Yew, Agincourt and Robert Hardy

Last week (3rd of August 2017) we lost a great British actor, historian and toxophilite.  Like many people of my age, Robert Hardy first came to my attention as the slightly intimidating Siegfried Farnon in the 1978 BBC production All Creatures Great and Small.  I admired his acting in film and television many times after that but only quite recently did I realise what a leading light he was in the world of the longbow.

Arrows with white fletchings

Four or five years ago, after thinking about it for the previous twenty, I bought my first longbow.  Way back when I was a boy of eight my parents bought me what I now know was a flatbow.  We lived in a beautiful English village surrounded by fields and I spent the long summer days roaming with my bow, shooting the sky, hay bales and old tree stumps.  Happy memories.

The passion for the longbow stayed with me and re-emerged as part of a general life reboot, one of my new list of eclectic things I wanted to finally do, along with learning to paint, dive and use sea kayaks.  And with the bow came the research into its history, the Hundred Years War of course, and the role of the bow beyond that through the Wars of the Roses and into its twilight years in the Tudor period.

And within that reading and Internet searching I started to encounter Robert Hardy; what a surprise to discover that not only had he an interest in the subject but that he was an internationally-recognised authority.  I was also very fortunate to acquire a copy of the book that adorns so many shelves in the homes of archers, ‘The Great War Bow’ by Hardy and Strickland, signed by the great man himself.

  Photo of book page with signature

Robert Hardy became enthralled with the longbow and if you ever get to see a real one up close it’s not difficult to understand why.  A traditional longbow is also known as a self-bow, meaning that it is made from a single piece (a ‘stave’) of wood.  Although self-bows can be made from a variety of materials ranging from British ash to the more exotic bamboo, arguably the most famous material is yew.

A section of a yew longbow showing the coffee and cream dark and light woods.

Part of a yew longbow showing the ‘coffee and cream’ heart and sap woods respectively.

In my view, a solid yew longbow is as much a piece of art as it is a tool or weapon.  The curve of the wood – yew bows are often referred to as ‘crooked sticks’ – and those glorious colours.  The darker wood is part of the heart of the tree, powerful fibres that strongly resist compression forces.  The lighter, cream-coloured fibres are from the outer sap wood which is excellent at resisting extension and stretching.  Together they form a natural laminate and work in perfect harmony to deliver immense power at the moment of firing.  The French in the 14th and 15th centuries came to greatly respect and fear the archers of the English army, with their yew longbows and linen bags of bodkin-tipped arrows.  The battles of Crécy and Agincourt (Azincourt) have now passed almost into legend as a result, although they bear some careful research if you want to strip away much of the hype.

The natural laminate of yew can be compared with modern laminated longbows which can deliver more power for a lower weight and narrower profile.  Modern glues and resins weren’t available in the 12th-16th centuries making laminating difficult at best and impractical in the main.  Hence yew was such a sought-after material to the extent that the import of yew staves became a form of tax to international importers – yes we’ll buy your Italian wine and leather, but you need to bring 100 yew bowstaves with you as well as import tax.  Hey, maybe we can resurrect that as part of the Brexit deal?

The bows in the images above are not fairly matched.  The yew selfbow draws (requires an effort to draw it of) 76lbs while the laminate draws about 40lbs these days.  And therein lies one of the problems with wooden bows – they lose power.  My laminate bow was 46 lbs when I bought it and I could barely draw it to my chin.  Admittedly my physique has changed over the years – I now have muscles across the top of my shoulders, back and base of my neck I never had before – but nevertheless the bow has diminished.  These days I hardly notice when I draw back that lovely Bickerstaffe laminate.  Not so the yew bow.  As practiced as I am with my original longbow I still struggle to draw the yew to my ear, warbow-style.  (The laminate is built for a 28″ draw, the yew for 32″.)

Also, the laminate is as sweet as can be on the release, a constant joy to shoot.  The yew bow, though I love it dearly, is a bit of a beast and kicks like one.  It takes about a dozen arrows to warm it up and quieten it down and until then there is a noticeable amount of hand-shock on the release.  Make no mistake though, the target at the other end feels it more.  It still amazes me to think that the great yew war bows were 130-140lb draw weight weapons, essentially twice the draw of my own yew bow.  Very few people then or now can draw and use such a beast safely, if at all.  But if you want to punch an iron arrowhead through the plate steel breast armour of a charging French knight, that’s the sort of power you need.

