Norfolk archer teaches Russell Crowe
Matthew SparkesOn a quiet road in a sleepy Norfolk village, there is a barn set in peaceful grounds where a master craftsman patiently works a strip of wood in silence.Matthew Sparkes
On a quiet road in a sleepy Norfolk village, there is a barn set in peaceful grounds where a master craftsman patiently works a strip of wood in silence.
But what he makes is swift and deadly - and celebrity clients from all over the world are among his customers.
Stephen Ralphs, who lives in Kenninghall, makes and sells bows and arrows, and also acts as a consultant on Hollywood films whenever archery is called for in the script.
In movie industry circles he is known as 'the bow-and-arrow man' and has recently travelled to Australia to coach Russell Crowe ahead of his appearance as British folk hero Robin Hood.
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Mr Ralphs, 55, who left school to become a printer, had been fascinated with archery and making his own bows as a child.
And eventually this hobby turned into a fulltime job as he began to sell small numbers of his creations.
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'I didn't think I could make a living from it,' he said. 'I'm still amazed that I can.'
'I love it because I get up and have breakfast, and walk 20 yards to go to work.'
Most of his time is spent crafting bows of all shapes and sizes, which he sells online, but every now and then Hollywood comes knocking.
His credits include Gladiator, Apocalypto, The Mummy, Seven Years in Tibet, The Importance of Being Earnest and the last major version of Robin Hood, starring Kevin Costner.
'It's the one that I always wanted to do - a Robin Hood,' said Mr Ralphs.
He made the famous bow that Costner used in that film, but it is not his favourite telling of the story.
That honour falls to the most recent movie, with Russell Crowe playing Hood, which he said was the most fun to work on.
Working in the industry had been enjoyable and given him a chance to work behind the scenes to help create 'the magic of Hollywood - the escapism'.
But there are aspects of the job he enjoys more than others and he said that he would 'rather make 100 bows than a single arrow'.
For large battle scenes he has to frantically churn them out as they are continuously lost by actors.
His job is to help directors ensure that the right type of bows and arrows are used, but also to coach stars and extras so that they can shoot convincingly.
'If the stars are going to do archery, it pays dividends if they can do it. I usually get time with all the major stars,' he said.
With Russell Crowe he had first to unlearn bad habits before he could teach good ones, as he had been trained in another form of archery that would not fit in historically with the film.
Mr Ralphs was flown out to Crowe's farm in Australia where he spent three weeks living with him and giving him intensive lessons before filming began.
'He's Robin Hood…he's got to be good,' said Mr Ralphs.
Eventually he was taught to such a level where he was able to appear on screen as the expert-shot Robin Hood.
Mr Ralphs said that although the character may never have existed, he was more of an idea that was important to Britons.
'Whether or not he's based on historical fact, I don't care. It's an attitude, an attitude the English have,' he said. 'Crowe had it; he had it in buckets.'
One day during training, Crowe took Mr Ralphs on a 37km bike ride in the baking sun and left him for dust.
'For a bloke that smokes, he's fit as a fiddle,' he said.
After arriving back in the UK, he again joined Crowe, with co-stars Scott Grimes (Will Scarlett) and Cate Blanchett (Lady Marian) for further lessons.
'It just became this big competitive thing between them all and they foolishly challenged me to an archery competition,' said Mr Ralphs.
Unsurprisingly, he won.
Coincidentally, the land on which My Ralphs' barn sits is called The Butts and appears on a 1756 map of Kenninghall as an archery shooting range.
At that time archers used large, raised mounds of earth as targets, one of which can still be seen in his garden.
For more information on Stephen Ralphs, visit www.steveralphs.co.uk
Whereas Russell Crowe had three weeks to learn, I only had 15 minutes between an interview and a photo shoot.
I thought it best to get my excuses in early.
First, Stephen helped me to strap on a medieval leather wrist protector and picked me a bow from the dozens in his workshop - these have to be as tall as the archer, plus the height of their fist.
The freshly-made arrows are surprisingly sharp; accurate replicas of medieval weapons, designed to kill and not just stick in a straw target.
The huge longbow is just as unapproachable and incredibly hard to draw.
I put in so much effort to pull the string to my face that my arm muscles shake violently, ruling out any chance of an accurate shot.
Archers in battle would have had to fire many times every minute, on target, while being jostled by those around them.
Luckily, the defence of the realm no longer falls to young Norfolk men with no more than a strip of yew and some string.
Eventually, through an equal helping of luck and expert tuition, I manage to launch one on target.
The arrow flies straight towards the middle of the target and lodges with a satisfying thud.