From the Three Musketeers, via the Princess Bride to Pirates of the Caribbean what is there not to like about fencing and sword fighting? So, with a swash and a bit of a buckle XtraTime visited Swindon to find out more about the sport through the eyes of one of our local fencing clubs...
Fencing is a sport that relies heavily on its historical antecedents, with references going back long before its 17th and 18th Century heyday to 3,000 years ago and ancient Egypt. This illustrated by temple paintings showing fencing bouts using sticks.
There is also a complexity of terms which betray its French and Italian antecedents, with ‘froissement’, ‘coquille’ and ‘rassemblement’ all forming part of a glossary of terms so complex it could easily become a new A level topic.
“Even the amount of weight you have to press on the point to score a hit is based on the amount of force you would need to draw blood if you were not wearing protection”, explained Swindon Fencing Club president Neil Bromley, before adding: “Of course, we don’t do that now.
“Initially when fencing moved from duelling to being a sport, they had a kind of bees nest on the end of the sword so that it ripped clothing and you could then see if a hit had been scored. Nowadays, it’s electronic and increasingly uses wireless technology.”
The Swindon club meets at the Oasis Leisure Centre in Swindon and Bromley explained some of the rudiments of a sport that still tends to only receive public recognition in an Olympic year such as this one.
He said: “There are three different weapons in the Olympic sport of fencing; the foil, the epee, and the sabre, with the difference between the three being mainly about which bits of the body you can hit.
“The foil, which pre-dates the epee and the sabre, goes back as far as the 17th Century. In foil the target area is the torso, where historically your task was to protect your vital organs and survive a duel. Essentially, it’s a training weapon.
“Epee is a bigger sword where the whole body is the target, so it’s a duelling weapon. You can hit on the head, the legs and the arms as well as the body and you can also score a double hit where in effect both people are 'dead'.
“Finally, with the sabre you can hit any part of the body above the waist, but the difference is you can hit with a cut rather than with just the point of the blade as with the epee and foil.”
He added: “In Swindon, our plans are to go into every school and offer fencing as way of getting young people into the sport. At the beginning they can start with foam swords which are nice and soft. They can then progress onto GO/FENCE [British Fencing's grassroots programme] or ‘mini-fence’ which consists of a plastic mask, a cloth tabard and a plastic sword. With this you can be fencing in five minutes. Once you give children a sword they become Luke Skywalker or Captain Jack Sparrow and our experience is that the appeal of holding your own sword and becoming skilled in using it, transforms children”.
Youth and experience
As the Oasis hall used by the club as a training base echoes to some 50-odd participants thrusting and parrying their way around, Bromley points out some of their more notable members.
“We have Rebecca, who fences internationally and is going off to Bratislava to take part in the European Championships. Amongst the younger members we have Ed, who at under-13 is ranked as the number one epee-ist in the country and Elouise, who came third in the under- 10 national foils.”
However, pride of place for the Swindon club belongs to 71-year-old Mike Bradbury at the other end of the age spectrum.
Fencing in the veteran foil category, he was the over-70 gold medal winner at the National Championships in March. Then, he went on to be a part of the successful Great Britain grand veteran team (featuring three participants, two of which have to be 60 and over and one 70 and over) at the European Championships in May. Bradbury is looking forward to appearing at the World Championships in Germany in October, fencing both in the British team and as an individual.
“It’s nice to win,” commented Bradbury causally. “But, for me, I just like to keep going as long as I can. I started when I was 13 at school and then continued when I went on to Bristol University, where I married the captain of the women’s team. I have always liked fencing because it’s an individual sport, it’s you against the other bloke. In fencing a number of attributes come to the fore. You can have athleticism, which will score hits, but you also need skill and anticipation in reading your opponent. So at any age it’s a question of how those things come together that makes a good fencer.”
Lessons to learn
That is a theme taken up by coach Alan Knowles, who said: “There are three key influences behind fencing.
“First, it often motivates people who are less extrovert; there is a mask to hide behind. So when we go into schools, often the pupils who take up fencing are the ones who are not in school teams, some you might tend to call nerds. It’s the mental, tactical game that is appealing to these people. However, the irony is that as they become better at fencing they acquire greater athleticism and better physical co-ordination so they then find they get selected for other teams.
“Secondly, that historical element is important, people finding their past through taking part in a sport that is hundreds of years old.
“Finally in fencing there is one winner and lots of losers, but the losers win because you learn more through losing. Most sports promote that winning is good and losing is bad, so we tend to put far too much emotion on that. We need to become less emotional about winning and be more analytical about why we lose. Fencing forces you to do that because that is the only way you become better.”
For anybody who has watched junior level football or rugby, perhaps fencing could offer some valuable lessons, with its emphasis on concentration and skill and its absence of parents baying from the touchlines.
There are fencing clubs in all of the major towns and cities across our region. If you would like to take up fencing, then their locations and contact details can be found at www.britishfencing.com/clubs/find-a-club/