Nowadays everything has of course moved on.  A modern compound bow, though unlikely to be described as a thing of beauty, is astounding to watch in action.  To hit a target at 100 yards with a longbow requires aiming at the sky and trusting partly to luck.  With a compound bow the pencil-thin, carbon-fibre arrow travels an almost flat trajectory and thumps reliably into the target with impressive force.  Had they existed six hundred years ago they would have changed the fortunes of any army to possess them.

No disrespect to any modern target bows, but I’ll keep to my laminated and crooked sticks thank you, and remember Robert Hardy when I use them.


If you are interested, I offer the following as recommended reading and viewing:

Mr Blue Sky is back. For the moment.

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Spring has picked the lock of Winter’s dungeon and escaped; the past week of endless sleet, snow showers and teeth-laden winds seems to have ended.  This morning has been warm sunshine, birds singing and bees buzzing.  (Memo to self: Plant more early perennials that suit emerging bees.)

The cumulus clouds building on the horizon do have the predictable midday belly of burnt umber and rose madder, but not the Payne’s grey of late.  Directly overhead though is the optimistic ultramarine and those wispy white baby cloudlings that are still a few hours away from the grown-up business of holding rain.

It’s funny how much the appearance of sunshine and blue sky can lift the spirits.

Blue sky with thin white clouds

Speaking of which….it’s the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival here so I’m off to revel in it.  (I’m not driving, Officer.)

Osprey returns

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It’s been a while since I’ve seen an osprey.  Back in my aquaculture days they were not an uncommon sight, attracted by the seemingly rich pickings of all those caged salmon and trout.  This one was similarly haranguing my local trout farm and fishery, banking on the wind and looking for a target of opportunity.

These days farm ponds are protected by overhead wires and netting and judging by the number of abortive semi-dives I have to assume it is suitably visible to avoid collisions.  Decades ago such netting was almost invisible leading to outrage and calls for change, including from the farmers themselves.  The industry fixed the problem many years back thankfully and all the fish farmers I know react to ospreys turning up with a proud cheer (“our osprey is back”) and a dive for the camera.  It just shows, things can change for the better.

Osprey circling

It’s hard to believe that anyone would kill a raptor, but they do.  The common word used for this is ‘persecution’ but personally I prefer plain and simple ‘kill’, because that is what we’re talking about.  Ospreys are, thankfully, not in the firing line in the same way that hen harriers are, so much so that the RSPB have a running appeal to help save them.  Good luck trying to understand how someone could bring themselves to kill any of these birds – I can’t.

But watching that fabulous bird circle almost effortlessly in the stormy, snow-laden sky my only sadness was the fact that my 200m lens was at home.  That disappointment didn’t last; being out for a walk and seeing an osprey should be enough to thrill any sane person.  It made my day.

Spirit of Scotland – GlenDronach Distillery

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The snow is back today.  Despite snowfall in April (in Morayshire) being far from unusual it nevertheless felt a bit of a backward step after the last week or so of nice warm Spring sunshine.  The agreed response to the retrograde weather was to have lunch then head off to our nearest distillery for the afternoon.  This isn’t a usual course of events I hasten to add, merely one prompted by the imminent Spirit of Speyside festival.  Normally it would just be another log on the stove and yet more tea.

GlenDronach (not Glen<space>Dronach) nestles in the hills on the back road from Huntly to Turriff, what the roads department calls the B9001.  It’s perhaps not one of the more famous distilleries as evidenced by the relatively tiny car park outside the Visitor Centre (there’s more space around the corner to be fair).  This afternoon there were just six of us in total for the last tour which made for a much better experience in my view; we could actually hear what was being said over the hum of the machinery for a start.

GlenDronach Distillery

But I’m rushing ahead.  When we arrived the freezing cold Arctic (Met Office said so) wind was more than offset by the warmth of the reception inside.  There were more staff than visitors but no sense that somehow we were an irritation or inconvenience; strangely I do notice that at some visitor attractions.  Not here though – welcomed in and a tasting tour swiftly paid for.

GlenDronach Distillery in a snowfall

The distillery is small – four stills – so don’t expect the tour to be long.  However it is informative and we benefited both from having a tour guide who is a genuine well-read whisky enthusiast plus also good questions from the other customers on the tour.  So for example I learned today that the black discolouration common to pretty much all the distilleries around here is due to a fungus which feeds upon the alcohol lost to the atmosphere, the so-called ‘angel’s share’.  Well there you go, free-loading fungus.  Did you know that?  I’d put it down to historical soot from the days of coal-fired stills.

