Del Hughes has her head turned on a flight of fancy
Compared to some of my recent escapades, this adventure is actually rather tame – no nocturnal rituals or psychic explorations today. But even so, I still know it’s going to be epic because I’m on a blind date with destiny. . . or more accurately, with John, who I already know is the man of my dreams!
Jen’s come along for ‘moral support’. She’s just got back from a twelve-day all-inclusive in Rhodes and looks gorgeously sun-kissed and glowy, so I’m slightly concerned that John might take a shine to her instead.
But she swears she’ll stay well in the background and I’m absolutely holding her to that!
John is my ‘escort’ for the next hour or so, and no one, not even my lovely cousin, is going to come between us.
And as soon as I catch sight of his striking amber eye, all thoughts of my partner (Tim), fly out the window and I’m going full-on ‘Factor 50’ (yeah, inexplicably, I do watch Love Island) and falling hard, because John is damned handsome, despite missing half an eyebrow.
He’s already mesmerised me with his moves, so now my palms are sweating and the anticipation is building because any moment I’ll be getting a cheeky peck, and I can’t contain myself!
Don’t worry, I’m not doing the dirty on Tim, but my excitement might be better understood if you’ve read an article I wrote some weeks ago about my experience in a floatation tank (Tanked Up); it was relaxing as hell but weird AF, with my mind going to places it had never been before.
And it is that which is directly responsible for our visit here today. . . here being Perriswood Country Pursuits on the Gower Peninsula, and the place where I’m, finally, going to come face to ‘facial disc’ with my favourite owl!
But, before that, we’re having a go at archery, which is an activity I’ve never been drawn to, despite Michael Praed’s Robin of Sherwood being my first ever teenage crush.
(I had to take a quick break from writing this to watch the opening sequence on YouTube several times, and that man’s cheekbones are more deadly than any of his arrows!)
Anyway, though I’ve never felt inclined to try it, there are some clear positives:
- You can do it sitting down – always a bonus if, like me, you find standing quite uncomfortable.
- You can do it indoors – and since today’s weather is that wonderful Welsh combo of wet, wild and windy, that’s a massive tick.
Less positive is that:
- The only arrows I’ve ever used before are darts. And I haven’t picked any up since March ‘93, when my ‘William Tell party trick’ went marginally awry, leaving me mentally scarred and Jason, (my boyfriend), physically so. Frankly, I think dumping me afterwards was a bit of an overreaction – he only needed a few stitches, and his fringe covered the worst of it!
- I’ve just discovered that Jen’s done archery before. Bugger!
And yes, I know it’s not a competition and is a bit of fun but I can’t help myself.
I’ve got visions of a neat cluster of arrows peppering the bullseye (the gold) as I, modestly, accept fulsome praise from the instructor who looks at me with genuine respect, and no little awe.
Oh well, a girl can dream.
Feathery and fletchery
But before we even get our hands on a bow and arrow, we need to be tested to find our ‘dominant eye’ by Brian, the rugged, outdoorsy owner of Perriswood, whose knowledge of all things feathery and fletchery could doubtless fill several encyclopaedias.
We’re told to make a squarish shape with our hands, lift them up to eye level, put Brian (who’s several feet away) in the centre of our ‘frame’ and apparently, he’ll know instantly.
He does – Jen and I are both right-eyed.
Next comes bow selection.
We tried a few; I was allocated one with a pull of 14kgs, whilst Jen couldn’t manage more than 12kg. Ha! I knew that using a crutch would come with more upsides than just helping me walk.
That lone, Popeye bicep in my right arm is coming into its own and I’m feeling rather pleased with myself – until Brian informs us that the Korean Ladies Team ‘pull 46kgs’.
Okay, I’m a little less smug now.
Finally, we don protective arm sheaths and we’re ready to let loose.
Brian gets me a chair, positions our feet either side of the shooting line and shows us how to set the arrow’s ‘nock’ correctly into the ‘nocking point’ on the string.
It’s a bit fiddly, but after a few tries, I’ve got it, and so has Jen – though turning to face me while holding a nocked arrow in her bow isn’t the smartest move, not unless she fancies accompanying me to A&E. (Mind, I bet Jason wouldn’t be shedding any tears over it!)
Brian’s a fantastic coach; clear with his instructions, encouraging and really, really patient.
As we fire, he chats about archery, tells us how he and his mate, Mark, are Guinness World Record holders for the ‘highest point score in 24 hours’ (Wow!) and how ‘anyone can pick up this sport, from six-year-olds upwards.’
Hmm. . . maybe finding an accessible, sporty hobby for someone with my limitations isn’t a pipe dream after all?
Thirty minutes later, when my arms are beginning to tremble and I’m ready to lay down my bow, he tells us to stop because we’ll be ‘feeling this tomorrow.’ Tomorrow? I’m feeling it already and know I’ve used muscles that have been dormant for years.
But it turns out I’m pretty good at archery – well, for a first-timer.
Most of my arrows ended up somewhere near the target, if not actually in the circle itself, hitting the outer ‘skirt’ or ‘petticoat’ areas. But Jen’s mainly littered the floor (tee hee) – though she did manage to get one in the gold. Sigh.
Being a competitive person, I ask him about my chances of becoming a champion archer and making an olympic team. He twinkles a bit: ‘Well, maybe not the Olympics’.
