Thursday, 26 November 2009


This is me having a go at archery - in December's Cornwall Today...

An ancient sport enjoyed by many a contemporary Robin Hood
My friend Diane Johnstone fell in love with archery five years ago, and when she suggested I try it, I thought – why not? So one sunny afternoon I met her at the Lizard Peninsula Bowmen Club outside Helston and prepared to do battle.
First of all, footwear. “Sensible shoes,” she said, looking pointedly at my scuffed sandals. “If you wear sandals you might jab yourself in the foot with an arrow.” Unfortunately I hadn't any other shoes with me so had to leave my toes at risk.
Then, working up the body, more protection. “As you're right handed, you'll need an arm guard on your left arm,” said Diane, handing me a perforated plastic contraption which eased over my upper arm. “Normally you'd need a tab which protects the fingers, but this bow is fitted with a string guard, so you won't need one.”
The bow was made of fibre glass with a plastic handle. “This is a recurve, or Olympic bow, as used in the Olympic Games,” she explained. “Recurves have more aids to shooting – sights and stabilisers for example - than the traditional longbow.” Olympic bows are also made left or right handed, which would suit my left handed husband. “This is an 18lb bow because when you pull it, you're pulling 18 pounds.”
The arrows are made of aluminium (for short distances) though carbon is mainly used outdoors for longer distances as they fly much straighter and further.
Beginners must do a 6 week course and the club shoots all year round, retiring to Gweek Village Hall in winter. “There's no upper age limit but the lower limit is around 11, depending on the child's physique,” explained Diane. “If they're too small they have difficulty pulling the bow. It's always advisable not to buy your own equipment until you've done the Beginners' Course because you need to practise so you get more idea of what kind of bow you'd like. It's not a sport to rush into.”
My husband, having done some archery years ago, wanted to know about competitions. “They run throughout the year,” said Diane. “Internal ones are for club members only, with trophies and medals, also fun shoots at unusual targets; and all the clubs round here hold tournaments with more trophies and medals.”
There's also clout shooting which is with bare bows (which means you take the sight off) at a foot-high flag in the grass. “Shots are measured with a thing like a long tape-measure which has gold, red, blue, black, white - painted on it. Arrows falling within its range count.” Diane smiled. “It's really good fun!”
The longest distance in this field is 100 yards but my target was 10 yards away - a beginner's distance. Even with my bad eyesight I couldn't miss that.
Now we came to the actual shooting. “It's important to observe line etiquette – normally there'd be a whistle telling you when to go to the shooting line,” instructed Diane. I took my quiver, a metal contraption containing my arrows, up to the shooting line and stuck it in the ground. Quivers are usually worn around the waist, or over the shoulder for longbowmen.
Diane showed me how to stand correctly, at right angles to the target, weight evenly balanced. Then came positioning the arrow so it didn't pinch. Next I had to bring up the bow, look through the sight – “And then when you're ready, let go.” A stunned silence – my arrow had hit the target!
I shot five more arrows under fire from Diane's instructions: “Stand straight – don't lean back! Keep your head looking over your shoulder. Try and push those shoulder blades together – that's where the power should come from.” My brain was buzzing trying to think about my stance, feet, elbows, arms, fingers, shoulders – there was so much to remember - “Yes there is,” said Diane brusquely. “And we haven't even started yet!”
In summary, she explained, there are four distinct movements to archery. “One is on the line and settling yourself. Two – bring the bow up. Three is the draw and four is the release. When you let go it's also a good thing to hold still for about three seconds. You'd be surprised - it somehow makes a difference.” And it did.
After six arrows I stopped. “We usually shoot six arrows outdoors, and when everyone has finished, two whistles blow and you can then get your arrows,” Diane said, and showed me how to collect them. “The hand that's nearest the target goes on it to provide a base, then you pull the arrow as close to the target as you can , so as not to bend it. Also make sure there's no one standing behind you. Transfer it to the other hand and repeat.”
To my relief I hadn't done too badly as all the arrows had hit the target. “At this stage it doesn't matter where the arrows land,” said Diane reassuringly. “They're all together in a group which is good. The rest of it is just adjusting the bow.”
I continued until my arms ached and I discovered muscles in my shoulders I didn't know existed. Finally came Diane's verdict. “You'd be fine – your basic technique is all right. It wouldn't take you long to be shooting very well.”
“There you are, that's incentive enough,” said my husband enviously. I grinned at Diane's praise and we arranged another session – I could tell my husband was itching to have a go. And if he wanted to be Robin Hood, I had visions of myself as a short sighted Maid Marion with perfect aim. And sensible shoes of course.