GlenDronach Distillery courtyard  Distillery and trailer

I also gleaned a detail about warehouse temperatures and barrel stacking height in relation to evaporation loss (i.e. depriving those angels) plus some nuances about the importance of the yeast and barley relative to the water chemistry and still design.  You’ll need to take the tour yourself to find out.

And of course, there were all the scents familiar to anyone who has toured a distillery before.  Fragrant toffee and sweet malt and the myriad of variants depending upon where in the process the batch is at the time of visiting.  If only those scents and flavours could be bottled.  Oh, hang on…

So to the tasting.

There is a very good range of different tours available for a small distillery; in truth in most cases the actual tour is the same with the difference coming at the end in terms of the whiskies available to taste.  The highest-end tours do however have more detail or offer a different experience so best to refer to the website and check for yourself.  I had taken the £15 Tasting Tour which entitled me to taste the 8, 12 and 18 year old products which I considered the product spread that best represented my pocket.  It turned out to be a good choice.

P1030942_GlenDr_20

Every palate is different of course but for once the official tasting notes weren’t entirely fanciful, mostly in terms of spice and fruit.  For me, the 8yr old had a wonderful nose very similar to the Balvenie Signature and Doublewood.  It was good enough in the mouth to begin with but the promise from the nose wasn’t quite delivered.  The finish was too young for me, too much of a rough edge.

The 12yr old has for me a fruitier nose but without the richness suggested by the 8yr old; it is far more lively in the mouth however and very fruity.  It has a nice smooth finish however as a 12yr old should – no jagged edges here.  The 18yr old is predictably the smoothest of all at the finish and is even spicier in the mouth; it brought back memories of licking out the Christmas cake mixing bowl – mixed spice, candied peel and dried fruit.

All in all if you’ve never tried GlenDronach but enjoy a Balvenie or the Glenlivet 15yr old French Oak Reserve (or the 16yr old Glen Grant if you can find it) then you’re on safe ground here.

Well worth a visit.

Fifty Grades of Hay

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I could smell the field before I reached it.  It was a hot day and despite the strong breeze the temperature had definitely crossed the line into uncomfortable.  All over the patchwork Aberdeenshire countryside men and machines buzzed around like worker bees, feverishly making their winter hay supplies.  As I drove along the road with all my windows down in a forlorn attempt to stay cool that heavenly scent of cut grass and drying hay suddenly filled the car.  It was intoxicating.  I couldn’t breathe it in deep enough; I wasn’t so much drinking in the aroma as gulping it.

Image of a hay meadow being harvested

The field in question was one of many such that I passed, each at varying stages of the process; cutting, turning, baling.  Haymaking is a classic part of farming and, even today with the large modern machinery being used, remains emblematic of rural life.  Very occasionally it is possible to come across a farm still making hay using small bales.  Even more rarely are smallholdings where the hay is made up into stooks.

In one or two cases as I drove along I came across farmers who were making haylage – hay that is wrapped in plastic and allowed to ensile.  An excellent and detailed account of round-bale haylage making can be found here.  Anyone who has put their nose to a good bale of haylage will never forget that fabulous smell of apples that comes from it.  A really well-made bale of haylage has a smell that is mouth-watering.

The best hayfields or meadows have a diverse range of grasses and flowering plants.  This not only leads to good soil quality (for example where nitrogen-fixing plants are present) but is also a rich environment for wildlife.  A good meadow will have a rich array of insect life that will in turn pull in a variety of birds and mammals.  Haymaking from diverse grassland is therefore very good for the wider ecology and environment.

Image of hay grasses and plants

I’m no expert in the art of hay making but I have done it a couple of times.  And therein lies an immediate question: art or science?  A blend of both (plus an enormous amount of luck with the weather), hay making remains one of the most white-knuckle jobs on the farming calendar.  Get it right and the barns are filled with fabulous green hay to sustain the stock through the winter.  Get it wrong and it means buying the stuff in from neighbouring farms, seriously eroding what narrow margins still remain in farming.  Trying to find that perfect window of opportunity in the fickle British weather leads to many nervous days on farms and smallholdings the length and breadth of these islands.  The grade of hay a person is likely to get is a favourite topic for leather-skinned farmers to debate while leaning on gates and Land Rover bonnets.

A week of strong sunshine, especially if accompanied by a good breeze, and quality hay should be in the bag.  An unexpected bout of rain mid-way through can be a disaster however.  The thing about hay is that not all bales are equal, and I have seen both ends of the hay quality spectrum sometimes within the same barn.  Really good hay is green, the grass leaves are intact and there is very little dust.  And it smells just so….aaaah….  I would love to know what that aroma fires off in the brain to make it such a universally-loved scent.  I’m pretty sure if someone could bottle it then they’d sell lorry loads of it.  Fresh hay aftershave…ha ha.  Why not?

