We walked into the English Heritage gift shop by the inner castle drawbridge of Dover Castle.
“In my nightmares,” Phil muttered at my shoulder, “I win a huge cash prize which can only be spent here.”
It was filled with wares which are strangely puzzling to me: because whilst being beautiful, cultured and well researched, each gift is indefinably useless to grown ups such as he and I.
Jewellery, replica armour, needlework, mugs, metalwork; and a selection of luxury English Heritage preserves and pickles.
At the end of the shop nearest the till is the weaponry. Wooden swords, daggers, knives, bows and sucker-arrows: Felix, one by one, has added them all to his arsenal.
For three years, though, he has been eyeing up the crossbow.
A pricey item, the crossbow is a gorgeous replica of the weapons of yore, complete with two padded bolts. Felix has often cast longing eyes on it: today was finally to be the day of its purchase.
But what does one really want with a crossbow? A brand-new model of a long-defunct piece of weaponry?
Once upon a time, it would have been the difference between life and death.
The crossbow: a crack-fighting weapon dating back to at least the fifth century BC, it is a bow mounted on a stick with a release mechanism which launches the bolt- or “quarrel”- with lightning velocity. Its string made of whipcord, hemp, sinew or occasionally twisted mulberry, it has been depicted in art again and again, from the Pictish stone-slab pictures from sixth century Scotland (St Vigeans, Glenferness, Shandwick and Meigle) to Leonardo Da Vinci’s gorgeous sketches(above).
Felix walked straight to the crossbow counter and began evaluating his purchase with the grim levity of some mediaeval mercenary.
“Is it possible to buy replacement bolts?” I asked the affable shopkeeper.
He winced. “No, I’m afraid you only get these two which come with the bow, ” he said.
What English Heritage do not know about little boys is a lot.
Felix’s arrows disappear often, and if they ever do materialise it is in the strangest places: the garden shed, the bread bin, the dolly box.
Our purchase made, we headed out. Felix was eager to test his purchase. We selected for the firing range the iron age mound where the Roman lighthouse perches on the cliff. It is a wide steeply sloping stretch of perfect English Heritage lawn.
Felix began at the bottom of the slope. He fired a bolt: and it disappointed him mightily. For travelling uphill a bolt will not go far at all.
And then he hit on going to the top of the hill.
Hey presto: fired from such a vantage point the bolt flew down the hill, vanquishing some imaginary mediaeval knight-agressor. He grinned.
And like Felix’s bolt, like a bolt from the blue, I realised something.
That used to be a lesson taught in dusty classrooms: ancient armies always looked for high ground: it was the ultimate advantage over your enemies. This since the iron age, man has sought to live in high places to defend himself.
But Felix found this out at ten years old, another way.
Through doing it. With a reconstruction crossbow which was probably made this year.
And suddenly, all my sniffy snobbiness about reconstructions and re-enactments disappeared in a puff of smoke. The age is not always the thing. Sometimes – like The Globe on the Thames – we make it anew so we can stand in the shoes of a person who is no longer here, and see through their eyes.
And learn why, and how, man did these things.
It makes me want to eschew schools and their dusty rooms where education is a commodity, and send children back to their families to learn. Really learn. Like this: through experiment.
Written for Side View’s weekend theme, Education, which you can find here