Diane Johnstone, Secretary, Lizard Peninsula Bowmen, Tremorna, Treleaver, Coverack, Helston,
Cornwall TR12 6SF
tel: 01326 280308 / e – – Grand National Archery Society – FITA (International Archery Federation) – Devon and Cornwall Archery Society – Archery GB – Disabled Archery

Archery is the practice of shooting arrows with a bow. Historically archery was used for hunting and combat, but nowadays archery is mainly a sport.
Someone who practises archery is known as an “archer” or “bowman”. One who enjoys archery or is an expert is known as a "toxophilite."
A 6 week beginners' course costs £25 or £60 to join for adults and £25 for juniors. Open days are also available - contact Diane for details.
Archery has been an Olympic sport from 1900 and there is also a Paralympic Squad that has achieved great success.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Us and Them

Those of us who don't have children – for whatever reason – find ourselves barred from that exclusive club that is the Mothers' Club. Recently I was at a yoga class and became very aware of the fact that two of us stood to one side talking, while the rest congregated on the floor, swapping school stories and tales of their offspring.

Most of us have encountered groups that can make us feel unwelcome - sexism at work, perhaps. Being the only woman in a male environment can be difficult – though it can also be fun. Then there's ageism – being married to someone 18 years my senior I have become used to being with older people, but at first I was very aware of being the youngest and was treated with wary friendliness by his friends. Now I've realised that age doesn't matter, and I've been welcomed as his wife.

But both those are accidents of birth, if you like. We can't help our sex any more than our age. But women not having children? Surely we were born to procreate. Thousands of years ago being barren was a curse from the gods. Nowadays it's a lifestyle choice – or is it? Those of us who don't have children still tend to have to defend our choice to those disbelieving others. We are still viewed as second citizens with Something Wrong with us. We feel excluded from the main swim of life. But there's nothing the matter with us. Why should we be treated as pariahs?

Many years ago I was swimming with a friend's children and one of them asked where my children were. “I don't have any,” I replied, splashing back. “Why not?” asked the six year old, with a frown.
I opened my mouth to explain and shut it again. It was too complicated. “I just don't,” I finished, lamely.

My husband, an observant fellow, noted the other morning that a lot of our friends don't have children. So while we obviously tend to befriend those in a similar situation, not having children shapes our lives. Our parameters are different: our anxieties not the same. We focus on different things. Not better, nor worse, but different. We have time that can be devoted to other things.

I used to wish we had children, but now I don't. For many reasons. I am content with my life. But try explaining that to the world at large.

Have any of you ever been made aware of this divide – from either side of the fence?

Friday, 13 November 2009


(Apologies to any Novel Racers for duplication!)

Oh lord I've just realised the date. Not that I'm suspicious or anything....

Back in 1995 I was among 50 nutters selected to take part in the World One Day Novel competition. (The entry form was devised by Terry Pratchett which tells you something about the kind of person they wanted.)

I got the letter to say I'd been accepted on my birthday. And panicked. My writing group met and we worked out A Plan, which was basically enlarging a short story I'd just had published. Based on the previous year's submissions I think the word count I was aiming at was 20,000 words but I could type fast in those days. But it obviously meant a lot of fleshing out from 12000 words to 20,000. So I walked round the village, reciting the plot, characters etc as I went (we werent allowed to take any notes in to the competition).

On a practical level, it meant travelling to the Groucho Club in London and doing the competition on a laptop. In those days laptops were like gold dust but thankfully my little brother came to the rescue with one from work. He also put me up for the weekend, dear of him.

