Heroes of Archery
Before I started writing this I thought I had better look up some definitions of the word Hero - we all have our own interpretation and in the context of archery it could mean many things. The best definition I found was " an everyday person who can make the world a better place". There is no doubting that this months Hero has done and continues to do this. I have known Ron Palmer for many years and he is anything but an everyday person ( whatever that might mean).
You will often hear it said of some expert or craftsman " he's forgotten more about archery than most folks ever know" and I can tell you in this case nothing could be further from the truth -Ron remembers EVERYTHING he has ever known or learned in his 72 years of bow making, that's right he has been making Traditional English Longbows for 72 years.
Tucked away in a quiet cove just yards from the sea in a corner of Kent Ron can be found in what he calls his studio. I was fortunate to have been put on to Ron soon after I first started shooting and over the years I may well have had a dozen Longbows off him. Now here is a funny thing, he has been making bows for over 7 decades and must have made thousands and you will rarely if ever see one for sale second hand, there is something Ron does to a bow to make it "special", to make it "your" bow. I actually still own almost every bow I have had from him, others have come and gone but I don't sell my palmer bows - apart from one, someone badgered me for a couple of years and foolishly in a moment of weakness I sold it - I still regret doing that.
This morning however I come to his studio not as an archer looking for a new bow but as someone who wants to find out a little more about this extraordinary man. I have a long list of questions but I don't have a great interview technique and once we got chatting the conversation meandered back and forth across almost 90 years of Rons life.
1938 was the year he made his first bow, an ash 30#'er which he would shoot from his bedroom window into a tree on the green outside. English Longbow archers owe a great debt to Ron, when steel bows first appeared in the 50's and everyone seemed to turn to the "new" technology he maintained a link with the past and the making of the English Longbow to the point where he almost solely kept the art of the English Longbow alive in England, all those who have come since will have been influenced by him whether they know it or not, as it is so often with real heroes they remain unsung and their contributions unknown, drowned out by those with loud voices and large ego's.
Ron points out that it seems every other English Longbow maker has given himself a title- Ron however is NOT "bowyer to the Mary Rose" ( despite the fact that he had a number of them brought to him when they were brought up, despite the fact that he made replicas, despite the fact that he worked with Robert Hardy on a number of them and also despite the fact that most of the folk involved in the Mary Rose Trust own Ron Palmer replicas of the bows ) he doesn't need the title you see, even though there are over 100 Mary Rose replicas out there made by him.... he is also NOT a "member of the Bowyers Guild", Ron is unique but I suspect if they asked, Ron might let them join his gang..... if they could pass the entrance exam.
When I ask Ron what title he should have he just laughs and says " you can call me Bowyer to the world" - a fitting title as he has sent bows to virtually every country on the planet.
Even he doesn't know how folks find him as he has never advertised which just goes to show that word of mouth is a
powerful thing, when I ask what makes his Longbows different from the rest he replies as quick as a flash " because they are better" and his eyes are twinkling with mischief, "I do it because it's my hobby and not to make money", a fact patently obvious when you see he charges less than half the price of other bowyers. His wood too is from stocks laid down long ago, "see that?" he points to some staves in a rack on the ceiling " those are 20 years old, got those from an old mine - they're nearly ready to be made into bows"."All my bows are guaranteed for life" he tells me, the glint is in his eye again as he adds "my life, that is", at nearly 90 Ron has had the time to develop a sharp wit.
Ron is a rare talent even amongst a generation that could turn their hands to almost any task and as we move from the studio to the house I see some wonderful oil paintings of 18th century war galleys which it turns out Ron painted himself. Whilst serving on the Cumberland during World War 2 he displayed a talent with paint and was put in charge of all the painting of the ship, with it went the large store rooms at the front of the Cruiser, in typical Ron fashion he set about reorganising them until even the Captains quarters weren't as sumptuous - he also taught himself to Tailor by taking apart his uniform, cutting a pattern and making a new one, with of course the cut and fashion of an expensive custom made one.
It wasn't long until he was supplying the ship with handsome new custom tailored uniforms and with almost a thousand men on board he had plenty of opportunity to perfect his skills. Seeing as there was paint in abundance he also honed his talent with a brush and supplied the Captain and officers with oils of their wives and sweethearts copied from crumpled sepia photographs.