Really bad hay is dusty and often mottled or black with mould.  The dust comes from mould spores and/or shattered leaves.  ‘Leaf shatter’ often occurs where the hay has been turned too many times, usually because it was wet before bailing.  Black hay was damp hay; feed that to your stock and invite coughs and chest infections, to the animals and the person feeding them.

Another big risk with hay-making is that of fire from baling wet grass.  When grass is baled damp, especially in large round bales, the natural yeasts on the leaves cause it to start fermenting.  This process generates heat and, if the bales are packed tightly together in a barn with poor ventilation, spontaneous combustion can result.  Barn fires are more rare than they used to be although still not unheard of.

But on this day there was no drama; only blue skies, hot sun and contented farmers.

Seeing with visitors’ eyes

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One of the common traits of human behaviour I seem to encounter regularly is that of not visiting tourist attractions if they happen to be on our own doorstep.  From time to time I visit friends around the UK and ask them questions about local cathedrals, museums, galleries or monuments near their home.  Very often the response is along the lines of “Oh, well……we’ve never actually been there ourselves, but we’d be delighted to go with you!”.

The area where I live – Aberdeenshire in Scotland – contains quite a diverse landscape.  There is a huge variety of flora and fauna, geology and agricultural activity.  There are also quite a few castles.

Having been introduced to Scottish castles as a small boy on summer holidays up from England they have never lost their magic for me.  Being made to study Shakespeare’s Macbeth at school didn’t hurt either.  The darkness of that story brought back so many memories of clambering about on desolate ramparts under stormy summer skies, the musty smell of the damp walls and earth floors in the gloomiest recesses that small boys always seek out.

So this year I’m going to try to make a real effort to see some of these ancient monuments.  This isn’t a travel blog, but that’s fine.  The ancient castles and buildings have been part of the landscape for hundreds of years and in many cases have had a major impact upon the rural economy and surrounding countryside.  That, and those moody battlements and damp dungeons, is what interests me.

Moth season gets underway

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Well, actually, there have been a few moths going about for several weeks now to be truthful.  However every time I see one fluttering about at dusk the weather seems to change for the worse and they vanish.  Last night for example it snowed yet again, and snow showers have been enveloping my house on a razor Arctic wind on and off all day.

Yesterday, in a brief burst of warm sunshine, I found an Angle Shades moth in the kitchen that had obviously decided to nip indoors for a while.

I’ll possibly invoke fierce debate for saying this but I personally prefer moths to butterflies.  It’s not that I think butterflies aren’t wonderful insects, far from it.  But for me the moths have a greater variety of colours, shapes and forms that I just find more interesting and appealing.

Just look at the camouflage on the moth above.  Isn’t that amazing?  In amongst some leaf litter you’d hardly see it.

So roll on the Summer evenings and more fabulous insects to observe.

Summer house guests return

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I saw my first House Martin this morning, swooping upwards in front of my window to check out the nest it left behind last Autumn.  That bubbling chatter, the acrobatic flight on sickle-shaped wings, and that lovely white throat must make it one of the most charming birds to grace our skies.

Normally at the end of each Autumn, once the Martins are all safely away to Africa, I knock down the empty nests from the eaves of the house.  It sounds harsh to make them rebuild each year but I once heard some research quoted on a radio programme that said this helped to prevent a build-up of parasites.  The birds bring parasites with them of course but if they build a new nest each time then at least the birds are not inheriting anything from last year as well.

Last year I did not destroy any nests however due to a growing colony of House Sparrows that have gradually colonised previous Martin nests.  This has taught me the value of putting up bird boxes under the eaves specifically for the sparrows.  Many people in the UK might be surprised to hear that the House Sparrow is actually on the RSPB red list of endangered birds.  Often the target of teenage boys with airguns and always a target for the domestic cat, this friendly and companionable little bird now needs all the help it can get.  To quote the RSPB :

Monitoring suggests a severe decline in the UK house sparrow population, recently estimated as dropping by 71 per cent between 1977 and 2008 with substantial declines in both rural and urban populations.

So those cheeky, noisy little sparrows we so often take for granted are in fact in real decline.  They may not have the grace and panache of a swooping House Martin or Swallow, but they also don’t leave at the end of summer.  Mine have kept me company all winter, hopping about on the ledge outside my window.  And I am more than happy for them to be there.