So at 10 am that Saturday, 50 of us were poised, ready to start writing. We'd been told that the organisers reserved the right to set a subject at the last minute but thankfully they didn't. I was shaking so much that I didn't think I'd be able to type a word, particularly when the event was being covered by Radio Four and other news channels, so I had a huge fluffy microphone stuck under my nose (to hear my manic tapping of the keys, presumably. Either that or my belaboured, hysterical gasping). When we were given the Off my brain went entirely blank and I hyperventilated.

But eventually I got going – and didn't stop till we had to finish at 10 o'clock that night. We started at 10am again the following day, all of us feeling slightly more at home with what we were doing. Several had even gone off on the piss the night before, or what was left of it.

Being someone who always rushes things, I was the first to finish, some time that Sunday afternoon. Having edited and polished, with the few remaining brain cells left, I then staggered to the bar and got drunk courtesy of the Groucho Club, with various other members.

The experience was decidedly zany. It was terrifying, exhilarating and so unlike anything else that I will never forget it. It would have been great to have more time to meet the other contestants, but as it was I became friends with two journalists from the West Country. I then spent a week with my poor system in overdrive, unable to relax.

Looking back, what did I get out of it? Well, nothing that helped my day to day writing. But I did learn how to think – or write - on my feet. Or is that bum? I could type a lot faster – and more accurately – in those days, which helped a lot. I learnt how to plan and edit according to the time I had (not much). And I learnt how to work under pressure. Apart from all that, it was great fun and if asked, and after a few glasses of wine, I'm sure I'd do it again.

Whether it actually helped my writing is another matter. But I so enjoyed it!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Helford river walk

I did this walk back on a perfect summer's day (yes, we did have one) that will stay with me for a long while...

A circular walk in Daphne du Maurier country -
by the Helford river, St Anthony Church and Gillan Creek

The Helford river has great allure for me, mostly because of Daphne du Maurier's books, which I have read avidly since a teenager. While the pirates might be absent, and the traders be long gone, if you walk carefully and keep your senses alert, I swear you can catch the rustle of a crinoline, the flash of a sword and the rattle of an anchor.

With this in mind, Mollie Dog and I set off one morning with Deb, Viv and her effervescent terrier, Titch, left Falmouth and headed to towards Mawnan Smith. In the middle of the village we bore right past the Red Lion pub, following signs to Helford Passage. This road passes Glendurgan and Trebah gardens, and when it bears round to the right we drove straight ahead signposted to the Ferryboat Inn. Towards the bottom of a steep hill was a sign to the Ferryboat Inn and car park – we turned right and parked here (£1 per day). Down the hill was Helford Passage, where the passenger ferry operates over to Helford Village and back in the summer months.

Unfortunately a stiff easterly wind was blowing, and together with a very low tide, meant the ferry couldn't run, so we had to get back in the car and follow signs to Gweek, then Mawgan and Helford. Finally we arrived at the car park at Helford Village and headed towards the sailing club, took a Public Footpath sign and turned left through the woods. The path here is rocky and can be very muddy in winter, and leads down some steps onto a road where we turned right up the hill then left with a stream on our right, past a stall with an incredible selection of glass stoppered bottles in blues, greens and browns. Taking the next left into Bosahan Woods (dogs under strict control here) we followed this narrow windy path through the trees.

This path closely follows the shore looking over to Porth Saxon beach and Toll Point opposite. Out in Falmouth Bay we saw several tankers moored up, a couple of yachts with yellow and blue spinnakers billowing and St Anthony lighthouse in the hazy distance. Passing through a kissing gate we entered a field flanked by nettles, sorrel and clover. At this juncture we met a pack of dogs of various shapes and sizes with their owners and a friendly dog battle ensued. Thankfully canines were all rescued intact and unharmed and we continued round the edge of several fields, up a steep path, into a field at the top of the hill where the ground was scattered with speedwell and field bindweed. Looking down we could see the vastness of Gillan Creek, parched of water at low tide.

