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
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