process rather smooth. When we finished, we still had an hour before dinner so I suggested that some of us went back to the hotel and re-package the bows and arrows for the next day collect by TNT. That's what we did and in doing so we were able to fully enjoy the rest of the evening back in the dinning hall with everyone that had decided to stay until the very end.
Entropy is so much faster
Dinner was served, pulled pork and "chili con carne", also salads, baked potatoes, etc. There was cheese, plenty of cheese. The French brought cheese (and nice bread too), the Welsh brought cheese, the English of course (a great Stilton) and we also had brought a paprika macerated cheese and a wonderful Manchego cheese as well as a superb block of quince with walnuts. Wine, beer and cider were poured into the glassess rather generously and we all sat down to enjoy the conversations and friendly chatter. This was also St. George's Shoot! Actually, this was probably MORE St. George's Shoot than anything (well, except perhaps the popinjay!).
Great group picture. Jonathan, Álex F (blurred), Luiyo, Ana, a Genoese crossbowman, Angela, Yamila, me, Angharad and Álex F.
We had no need to rush so we didn't. We stayed until it felt it was the right moment to say goodbye (for now) and head to our hotel. We were all absolutely amazed at what we had experienced that weekend. Everything had been wonderful. The organisation, the archers, the archery challenges, the weather, the atmosphere, the pulled pork and the cheese, the breaks, the popinjay, the Saturday's lecture, the non-competitive ethos and the fact that we had felt absolutely welcome by everyone. When asked, each one of us shared what they thought the highlights of the weekend had been and so we all revisited those moments again.
I would like to express my deepest and sincerest gratitude to the SPTA for making these events possible. It's not like we don't have events in Spain, of course we do! But the SPTA has such a unique personality... one that some of us have become addicted to, that we simply need it to feel we are doing proper archery and not just "practicing a sport". We hope to see you again at the Cream Tea Shoot in August!