On the wall behind me I see a crossbow with what looks like a
magazine as you would expect to see on a rifle, the bow part is detachable as you can put in a more or less powerful bow depending on who is using it - the part that looks like a magazine is in fact a magazine and it takes 10 bolts, the bow is rigged with an ingenious set of cables to be pump action operated.
He does describe himself as an innovator and whilst I am playing with the crossbow he tells me he made a compound bow from wood just for fun, soon I have him back out in the studio hunting down the compound bow, as we start moving things in the search other bows and interesting "stuff" comes to light " ah, yes, here is one of the Mary Rose replicas I made" and he hands me long tapering heavy looking bow, "want to draw it up ?", soon I am in the garden heaving on a mighty Warbow slaughtering French knights, he appears holding a very curvy longbow which has more in common with a Mongol bow but is all wood " I didn't put the curves in it" he says " that's the way the wood grew, so it became a horse bow . It's a lot of fun hunting through someone else's workshop, especially one which holds so many exciting finds. As I loose imaginary arrows out over the beach and in to the sea , as he squints out over the water he says" I made a ballista and shot bolts out there one summer, the tide was out and 400 yards away but we never did find the bolts".
We discuss various woods and he tells me his favourite to work in to a bow is a simple Dagame and hickory lamination which produces a sweet shooting and sturdy bow although when asked which wood makes the best Longbow he surprises me by responding instantly " Pequia" - turns out his wood doesn't have a "proper" Latin name and appears nowhere in the wood books but he swears it makes a better bow than even Yew - there, you learn something new everyday and if Ron says it makes a better bow then that's good enough for me.
In recent years there has been a fashion for Longbows made with bamboo backing, I hadn't seen any Palmer bows with Bamboo and mentioned it, he laughs again ( Ron does a lot of laughing and if ever proof was needed that laughter keeps you young then Ron is living proof) "well, you see Bamboo continues to grow once cut, put it in a bow and measure it a year or two later and you will find it has grown, at the least the bow will be some #'s lighter and possibly even spoilt, it's also the cheapest thing you can make a bow from, if I wanted to make money I'd promote Bamboo."
I'm glancing through my list of questions and one of the stock questions I like to ask is "what is the most indipensible tool in your workshop?" , this question sets Ron rummaging again, " here it is" and he holds up a hand plane " 1s'9d - this I bought in 1938 and I use it every day" - that's one shilling and 9 pence to those unfamiliar with "old" money, round about 9p or 13 cents today.
We talk about his first bow that wasn't wood, a Steel bow bought in the early 50's an Apollo Falcon " they come apart in the handle, but being steel they could rust from the inside and when drawn the top limb would break and hit you on the head, we used to call them unicorn bows" he says with a smile.
The compound bow is found and he draws it up whilst I marvel at the pulleys,
wheels and strings which operate it, all hand made, "Oh, I haven't shown you my favourite bow yet" and he starts hunting in the racks above, what he pulls out looks suspiciously like a branch of a tree, in fact it is a holly branch, the top half is just as it was cut from the tree, bark included. All the side branches have been cut off and left bare, just below the handle ( or where the handle would be if it had one ) the branch has been worked and is quite clearly a bow, I am sceptical, as you are never quite sure if Ron is pulling your leg.
"Draw it up" he suggests, as I do I am astounded to find as sweet a bow to draw as ever I drew, it's possibly 40# and the tiller is perfect -"I took it to a shoot straight after I made it, at the time it still had some leaves and twiglets at the top and look super." He says and I can just imagine the fun he had with it.
"There is another bow I could show you but it's not here, it's the one I made for Kevin Costner in Prince of Thieves", it seems he can't show it to me because it's hanging on the wall of the Hard Rock cafe in New York, as the conversation wanders this way and that Ron has a story or anecdote about almost everyone he has ever met and the hours slip by and I am enthralled. I imagine it's that bit of himself that goes in to the bows which makes them such a delight to own and shoot and why folks never want to part with a Palmer bow. The day has slipped by and Ron is still finding goodies around the workshop, sadly for me it's time to leave but I have just one more question to ask - people have told me that Ron is a little eccentric, but I won't need to ask that question, having spent a day with him I can tell you that Ron is like your favourite Uncle, kindly, amusing and just that little bit cleverer than you - and yes, of course he is eccentric - God help NASA if he ever decide to build a rocket in his "studio".
Here is a raised Glass to you Ron, a true archery Hero................Hip Hip.....HUZZAH !!
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