Saturday 30 October 2004

My longbow

This week I have been mostly making a longbow. Yes, that's the one I
made, in the picture. What? Show-off? Moi?

At this time of year, for the past several years, we (where for these
purposes 'we' is Southwest Community Woodlands Trust) have put on
courses on making this or that out of the products of the forest, and
this autumn one of the things we'd decided to make was longbows. And
as soon as the idea was mooted I thought I definitely wanted to give
that a go. In the way of things, somebody knew a bowyer, a man called
Dave Cotterill, who turned out to be a gentle, competent man and a
most excellent teacher.

We started with an ash pole of about eight inches diameter which had
been cleft into four and left to season for three months (a year would
have been better). We also had some sawn staves which were better
seasoned, but all but one of us chose to use the cleft. So each bow
was made out of a quarter section of log. The bark was stripped to
expose the cambium. A centre line was then marked on the cambium, and
the front elevation of the bow maked out from this. The bows were made
to the measurements of the maker, so no two were intended to be
exactly alike.

Obviously with such large section staves there was a lot of waste to
remove. Had we been doing this modern fashion we would have used a
bandsaw, but we didn't have electricity (I should say that we were
working, as usual, under canvas in the meadow at Taliesin amid the
most glorious show of autumn colour), so we used sideaxes, billhooks
and hatchets for initial rough shaping, and then draw knives for the
next stage of shaping. I even removed a fair bit of waste from my
stave with a froe, which took a bit of courage!

As we removed waste the staves started to curve outwards naturally
like sections of a stick of celery. It was extremely rewarding working
with these cloven staves of straight grained timber - all the grain
problems you get with sawn timber simply did not arise. It was
beatiful to cut and work. The waste was all removed from the heart of
the log, working from the side that would become the belly of the bow;
the cambium layer which would become the back of the bow was left
untouched.  During this shaping the handle section of the bow was made
square, the rest roughly shaped into the D section curve it would
eventually have - although we intentionally left the bows a little

Once we had something which looked roughly like a bow, we cut nocks in
the ends and made our bowstrings. Now I had thought in my ignorance
that a bowstring was just a piece of cord. Not so; the construction is
intricate. The string was made up of twelve lengths of waxed terylene
cord. These were laid together simply by hand twisting (definitely a knack to this) for the top few
inches, and the eye formed using a splicing technique I had never seen
before. Then the main length of the string was simply loosely twisted,
but the bottom ten or so inches were again hand twisted into a
cable. The strings were later served around the section where the
arrow nock sits. The spliced eye was then slipped into the upper nock,
and tail of the string secured to the lower nock with a timber hitch -
a neat form of slip knot.

With the strings made we were ready to 'tiller' or 'train' the
bows. The tillers were posts about six feet tall, with a notch near the
top in which the handle of the bow sat. A rope through a pully at the
foot of the post was then hooked onto the string, and pulled to begin
bending the bow.

The object of the next stage of the exercise was two fold: to
progressively shape the bow to achieve a strong, even curve,
essentially by removing material from where the bow was too strong;
and to get the stave used to bending. We were told (and I'll believe)
that if you drew a new stave back to full draw first go without
initially drawing it first to gentler curves and then progressively
deeper curves it would be likely to break, whereas if it was
progressively drawn over a fair number of cycles to deeper and deeper
curves it would accept them.

In shaping, we'd sit the bow on a tiller, pull it (at first all fairly
gingerly), note sections which weren't bending smoothly, take it back
to the shave horse, shave a little off, and then back to the tiller to
try again. I early learned that it is easy to be too enthusiastic in
the 'shaving a little off' stage - I turned a strong spot on the lower
limb of my bow into a weak point, and spent the next several hours
carefully correcting this, and almost certainly ended up with a weaker
bow in consequence.

In this final shaping process the one bow which had been made from a
sawn stave - fortunately not mine - developed a crack, precisely where
the saw cut had cut through a grain line, allowing the grain to
lift. This was the only disappointment of the course, and I felt
intensely sorry for the woman whose bow cracked.

However, remarkably quickly, the rest of us had usable bows and the
first arrows were being shot. My bow ended up with a draw weight of
about 37 pounds - not, frankly, as much as I'd hoped, but it certainly
makes it easy for an inexperienced archer to draw. And it shot
remarkably well. Initially I was putting arrows a little above and to
the left of where I wanted them, but with a little practice I was
hitting close to the centre of the target with every shot. Very

It isn't the best bow in the world. Being made of fairly green timber,
it has already developed quite a lot of 'string follow' - that is, it
retains much of its curve even when unstrung. This is undesirable - it
weakens the bow. The finish is a little rough (although I can probably
improve tht with the judicious application of fine sandpaper). And the
upper limb is a little weaker than the lower, so it could do with more
tillering and adjustment yet. But it is still a thing of beauty and it
works remarkably well. And one of these days I may make another, which
will be better.

