Brighton, as the UK’s most avant-garde city, tends to be ahead of the rest of the country in most things, particularly fashion and the arts. However, as well as being the home of our beloved Brighton and Hove Albion, it also houses a number of more unusual sports. As well as regular fencing (as in the Olympic sport with the swords, mesh masks and white clothing) clubs, one of these is the Sussex Sword Academy, which teaches and practices historical swordfighting techniques. As I have a little fencing experience I went along to take a look on Bjournal’s behalf.
I was met by club President Duncan Fatz who gave me a little detail on the story behind the club. “We started the Sussex Sword Academy 18 years ago, and we study a number of weapons. Originally we were the Sussex Rapier School, studying Italian rapier, then we expanded to take in other weapons such as the highland broadsword. We are also doing French smallsword, unarmed combat, which is taken from the treatises [medieval and early modern manuals on how to fight with contemporary weapons] of the historic fencing masters, particularly Joachim Meyer, and then we are also doing the longsword. The club also relies on a number of other historical treatises, including those by George Silver, Vincentio Saviolo and Domenico Angelo.”
Sussex Sword Academy works more like a traditional salle (a fencing salon or class) than most clubs, and there are a number of major differences between the academy and more traditional fencing classes. The participants gather to salute one another in the centre of the club before and after each session in a traditional-feeling and intimate sesssion. Classes are often around 30 strong, and although the surroundings at The Manor Gym may not be too salubrious, they appear to enjoy a degree of camaraderie not enjoyed in most fencing clubs, which tend to be highly competitive in nature.
The friendly atmosphere is likely to be because the skills taught are not intended for competition. Duncan Fatz explained that he sees the club more as a “study group. This is a martial art [rather than a sport]. There are competitions going around and we enter those, but the purpose is generally to test where we are with stuff. It is not to beat the other person. We do have our own tournaments in house occasionally. Not everyone has to take part.”
Because the Sussex Sword Academy intends to teach martial skills the objective is not to exchange points as it would be in a normal fencing club. A participant is regarded as potentially having been killed instead. However, while he played down the competitive side of the club’s activities, Duncan did note that some club members are more competitive than others. Nevertheless “a double hit, which you quite often get in sport fencing, is pointless. This is the art of defending yourself. If you have to kill the other person to stay alive, ok, but you have to defend as you are attacking.”
A regular participant would presumably expect to work on only one weapon in the evening. Instead, as a journalist suffering for your enlightenment and pleasure I found myself enduring crash courses in the smallsword (a small weapon like the foil in fencing), rapier (as in ‘The Three Musketeers’), longsword (a two handed thing like a Scottish claymore) and a Jacobite-era broadsword. I also suffered a brief and bone-crunching self-defence lesson drawn from the extremely un-genteel world of the medieval knight.
I started with the smallsword, under the tutelage of the Senior Instructor Robert Wrightson. This began with a theoretically extremely graceful kata, a series of 40-plus moves intended to teach you the art of moving fluently with the sword. I was then allowed to try to fight. Because the weapons taught at Sussex Sword Academy are different from those used in regular fencing clubs, there are no electric boxes and lame jackets. You have to do it ‘steam’ or the old way, indictating a hit in gentlemanly fashion by pointing to the stricken area. I was thrilled to score a few hits using the smallsword, which to the fencer is the most familiar blade because of its similarity to the fencing foil. Like sport foil fencing, fighting with the smallsword also provides a good explosive cardio workout.
As an experienced fencer I felt very confident at this point. However, from there the evening became a lot stickier. The rapier proved to be much heavier than expected and was far less familiar and intuitive for a sport fencer. Attempting to keep the point of the thing in vaguely the right direction was hard enough. To actually hit an opponent who has picked one up before was a serious challenge. The strain on my biceps suggested that rapier fighting provides an excellent muscle workout though.
Moving on with some relief from the rapier, my next stop was a ‘self defence’ lesson with the aptly-named Cameron Paine. Cameron taught me how to throw punches like a knight, as well as throwing a few himself which suggested that today’s pugilists could learn a thing or two from their armour-clad forbears. He also demonstrated a number of moves from European treatises which he pointed out strongly resembled oriental martial arts, but with added brutality.
Knights certainly knew their stuff when it came to self defence. However they didn’t tend to stop at the point of disarming or throwing their opponents. All of the moves seemed to end with a snapped femur or some kind of horrific dislocation. Would it be effective? Most certainly, but keep a spade about for burying your opponent afterwards!
I then progressed to the longsword, a two handed, long-bladed butcher’s weapon, essential for those moments when you absolutely, definitely have to cut somebody in half from the top of their head down. Senior Instructor Lyall Drummond showed me how to get the massive, unwieldy blade to land more or less on someone’s head, and also how to dodge an incoming sword. It is hard work with a heavy weapon, but again great as a heavy muscle workout.
Finally I was allowed a quick foray with the Highland broadsword, which is another heavy blade compared to those used in sport fencing. Having been stabbed, slashed at, punched and twisted for much of the evening I was by now beginning to flag a little physically. To my consternation I was pitted against Cameron Paine, who insisted on snatching the sword out of my hand every few minutes. Because Sussex Sword Academy is the real deal they will unsportingly take your sword away if they get the chance, and Cameron made use of some dozen humiliating chances.
I had felt pretty comfortable with the smallsword, then increasingly out of my depth as the evening wore on. My aching muscles the next day suggest that the range of skills taught at the Sussex Sword Academy are great for strength and general fitness although I may have endured a more concentrated lesson than most. As well as being great fun for fencers, re-enactors and people with a general interest in history or swordplay, lessons at the Sussex Sword Academy are likely to be highly beneficial in terms of exercise, providing a good blend of explosive cardio and heavy muscle-building workouts.
The club has a friendly vibe and potentially a good social scene. There are also a number of perks to joining a small club involved in a very interesting alternative martial art. Duncan Fatz noted that the Sussex Sword Academy will be involved in the Brighton Fringe, where they will be demonstrating and teaching techniques. They have also conducted demonstrations at events such as The Wallace Collection (a well known auction of militaria), and have even taught traditional techniques to actors at London film premiers – although as is always the way with Hollywood, maybe the Sussex Sword Academy should have been doing their stuff before filming started, rather than at the premier once the film is already being shown?
Would I go again? Yes, definitely!
The Sussex Sword Academy meets at The Manor Gym in Manor Road (BN2 5EA) on Mondays at 8pm and Wednesdays at 7:30pm. Sessions costs £7.50. www.sussexswordacademy.org
Feature picture from Chris Helenius