As with many fencers, we felt the lack of events deeply over 2020 and 2021. Crossing festivals off the calendar began to take its toll, and those regular reminders of our wider community left a sword-shaped hole.
So it was with immense excitement that we packed our bags last week for an event unlike any other: Swordpunk 2021. This skill-sharing festival combines combat arts like fencing, archery, axe throwing and whip cracking with circus skills such as juggling, fire and flow arts. Tucked away on a Capability Brown-designed estate in Warwickshire, it offers acres of lakes for swimming and woodland for strolling, a well-stocked tavern and an inviting fire pit.
We first got involved with Swordpunk in 2019, when we set up a demonstration forge. We were immediately hooked on the event’s close-knit atmosphere, reminiscent of Robin Hood’s merry men training and feasting together in the woods. When we were invited to return, we decided to show off Chris’s handiwork with something new: a sharp cutting experience.
At the forge we deal exclusively with blunt-edged fencing swords, so it was a thrill to make some sharpened blades and test their mettle against 30kg of clay. We chose two longswords – one inspired by an early warsword with a broad, thin blade and the other a later, narrower design – and a Warding Sword for the task.
Records since the 1400s, such as the Kitab al-makhzun jami al-funun show Egyptian swordsmen using cones of clay to test their cutting precision with scimitars. A later attestation from the early 1900s states of the Russian Cossacks, “they learned to sabre cones of clay raised on wooden frames. The supreme art consisted in cleaving the obstacles with the point of the blade in such a way that the cut part remained in its place”.
Indeed, many of our aspiring swordspeople managed this feat over the weekend, with others slicing the cone like thin deli meat or sinking their blades deep into its centre. With Chris’s careful guidance on form and flow, both beginners and established swordsfolk found great satisfaction in facing their clay opponent.
When night falls at Swordpunk, the score shifts from the clash of swords, crack of whips and clinking of hammers into drumming and wild applause. The legendary fire circle is a place for professional performers to wow the crowds with pyro magic, but also for aspiring fire mages to have a go themselves.
Having taken up staff and poi spinning over lockdown, we were excited to show off some moves. We also jumped at the chance to duel with the festival’s founder, Dan, as part of the show, combining controlled sparring with a little stage-fighting flourish. The spectacle gradually gave way to dancing with live drums, then cozying up in the tavern with tankards full of mead.
Swordpunk is not your grandmother’s fencing event. With no competitive element, the focus is on trying new things, finding your own approach, and forging friendships. One is as likely to partner with a respected instructor as a complete beginner. The sparring is conversational, with each partner excited to learn from the other.
With a medieval fantasy vibe and swordpunks donning elaborate costumes, one may be tempted to see the event as an RPG experience. Certainly, there is escapism to be had in spades. But as we heaved our clay back into the car at the end of the weekend, the difference hit me: everything at Swordpunk is real. The weapons, the risks, the larger-than-life characters.
Rather than letting us play at being swashbuckling, axe-throwing, whip-cracking heroes, Swordpunk creates a space in which we can harness and hone those skills for real. A timely reminder that we are legends of our own making.
After all, isn’t that why we got into fencing in the first place?
∴ Alicia Lewis, 23/9/2021 ∴