Sunday 17 October 2004

Journey to the Roof of the World

The longest continuous climb in Britain, according to a website which categorises european cycling climbs, is up Mennock Water to Wanlockhead and thence up to the radio mast on the
Green Lowther. We did not do that climb today...

Sometime last week Big Dougie phoned up and asked if I fancied a ride up to Wanlockhead, saying he and Andrew were planning to do the run today, both being off work. I swithered. I did want to do the run. I thought it would be a good test of both me and the bike. But I also seriously doubted whether I was fit for it. Eventually at yesterday's club run (Dalbeattie Forest, bits of Red Route and bits of mucking around - great fun) I committed to going. So at 9.45 this morning Dougie's van rolled up at my front door, we loaded the Dolan in, and set of for Andrew's house in Dumfries. At twenty past ten we rolled out from Andrew's house, heading north. Big Dougie, the time trial animal, also known locally as 'the bus'; Andrew, former Scottish Junior Champion; and me, who am at best a leisure cyclist, and who had never taken part in any organised ride before this year. Ooops.

Fit the first: To the Birthplace of the Bicycle

Andrew didn't want to cycle the A76 (and small blame to him - it is ridiculously narrow and twisty for the amount of very fast HGV traffic it carries) so we went out by back roads through mostly rolling countryside via Terregles and Dunscore. On the flat I was keeping up fine but on the climbs - as I has expected - I could not keep up. That was OK partly because Dougie and Andrew were good about waiting for me at the tops but also because I was descending faster than they were. Even when we were all free wheeling the Dolan seemed to pull ahead, which is a credit to Mavic hubs; but on steeper descents I was also braking less. At Keir Mill we stopped to pay homage at the forge where Kirkpatrick Macmillan built the first pedal powered bicycle.  This section was also notable for wonderful autumn colours. We saw two red squirrels and interrupted a middle sized raptor (not a buzzard or a kite and definitely not an eagle; possibly a harrier) stooping on a pheasant.

Fit the second: To the Roof of the World

Past Penpont we hit some fairly noticeable climbs and I was beginning to think I couldn't do it, and ought to peel off to give the other two a chance. And then quite suddenly my legs started to work; and for several miles of (admittedly fairly gentle) climb I was leading the group at a steady 18mph. Then down a tearing descent, across the river, and up onto the A76. Apart from one wazzock in a gold Citroen Saxo the traffic wasn't a problem, and very soon we came to the right turn over the railway and up onto the Mennock Pass.

Well, I had been expecting it to be tough. And sections of it were tough; but not actually that tough. Certainly there were quite long sections where I was down to six miles per hour, down in my 39x26
lowest gear; certainly there were corners I went round dreading I might find it steeper the other side; and certainly Dougie and Andrew were climbing faster than I was. But the Mennock is a sort of stepped ascent, with quite short severe bits interspersed with much longer, much less severe bits on which I was quickly up to 18mph again - which is a high speed for me, and when Wanlockhead came over the ridge I was surprised and almost indignant. It wasn't supposed to be so easy. It ought to have been further. It should have been harder.

I broke the speed limit coming into Wanlockhead and quickly caught up with Dougie and Andrew. Through the village and right onto the road to Leadhills, which quickly led us up to the Lanarkshire border, where we stopped briefly for pictures and I put my buff on. It was decidedly cold up there. We looked up at the radio mast which marked the real top of the climb; it didn't look far and it didn't look that much higher (although it is in fact another 250 metres). But none of us felt it was our day to go up there.

Fit the third: Across the Backside of the Moon

There was a time when you went over the border from Dumfrieshire into Lanarkshire and the roads got worse; not any more. The road through Leadhills to Elvanfoot, though a curious red colour, was extremely well made for a little used high mountain road. The scenery was amazing in a completely different way - a lunar sub-arctic tundra littered with the spoil and wreckage of four thousand years of mining, very wild, rugged and bleak. We passed through it surprisingly quickly; past Leadhills, although the descents weren't steep, we were holding 40mph for considerable distances. Somewhere in this section my seat wedge bag fell off, nearly taking out Andrew... Ooops oooops!

At Elvanfoot, with the M74 in sight, the question was whether to go down the Dalveen Pass or go through under the motorway to Greenhill Stairs and down by the Devil's Beeftub. I voted for Dalveen, and the others agreed. And as we turned right towards Dalveen, the reason for the last section being so fast and so easy came quickly apparent. We had a wind. Not a wind of the sort Jon and I encountered on our Journey to the Bottom of the Sea , but sapping nonetheless and remarkably cold. Once again I was not able to stay with the others and dropped back. The first time they stopped for me to catch up Andrew commented that the sooner we got down out of the wind the better, and I uttered the
immortal words 'it's not far now'. The second time they stopped for me to catch up (when I put on the windproof fleece gilet Juliette made for me) he was asking me were we nearly there yet?

