Saturday, 30 June 2012


For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to learn how to do archery. This desire predates my introduction to Katniss and Hawkeye, but may be partly related to my long-term love of Legolas. Whatever its source, it finally inspired me to schedule lessons at Aberfal Outdoor Pursuits, which operates out of Carwinion Garden in Mawnan Smith.

When I first contacted the proprietor, Sam Lonsdale, I was very up-front about my desires: I wanted to take some archery lessons so that I would be in the position to add archery to my long list of hobbies; I was not fooling around. Sam informed me that the best thing to do would be to swing by for a couple of sessions during which he could teach me about posture and technique, and then eventually join an archery club so that I could practice and potentially even participate in competitions. I was very excited to get the ball rolling on all this, but unfortunately I had to wait over a month because Aberfal was booked solid. That is what I get for finally pursuing my archery dream in the months just after the release of two movies--The Hunger Games and Avengers Assemble--in which archery plays a prominent role.

Because I am such a generous person, I scheduled a joint lesson for both Sasha and me--after all, the couple that shoots together stays together, right? We had to re-schedule once because of a work conflict, and I was worried that we might have to reschedule again because of weather. Lucky for us, though, the rain that had persisted throughout the day of our lesson more or less cleared up just as we headed off to Mawnan Smith.

When we go to the garden, we had to wait for a few minutes while Sam took care of some business associated with his other major "outdoor pursuit"--kayaking. This gave us the opportunity to sit in the sun on patio and view some of the many bamboo stands for which Carwinion Garden is famous. The patio offers garden visitors a place to sit and have a traditional Cornish cream tea, in which I think we may have to indulge next time we swing by.

Once Sam arrived, we signed all the requisite health and safety paperwork and then were introduced to our bows--which, as you can see from the picture, were of the traditional recurved variety. We also got forearm guards to protect us from string action. This was something I was terribly paranoid about because one of my friends recently got a massive bruise during her first archery lesson--and when I say massive, I mean huge, 3D, and dark purple. My apprehension turned out to be completely unnecessary, since my drawstring didn't even get close to my arm. Sasha, on the other hand, took a real beating--so much so that he even started bleeding at one point. (I should mention that this sort of thing is not uncommon, and that it did not happen because Sam was being negligent. That's the whole reason arm guards were invented in the first place, and Sasha tried moving his everywhere in order to minimize bruising--but to no avail.)

(Sasha's three-part injury, four days after the fact. The bit in the middle is where he started bleeding because of the way that the arm guard was pinching his skin. Ouch.)

Sam gave us some introductory instructions--stand at a 90-degree angle to the target, keep a straight line through the arms and shoulders, draw the string back to your cheekbone, etc.--but then very quickly let us step up and take our first few shots. Thanks to an unlucky coin toss, I was the first in the spotlight. Although I felt a little flustered at first, I quickly relaxed after my first arrow actually reached the target instead of going rogue and ending up in the nearby woods. I'd passed the first test!

(Here I am, making a gorgeous face while shooting. Although it looks as though I have my right eye closed here, it was actually my left eye that I kept shut, since I am right-side dominant. Please ignore the lack of straight line through my arms and shoulders. Also, I have no idea why I'm twisting my fingers around like that. Clearly, I have a few things to work on during my next visit to the range.)

Sam informed us that even people who describe themselves as "non-competitive" quickly become competitive when learning archery with another person. Well, I have never been non-competitive in my life, but actually I didn't feel too concerned with whether or not I was better than Sasha; I think I was just too happy to finally be holding a bow in my hand. It's a good thing I wasn't feeling too much pressure to out-shoot my husband, because I will admit that he is probably a bit of a better shot than I. (For now.)

I, on the other hand, was able to hit my stride more quickly. During the first part of the lesson, Sam had us aim at the bullseye without performing any adjustments to improve our accuracy. This allowed him to examine the lie of our arrows in order to see if our shooting was consistent. Sasha's arrows were, shall we say, widely distributed, but mine were grouped pretty tightly in the upper left-hand corner of the target. By moving my fingertips down slightly each time I drew back the string, I was able to get my shots closer to the center of the target. Unfortunately, while I was able to repeatedly reach the red ring and the outer part of the yellow bullseye, Sasha was the one whose shooting adjustments put him more consistently in the center of the target. Darn it!

During the next phase of the lesson, Sam gave us a challenge: Shoot an arrow into each of the colors of the target, starting with white and ending with yellow. We had six arrows to make five shots, and we were only allowed to shoot in order. This was by no means easy, but after a few rounds we were showing improvements in our ability to aim; Sasha, in particular, was good at this task, though he did manage to shoot one arrow under the target, while I sent one flying over the top. And here I'd hoped to go the whole evening without an "airball."

The hardest challenge was trying to burst balloons that we blew up and attached to the target. Sasha and I took turns shooting, and although the first Pop! was mine, I didn't get too many afterwards. Both of us were frustrated by the mild breeze that had emerged--on multiple occasions our arrows thudded harmlessly next to a balloon that had been blown out of the way at the last minute by the wind. Sasha even managed to have two arrows that audibly squeaked along the side of balloons without ever bursting them. The final tally of that contest was 5-3, Sasha to Caitlin.

After the competitions were finished, we went back to normal target practice. By this time our shooting had become much more consistent and accurate; we both were hitting the bullseye more often than not. If I may be allowed to gloat a bit, I was having particular luck getting my arrows into the yellow section of the target (though I'll also admit to having a few wild shots here and there; also, Sasha's arm was in pretty bad shape by this time, so it wasn't exactly an even playing field).

As things were drawing to a close, I asked Sam whether it was common for people to have the kind of success we were having, or whether we were making the target because we actually showed some talent. It wasn't that I thought we were particularly awesome, but rather that I wanted to know whether I could allow myself to think I might actually develop into a decent archer. In response, Sam said that it's not so hard to hit something that's only ~10 m away, but that the going gets a bit tougher at more realistic distances--in competitions, targets are not only farther away but may also be much smaller. To give us a taste of "real" archery, he invited us to step back and shoot from ~20 m away. I'm glad to say that while our first couple arrows landed to the outside of the target, we were able to adjust our shooting style in order to get them closer to the bullseye. Still, that was only 20 m; I can't imagine shooting at 100!

All in all, with the exception of Sasha's injury (and emerging hayfever symptoms), the evening was a great success. The range was quite peaceful, and Sam was knowledgeable, friendly, patient, and generous--he welcomed us to keep shooting for as long as we wanted, and left it up to us to decide when to call it a night. Sasha and I will definitely be going back for some follow-up tutorials, hopefully with some friends in tow. Once we have a little gang of amateur bowmen, we'll have to head over to Idless Woods Truro in order to try out Aberfal's field archery course, which combines nature, walking, and archery. What more could you ask for?

Thanks to Sam and his iPhone for all our pics!

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