May marks the beginning of festival and tournament season for many an intrepid fencer. For us, the summer arrives in the shape of Swordpunk, a breathtaking boutique festival where weapons experts and circus performers come together to share skills and soak up the sun in the stunning private estate of Newnham Paddox.
We’ve been involved with this community extravaganza since before lockdown, and its unique combination of relaxation and serious wow factor keeps us coming back for more. After all, where else can you learn staff fighting, axe throwing, sharp cutting, fire spinning and belly dancing all in the same place?
After two events of supervising the sharp cutting stand, we decided to return to our roots with an accessible entry-level metalworking workshop.
Chris decided to teach copper bangle making, recalling the first time he ever brought hammer to metal at a workshop at Glastonbury many years ago. He still wears the copper bangle he made on that day as a reminder of his journey from curious beginner to full-time smith.
We held our workshop in the shady woodland bower at Newnham Paddox, and talked groups of five through shaping and decorating copper bar into one-of-a-kind pieces of jewellery.
We were remarkably impressed by all our participants’ efforts, and everyone walked away with something they could wear with pride. We like to think that some even got the metalworking bug, and may go on to create wonders all of their own!
As Swordpunk is, at its heart, all about sharing skills and supporting fellow artists and enthusiasts, we could hardly leave without some handmade mementos of our own. Fortunately Swordpunk’s Emporium was full of beautiful crafted items from its multi-talented crew.
We bought a stunning lathe-turned bowl made from spalted beech, and a treasure of a fountain pen made from green-dyed maple burr with dragon-themed brass fittings. Both are the creations of the skilled Ian Savin, and will be used regularly and lovingly at Balefire HQ.
By day, Swordpunk is a whirlwind of classes, workshops, free fencing and lake swimming. By night, however, it’s a firestorm. The legendary Swordpunk fire circle is home to a host of professional performers from across the country, from staff spinners and hula hoopers to whip crackers and costumed story tellers – all with fire as their medium.
On Friday night, Alicia took part in the show herself, showing off some fire poi moves under the watchful eye of the experts. On Saturday, however, the heat was turned up and we saw armoured knights fighting with flaming swords and shields, winged demons setting fire to paraffin bubbles, and fast-paced choreography incorporating fire staffs, whips, poi and rope darts. It all culminated in a joyful pandaemonium as we danced under the stars to live samba drumming.
If this all sounds like a far-fetched fantasy to you, we can only recommend that you come and see for yourself. Tickets for September’s Swordpunk will be available soon from www.swordpunk.co.uk. We’ll be there with our mini forge in tow, teaching blacksmithing and leatherworking classes. Perhaps we’ll see you there!
Many thanks to Alex and Suzy Denbigh for hosting the festival on their land, and to Dan Smith and Sally Stone for making this fantasy real.
∴ Alicia Lewis, 25/05/2022 ∴
The trees whisper with raindrops, deluging the dark earth: that rich, reeking blackness that floods your senses as if you were already buried in it.
Water collects in the hem of your hood and trickles cold into your eyes. You stop for a second to rub at them, then hurry on. You do not know these woods well enough to travel them by night, but you have a feeling you will find your destination one way or another.
The clearing is still when you come to it. Even the raindrops, by now almost a comfort, seem muffled and muted. The tree is there at the centre, just as you dreamed it, like a body contorted in agony atop a mass of twisted roots.
And there, as you expected in your gut, is the sword. Its sinuous, writhing blade is half-plunged into the black soil, and from a distance it could be a simple grave marker, shaped like a cross. But you know better.
You know the leathern scales of the sword’s black grip, the talons that tease at its crossguard. You know the open maw of the serpent pommel, all fangs and brazen tongue. You know how it feels as it slices the air, unerringly meeting its mark.
As your palm brushes against the serpent’s head, a new sound fills the forest: a distant drumbeat, not of raindrops, but hooves.
The floor of the stable is hard, cold and dirty. You know you must look absurd here in your armour of red and gold, a gem amidst the dung. That’s what the man must be thinking as he watches you struggle, a half-smile toying at the hard edges of his mouth.