Fit the fourth: What Goes Up, Must Come Down

And thus to the top of Dalveen, where the road rolls over and plunges 200 metres down across the face of the hill in under three miles, down to a valley floor so deep it never sees the sun. I had been looking
forward to it, building up to it. This had been, in my mind, the high point of the trip. I tucked. I spun. I put everything I had in to it, everything I know about making a bike go fast, and at the first steeply
downhill corner I had just managed to get the bike up to 20 mph. Dougie powered past with his steam engine pile driver rhythm, pumping down the hill at least two or three miles an hour faster than I could achieve. For the first time in the day I couldn't stay with him on a descent. I burned my legs trying to get a little more, and as the altitude reeled down and the wind grew less somehow managed to find 26 mph. And then Andrew went past in a ridiculously low tuck, his legs practically blurring.

I felt, frankly, gutted. I'd also badly burned my legs. I eased up, dug out a hanky, blew my nose, and settled down to the sort of 17mph I could sustain. There really wasn't any point in doing anything else.

Once off the hill and into the bottom of the valley I settled down into a comfortable 18-19 and quickly came up with the others. As we rode down through Durrisdeer Andrew was listening to the remarkable rattling that the Dolan has made since I assembled it, and which was now noticeably worse. Once I'd said I was confident it was transmission related and demonstrated it went away when I free wheeled he was quickly able to diagnose an insufficiently tight cassette.

Fit the fifth: Catching the Bus Home

And thus back down to the A76. The plan there had been to cross and go back over Keir and thus by the back roads down to Dumfries but Dougie and Andrew were concerned that I was running out of legs (which was pretty much true). I was confident that I could make it back to Dumfries along the A76, which is mostly fairly flat and overall slightly downhill, without difficulty, at probably about 10mph, which seeing it was only sixteen miles would see me into Dumfries before dark.

So I suggested to them that they go on and I'd meet them back at Andrew's. They both rejected this solution and agreed to accompany me back along the A76 (a road which, as I've said earlier, Andrew very reasonably dislikes). Once we were on a clear open section of the road they started teaching me to chaingang, something I hadn't done before, and soon I was pedalling along concentrating so hard on Dougie's red rear tyre that I was really unaware of artics hurtling by my elbow, while Andrew followed behind as tail-gunner. After we'd been doing this for a while I gained sufficient confidence to glance down at my speedometer... to see 24 mph. I was staggered. I had been really struggling for legs and twenty-four miles an hour is a speed I simply cannot sustain for any length of time. And yet here we were, sustaining it, on an undulating road, for mile after mile. Admittedly I sometimes couldn't hold Dougie's wheel, particularly on slight rises - he has an amazing ability to hold the same speed almost irrespective of gradient; but once up the rise I would get back on the back of the bus, and we'd go hurtling on.

It couldn't last though - I was out of water and getting low on energy. Eventually in Closeburn I pulled up, and bought a bottle of coke and had my water bottle refilled by a very pretty and cheerful lass in a
little shop. And then on for three of four more miles to Amisfield, where we turned off onto back roads and slowed down. I was still managing 17mph on the flat section, but on every least rise my speed was down to ten or twelve while the others accelerated up trying to outsprint each other.

And thus back into Dumfries just at rush hour. I've always been an 'assertive' rider in urban traffic, but probably due to sheer tiredness I was having trouble unclipping my pedals, so I negotiated the roundabouts and traffic lights using techniques learned in days before clipless pedals - engage low gear, coast up until you can see a gap developing, sprint like buggery and be quite prepared to just intimidate motorists out of the way. At the roundabout where we crossed the ringroad there is apparently now a cyclists underpass but I didn't know about this and I wasn't going to risk trying to unclip in heavy traffic so I just muscled through...

And thus back to Andrew's and some most welcome cake and tea, and a fair bit of mutual joshing. Distance 77.9 miles, average speed 13.6mph, time rolling 5 hours 43 minutes, and seeing we scarcely stopped at all, elapsed time under six hours. The climb up the Mennock alone was 360 metres vertical; total climb on the whole trip cannot have been less than 500. And, apart from the headwind on the top, the weather was fine - excellent in the morning, not bad in the afternoon, and despite forecast rain, apart from a few drops south of Elvanfoot, dry.

A most excellent day.

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The fool on the hill by Simon Brooke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License