En garde!

Clad in high-waisted breeches, pro­tected by an in­ner plas­tron, a mask and armed with an épée, the orig­i­nal du­elling weapon, Agnes Stamp en­ters the world of fenc­ing

Country Life Every Week - - A Walking Life - Pho­to­graphs by Sarah Farnsworth

n to­day’s dig­i­tal world, where pas­sive-ag­gres­sion flows through the quick fin­gers of key­board war­riors, wouldn’t it be re­fresh­ing, in­stead of in­ter­nal­is­ing all that rage, to sim­ply say ‘Sir, I chal­lenge you to a duel’ and put a chival­rous end to a spat?

Fenc­ing, one of the old­est games in the world, traces its roots back to the devel­op­ment of swords­man­ship for du­els and self-de­fence. The ear­li­est sur­viv­ing text on the sport, Trea­tise on Arms by Diego de Valera, which was writ­ten in the late 15th cen­tury, marks the birth of fenc­ing as a sci­en­tific art. How­ever, it wasn’t un­til the 18th cen­tury that it be­gan to emerge as a sport rather than mil­i­tary train­ing.

In­deed, it is Domenico An­gelo— the founder of a fenc­ing academy at Carlisle House in Soho in 1763—who should be cred­ited with cham­pi­oning the health and sport­ing ben­e­fits of fenc­ing over its be­ing a killing art. At An­gelo’s School of Arms, he taught the aris­toc­racy—in­clud­ing the Prince of Wales (later Ge­orge III) and his brother, Prince Ed­ward Au­gus­tus— swords­man­ship and es­tab­lished the rules of pos­ture and foot­work that we still see to­day.

Fenc­ing was con­sid­ered an el­e­gant ad­di­tion to a gym­na­sium and An­gelo’s academy was as much a school of de­port­ment as it was of self-de­fence. With this in mind, I find my­self weav­ing through May­fair to the im­pec­ca­bly smart, and pri­vate, Lans­downe Club near Berke­ley Square. Housed within its beau­ti­ful Art Deco walls, past the ball­room, the gym and the rather mag­nif­i­cent pool is what I’ve come for: the salle d’armes.

I’m meet­ing Ed­in­burgh-born Ge­orgina Usher, Com­mon­wealth Cham­pi­onship gold medal­list, record­break­ing 10-time se­nior na­tional cham­pion and now, CEO of Bri­tish Fenc­ing. I quiz her about the sort of peo­ple who fence and she quickly dis­misses my pre­con­cep­tions. Yes,

IHigh Court judges and bar­ris­ters are devo­tees, but plumbers and taxi driv­ers love it, too. It’s not a sport solely re­served for the elite.

Re­search con­ducted by brand com­mu­ni­ca­tions agency We Launch re­vealed that the com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor be­tween fencers is their per­son­al­ity. They fall into two non­con­formist pro­files: tac­ti­cal gamers and cre­atives.

Ge­orgina agrees the sport is for those ‘who don’t like team sports or be­ing told what to do’ and that it tends to draw an ‘al­ter­na­tive’ crowd. A good ex­am­ple of this is Keith Cook. Raised on a coun­cil es­tate in Pil­ton, Som­er­set, Keith was a de­struc­tive child, who strug­gled with a speech im­ped­i­ment and dys­lexia. He stum­bled across fenc­ing as an 11 year old (real­is­ing it would be the clos­est thing he could get to a lightsaber) and used it to chan­nel his en­ergy in a pos­i­tive way. To­day, he’s a six-time Com­mon­wealth medal­list.

Ge­orgina is also a cham­pion of an east Lon­don project called Mus­lim Girls Fence (www.mus­lim­girls­fence.org). It aims to chal­lenge the mis­per­cep­tions of and raise the as­pi­ra­tions among young Mus­lim women. ‘The mask is a great lev­eller—be­hind it, peo­ple are em­pow­ered. They can be who­ever they want,’ she points out.

As two fencers bat­tle it out on the piste be­side us, Ge­orgina in­tro­duces me to the three weapons: the foil, the sabre and the épée. The foil, the small­est and light­est of the three is tra­di­tion­ally a train­ing weapon, the sabre de­vel­oped from a cavalry sword and the épée, the heav­i­est of the three, is the orig­i­nal du­elling weapon.

Each has its own nu­ances when it comes to style, scor­ing and tac­tics, but per­haps the most im­por­tant point to note is that the foil and the sabre are ‘right of way’ weapons, in that you have to make your op­po­nent ‘miss’ be­fore the right of way and the op­por­tu­nity to score passes to you.

With the épée, how­ever, there are no rules re­gard­ing pri­or­ity and right of way. The en­tire body is also a valid tar­get area, which makes for a more tac­ti­cal and con­sid­ered at­tack style. It’s also Ge­orgina’s weapon of choice and the one that I’ll be drilled in to­day.

My eyes flit back to the el­e­gant fencers glid­ing up and down the piste—there’s some­thing rather fetch­ing about their pale, el­e­gant ap­parel. The name of the game is safety, but there are no gaudy neons in sight, just beau­ti­fully tai­lored, white gar­ments.

The first item I need to put on is the un­der plas­tron (an asym­met­ri­cal vest that gives added pro­tec­tion to the sword side), then high-waisted breeches, a jacket and a sin­gle glove for the sword arm, which all feels in­cred­i­bly glam­orous. ‘It shouldn’t be too hard to em­brace my in­ner Mi­randa Frost [an ex­pe­ri­enced fencer played by the coolly beau­ti­ful Rosamund Pike in the 2002 Bond film, Die An­other Day],’ I think to my­self.

It’s also com­pul­sory for women to wear a chest pro­tec­tor-cum-cuirass. There is a touch of Madonna about this, al­though less Ver­ity in Die An­other Day and more 1990 Blonde Am­bi­tion tour. In my case, it’s not an area that needs fur­ther en­hance­ment.

Sword in hand and mask down, the les­son be­gins. Once I’ve mas­tered the be­gin­ning stance of en garde, we progress through a series of ba­sic po­si­tions—mov­ing up and down the piste—that re­mind me of child­hood bal­let lessons. Lunges must be quick

‘As we dance around each other, I re­alise I’ve for­got­ten all of my steps–and I’m hope­less

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