Everyone falls quiet. Eighteen young people fit arrows to their bows and . . . Thunk! Thunk! The unexpectedly loud sound of arrows hitting targets echoes through the sports hall of Kelsey Park School in Beckenham, Kent. After six thunks, the bowmen stride forward, stewards bustling after them with clipboards.
It is the 1997 British Schools Indoor Archery Championship. Eyes are bright and aim is (mostly) true over a distance of 20 yards. Nearly 200 boys and girls aged 7 to 18 are competing in 20 classes (divided by age and sex) to find who can shoot the best.
From children of six and seven to gangly youths of 16, the bowmen stand taut. Then, the fit of arrow to bow, the muscular tension of the pull, the narrowing of eyes to aim and the sighing release. Thunk! Without pausing to check, each archer takes another arrow from the quiver and fits it to the bow.
So who is the modern archer? Forget about Robin Hood, hearts of oak and huge longbows. Bows used in schools are lighter and shorter. Serious competitors graduate to gleaming composite or "recurved" bows, with complicated gadgets at each end and strange black, shiny metal protruberances at the front to absorb vibration. The children using these devices are lively individuals in a sport which suits all sorts.
One competitor who is doing particularly well is Mark Ellis. Mark, 16, plays bass guitar in a band, and is studying art and graphic design in Redditch, in the West Midlands. He is also in the junior British Olympic archery squad. Today he scores an impressive 567 (out of a maximum on this round of 600). When he stands up and fits the arrow to the bow, you can immediately see how the sweep and pull of archery demands considerable upper-body fitness and hand-eye coordination; there can be 40 to 50 pounds of "pull" on the fingers. Mark trains for three hours, three to four times a week, and works out on rowing machines.
As with most sports that require sophisticated pieces of equipment, archery can be pricey - Alex Cook, another young contender, has spent Pounds 2, 000 on his gear - but it can also be done on a shoestring. Mark survives on private sponsorships, loans and gifts from friends and relatives, and the support of his local club, the Evesham Bowmen.
According to Dennis Whiteman, president of the Grand National Archery Society, there are about 15,000 adults and 2,000 juniors shooting bows in Britain.
Constraints on the funding of out-of-school activities and non-national curriculum sport have squeezed archery clubs in schools. Mark Davis, chairman of the Association for Archery in Schools and learning resources manager at Kelsey Park, is himself facing redundancy as the school struggles to save money. None the less, today he glows with satisfaction as he surveys the activity in the hall.
Denise Ramsey, from St Christopher's independent school in Letchworth, Herts, has brought a party of eight, ranging from Robin and Douglas, aged nine, to Alex Cook, 16. Mrs Ramsey, who runs a Saturday club at the school, has used a wheelchair for 27 years, but neither physical nor mental disability bars prowess in archery. As Dave Egalton, county coach for Kent and organiser of the Ladywell Archery Club for the disabled in London, says, "Archery is very important to disabled people because they can compete on absolutely equal terms."
Mrs Ramsey is part of the Switched on to Archery (SWOT) project in Welwyn Garden City. SWOT runs training days for coaches to dispel any reticence able-bodied sportsmen may have about working with people with disabilities. Archery clubs include not just wheelchair-bound but blind archers (there are two in Welwyn). People with all kinds of disabilities are represented at the British Sport Association for the Disabled archery contest in August, including one archer who plucks the bowstring with his mouth. The Ladywell club fields two archers with Down's syndrome. And, in case you were wondering, blind archers usually use a stand on which to rest their bows. Accuracy resides in the pull of the bowstring.
Archery is a sport in which those who do not have the speed for ball games or the strength for antagonistic sport can excel. And archery competitions and clubs are extremely sociable affairs. Mark Ellis says that his mum and dad got so bored sitting around waiting for him that they took up the sport too and now go out shooting every week.
Association for Archery in Schools. Secretary: Christopher Fletcher-Campbell, Bloxham School, Bloxham, Banbury Oxon OX15 4PE. Tel: 01295 721463. Chairman: Mark Davis, 44 Bramerton Road, Beckenham, Kent BR3 3PB. Tel: 0181 650 4648
Grand National Archery Society, 7th Street, National Agriculture Centre, Stoneleigh, Kenilworth, Warwickshire CV8 2LG.
Tel: 01203 696631
Ladywell Archery Club at Ladywell Centre for People with Disabilities, 148 Dressington Avenue, London SE4 1JF.
Tel: 0181 690 8140
Before laying out any money, it is wise to consult the GNAS or AAS about specialist sports suppliers and regulations.
* Equipment must be matched to the age and height of the children using it; clubs offer a leader's course which will help ensure safe practice. As Denise Ramsey says, "Safety must always be paramount." As well as instructors' courses, clubs will often be happy to lend their coaches' services.
* There are different kinds of bows: fibreglass (cheapest and lightest, most used by children), composite (with extra accuracy), and recurved and longbows (larger, for use by adults). Crossbows are altogether different. As for space, you need a sports hall with at least 20 clear yards or an outdoor space with 50 clear yards (preferably fenced).
* A starter kit with about six bows (Pounds 28 each for the cheap fibreglass ones), a target and stand and six quivers of six arrows (Pounds 12 for six), protection for fingers (tabs) and arms (braces) will cost around Pounds 300. A local club might lend or sell you secondhand equipment.
* Carbon arrows with polythene fletchings (the feathery bits on the end) cost Pounds 10 each. But beginners do not need them, or the screw-in fluorescent nox (plural of nock, the notch on the end of the arrow), or the huge composite bows with their dramatic accoutrements.
* The equipment is unusual and sophisticated, but is an investment that will reap dividends. Although children may think archery is difficult, it is not hard to master the rudiments, and the basic kit need not be expensive. Practitioners can, says Mark Davis, "very quickly become proficient, enjoy the shooting, enjoy the company".