Corfe Castle, an 11th century fortification built by William the Conqueror, rises above the skyline. Its impressive stature overlooks a small village, a vital defensive garrison in the Purbeck Hills. Around the base is a hubbub of activity, as longbow archers set up camp near the outer wall. Women tend to the food, cooking over a fire in a traditional stove, while the archers practise their shooting. The group’s standard flaps in the gentle breeze, as do the tents which shelter them at night. It is a scene straight from the middle ages, brought to the 21st century by the Wolfshead bowmen.
“We are all archers” says John Watts, a member of the group. “What we are not, is re-enactors. Re-enactors tend to be people who go along for the fun of having a battle, or something of that sort. They tend to be of a certain age and they want to go out there and have a booze up in the evening and that’s not what we are about. We are basically educational, entertainment, historical people”.
The group is relatively small, with 60 members throughout the country, although they do boast members in Holland. They visit castles across England, with an average of 20 attending each meet. “This castle is ideal for us” explains John. “We have done Dover castle on one or two occasions and it is massive. You get lost within the castle, it’s too big for us really so you have to be a bit selective”.
The Wolfshead Bowmen started off 21 years ago, mainly doing Robin Hood shows for tourists in Sherwood. “I’ve probably got loads of photographs of me signed Little John underneath somebody’s mantelpiece in Japan somewhere!” jokes John.
Most of Wolfshead become a member of the group through their love of archery. John, who is retired but previously worked in a wide range of trades from engineering to fashion, catering and restoring antique pots, joined the Bowmen about 19 years ago. “I was actually doing an archaeological dig and this group happened to be here [Corfe]. I just came up to have a look and I was inquiring about the bow and ended up doing the next eight years as little John!”.
Members of the group are clearly very passionate, with a lot of money needed for the bows, arrows, costumes, stoves and tents. “It’s expensive as you want it to be” says Andre Kyffim -Walto. “We’ve got into it a lot. We’ve got a tent, a van. All the swords and arms cost money”. During the period of an event, which is sometimes up to two weeks, the group stays with the camp and sleeps in the tents over night. “It does get cold, especially now. It’s very very cold but obviously you have blankets and stuff. You just deal with it. It’s especially cold up here as we are quite exposed with the rain but you wouldn’t do it if you didn’t enjoy it”.
There are some non-archers in Wolfshead such as Lorna Thomas, who is the resident cook, joining through her husband. “I am a non shooting member of the group so when I was looking for something that I could do to contribute to the group, I decided that food was something that really interested me”. During the day she sticks to seasonal, authentic, middle-age cuisine. The role of medieval cook is a far cry from Lorna’s day job as a financial analyst for American Express. “My bosses boss thinks I’m slightly mad!” she laughs, “but they are all really interested and they want to know where we go and what we do”.
Later during the day the group display their impressive skill with a fun and educational display. “Sir, pick me a target” John asks a member of the crowd. After receiving his target, he readies his bow and hits it with the first shot. He is joined by other archers from the group, who demonstrate the power and uses of their weapons. A spokesman leads the show, providing historical context to the display.
“The fact that venues like this are prepared to have us come along is great.” says Lorna. “We enjoy doing it as much as people hopefully enjoy coming to see us. I think it’s a way of making people aware that this is a partially destroyed castle but give them some insight as to the lives of the people who lived here when it was originally built”.