But when I press him, he does say that I do have ‘the potential to become a championship archer.’
Alright, so what he actually said was that ’anyone has the potential to become a championship archer.’ (But I knew he was just saying that to make Jen feel better, and he clearly recognised that I’m a natural with copious amounts of untapped talent!)
But now it’s time for the main event, and Brian’s happy to tailor the bird experience to our specifications.
So, first up, the star of my show, John, a seventeen-year-old European Eagle Owl! (Seventeen? Who knew these birds lived so long?)
Brian heads off to get him, warning us, ‘He’ll probably get back here before me.’ And he’s right. Within minutes there’s the faintest whisper of wings, a massive downdraft of air and John sails past us, his wing-tip catching the top of Jen’s head.
OMG! He is simply, sodding awesome!
Brian flies him around the vast barn, and it’s genuinely jaw-dropping, watching a bird, that’s the approximate size and shape of an IKEA beanbag, soar with such agility and speed.
But, of course, watching’s not enough for me, so when Brian, literally, throws down the gauntlet, I’m more than ready to pick it up – and pull John ‘for a chat’.
(Note to self: Del, stop with Love Island lingo. Also Del: I can’t, I’ve been brainwashed!)
Mind you, now we’re up close and personal, John does seem a lot larger than I first thought.
He’s big, very big, with vicious looking, finger-length black claws, set, paradoxically, into feet so fluffy, it’s difficult to stop myself from stroking them.
John wouldn’t be out of place as an extra in ‘Monsters Inc.’ (But actually it’s those furry feet that are the danger, rather than the talons because eagle owls squeeze their prey to death, rather than ripping them apart like other raptors. Nice!)
And he’s surprisingly heavy too.
I once stumbled upon some online pics of ‘naked’ owls – and no, I certainly had not been googling weird bird porn!
But from the photos, it seemed a sensible assumption to make that, since John’s bulk is purely feathers, he’d be as light as one.
John’s bones must be extra dense or something because I could barely hold my arm steady as he perched six inches from my face, and regarded me calmly with his mismatched eyes.
Mismatched because he’s blind in one, easily noticeable by its cloudy colour.
Apparently, he was attacked when he was younger by an angry swarm of bees; I don’t know what he’d done to antagonise them but blinding him in response seemed a tad excessive.
But that’s nature for you – dangerous and wondrous in equal measure, so actually, exactly like John. And his odd eyes merely added to his charismatic mystique; I was in love, and I didn’t care what other birds Brian might subsequently bring out to meet us.
I knew that (in more Love Island parlance) my ‘head wasn’t gonna turn’ for any of them. Unfortunately, John’s frequently did, to around 270 degrees!
After we’d spent a lot of quality time together, mainly doing a Vogue-worthy photo shoot, John decided he’d had enough, swooping off to a high perch and waiting for Brian to take him back to his owl house.
Basically, I’d been ‘mugged right off’!
After that, Brian brought out three more birds for us to meet and it was rather like ornithological speed dating:
Caesar, aged twelve, a saker falcon, with sleek good looks and bright yellow feet.
This avian George Clooney was a very fanciable fellow, but he had some side-eye action going on which, frankly, made me a bit nervous, and not in a good way.
Tilly, a twenty-three year old red-tailed buzzard, (aka chicken hawk, so named because. . . well, if you can’t guess and you keep fowl, make sure your coop is well protected and has a very sturdy roof).
The Beyoncé of the bird world, she was undeniably beautiful, but her beak curve looked lethal and I wouldn’t, ever, want to turn my back on her.
Nickel, the youngster of the group at nine, slim and sinister – think Javier Bardem in ‘No Country for Old Men’.
And that’s an appropriate analogy since Nickel is actually the sole entrant in an avian identity parade to find. . . a killer!
See, I’d told Brian about a bird who, a few months ago, caused a pigeon to literally explode in my back garden.
I’d only seen the culprit’s tail as it took off, but from my vague description, Brian knew exactly what the baddie looked like.
And, as soon as I met Nickel the harris hawk, so did I.
Those white tail tips were unmistakable.
Brian said that I should ring him if I spotted it again as these birds aren’t native to the U.K. and so was either ‘being flown’ by a handler – unlikely due to my suburban location – or was an ‘escapee’ and needed catching, hopefully before breeding with any indigenous species.
I know, I’m coming off as some avian racist now but, apparently, it can pose a threat to our local wildlife and might upset the ecological applecart too.
Right then, the moment I get home, I’ll be on to our Neighbourhood Watch team and start rustling up some ‘Wanted’ posters.
We’ll find this trespasser Brian, don’t you worry.
It really was a terrific afternoon.
We were wowed by these giants of the bird world, and seeing them flying at such close quarters was hypnotic and absolutely glorious.
But the location of Perriswood is pretty glorious too, offering bird’s-eye views (obviously) of Oxwich Bay, and beyond.
And Brian was a great host who put up with our numerous, and often ridiculous, questions with good humour and great forbearance.
And even though I didn’t get that peck on the cheek, and even though Jen and John did seem to have the ‘better connection’ (sigh), I’ll definitely be booking in to meet him again soon.
Because that’s owls for you – the feathery, flighty and full-on fabulous head-turners of the raptor world. . . and I bloody love ‘em!
Perriswood Country Pursuits offer a variety of activities for the whole family, whatever the weather and whatever your ability (or disability). You can find out more details here.
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