Passing through a wooden kissing gate we followed the path down the middle of this field. Knowing that I'm not keen on cattle, Deb waited till we'd got towards the end of the field before telling me that the last time she'd been here the field was full of cows and a bull, but thankfully this time there were just cowpats. This path led to a dusty track and we turned left down towards St Anthony Church.

The first mention of the church of St Anthony in Meneage is in 1170. This church, built on the bank of Gillan Creek, is said to have been built from Normandy stone by Norman sailors, as a thanksgiving for being saved from drowning. The carpeted church is beautifully kept, still lit by candles, has an old whipping post near the entrance and is well worth a visit.

Leaving the church we walked along the creek as it was low tide – otherwise take the lane bordering the creek inland for about a mile. Every Good Friday local families gather at the cockle beds at Bar Beach, Treath and Gillan to collect cockles and other shellfish. This tradition, dating from pre-Christian times, is known as trigging. People are encouraged to leave any undersized cockles (smaller than a 20p piece) and only take as many as they need for their own consumption, while still enjoying their traditional family day on the shore.

Tripping over a little spider crab, I saw a grassy knoll on our right with a wooden caravan on wheels, like a Victorian bathing machine. Incredulously we looked round, and set back in the trees was a smaller one, like a gypsy caravan, newly painted in cream and red trimming. Delighted, Mollie and I ran over to investigate and found, in amongst the bushes, several sheds and a picnic table covered by an awning. With a barbecue area out front, it was just like a scene out of Swallows and Amazons.
Leaving this area of paradise behind, we headed along the creek while a rooster crowed in the distance. Mollie scampered into what little water there was in the creek, and emerged with her tail wagging, all four legs covered in black treacly mud.
Scrambling further along the creek we came to a newly built stone wall, and just before this an almost sheer path which led back up to the lane. Hauling ourselves up, we were able to enjoy hedges full of dog roses and campion, and looking back at the creek through the trees was a bevy of swans, splashing and enjoying an afternoon siesta.
Turning sharp right inland we headed through a wooden gate (if you're under a size 10 you can squeeze past the gate post) and into woods up a long steep hill. It was stony and damp underfoot but ahead was a wall of tumbling wild roses, almost obscuring what looked like a studio in amongst the foxgloves. All we needed was the fox and we could have stepped into a Beatrix Potter book.
The path bore round to the left, past some restored barns and a sign to Manaccan. Past a churchyard on the left, we walked ahead through a lych gate and stopped in the churchyard, where an empty wooden seat awaited us, in the shade of a fig tree growing out of the church wall.
Restored by biscuits, apples and water for us and the dogs, we left the churchyard and turned right up the hill, past Manaccan Primary School. Wild sweet peas billowed out from the wall on our right and passing a cafe on the right, we took the first left signposted to Helford.
This field led over a stile, crossed the road and into another field, then downhill and into more woods. Looking up on the right was a beautiful white (grey) horse, so perfect it seemed unreal. Dazzled, we headed on through more woods ignoring waymarks to the right or left, continuing ahead where we passed a row of whitewashed cottages. Heading down a steep concreted path, this led to another row of cottages which we kept on our right, up the hill past several painters, eager to capture the beauty of Helford Village, until we arrived back in Helford car park. At the entrance is Down by the Riverside cafe, and we settled on seats outside for very welcome tea and slabs of home made cake.
As I lay awake that night, I knew that this day and this walk will remain with me forever. I relived the white sunlight sizzling the ivy leaves, the welcome easterly breeze as we rounded Dennis Head, and the silent, peaceful mystery of Gillan Creek. I can't wait to do it again.

OS Explorer 103, The Lizard, Falmouth and Helston
Length: 5.5 miles
Duration: 2 ¾ hours
Grade: moderate, some steep hills; walking through the woods can be muddy and slow
Helford Passage ferry -
Ferryboat Inn, Helford Passage - 01326 250625.
Shipwrights Inn, Helford Village – 01326 231235
The beach at Helford Passage is not dog friendly in summer
Down By the Riverside Cafe at Helford Village car park. There are also public toilets here.
New Inn, Manaccan