Again you pull against the splintering beam with your bounds, hoping to fray the rope that holds your hands, or better yet, break the beam and watch the whole rotting roof fall in around you. In the ensuing commotion, you could probably make a break for it.
Your uncle said you oughtn’t go. He said you were too young and too untested to see battle at the bridge. But your noble notions got the better of you: you could hardly let men serve under your banner without being willing to bleed yourself.
And bleed you did: great spatters of crimson against the golden stubble of the cornfields. It was not the blow that unhorsed you, but the dead swoon you fell into at the sight of the damage.
When you came to, you were here. Gagged and bound. Desperate. Defiant. Doomed. Your life in the hands of some lowborn traitor, no doubt imagining the tales to be told of him as he turns your rapier in his rough hands.
You clench you teeth about the foul-tasting gag to see the sword handled so. It was a gift from your father, its elegant grip in the colours of your crest. The colour of blood against shorn stalks of corn. Your captor smiles – for real this time – as the golden inner of the cup glints in the evening sun. Then, as if arriving at a decision, he crosses the space between you.
With a surprisingly deft cut, he severs your bindings with the blade, and you immediately wrench the rough, dirty cloth from your mouth.
“What is it you want?” you demand, only a slight tremor to your voice. “Return me to my men, and I will see you paid handsomely. Gold. Land. Hell, a title. I have an estate in the Fenlands…”
The peasant waits patiently until you run out of offers.
“I’ll take the sword,” he says, flicking it through the air with a whistle.
The auburn-haired rogue sways out of the inn, a smile twisting his handsome face and a heavy velvet pouch in his hand. The game was good tonight; the players gullible. There’s still money to be made from that thick-headed sellsword, he reckons. Might be time for a new locale though. The inn keeper’s daughter is onto him.
He presses the pouch into a pocket and pulls on perfumed gloves. The jasmine scent still lingers on the kidskin, a welcome respite from the stink of the stables.
“You boy,” he calls to the youth skulking in the stalls. “Bring my grey gelding.”
The surly lad glances up, and the gambler’s surprised to see it’s not a lad after all. The tousle-haired girl shrugs and unhitches the horse from its post. A fine mount, the rogue thinks to himself. He won it in the capital. Diced a guard down to his last penny, and took the horse as a mercy.
The stable girl hands him the reins, eyes glittering as she takes in his fine clothes, the jasmine scent. She hovers until he flicks a coin from his pocket. After all, he’s feeling generous.
“I’ll be wanting more than that, I reckon.” Her tone is even, undaunted.
The rogue is surprised by her insolence. The boy who used to tend the horses here couldn’t thank him enough for a tip.
“How’s this for more?” he asks, making to cuff the urchin around the ear. “Go on, away with you.”
But the perfumed glove never connects with the dirt-rimed ear. Instead the girl slips neatly to one side, and draws a dagger from her back.
The rogue steps back, a sinking feeling in his stomach. He recognises the weapon instantly, for its sister hangs at his side. Like his own knife, it has an ovoid pommel and a copper-braided grip gleaming beneath the black bars of its sail. But where his guard takes the shape of a heart, the girl’s bears a single black diamond.
“Where in seven hells did you get that?” he growls, low, dangerous.
The girl only laughs before cutting the reins of the horse and vaulting onto its back.
The auburn-haired rogue watches, dumbfounded, as his prize gelding diminishes into dark distance. Suddenly clasping at his pocket, he is ashamed but not at all surprised to find the velvet pouch missing.
With the carefully conditioned shuffle of the pious, you hobble over the cobbles toward the city gate. You can smell the capital’s telltale mix of piss and entrails from here – and you have never been so glad to breathe it in. It’s been a long journey and an unpleasant one, mired in rain and mud and ill-spilled blood, and now it is at an end.
“Name?” the guard asks indolently as you find shelter from the drizzle beneath the gate’s stone arch.
“Brother Placido,” you respond, allowing a beneficent smile to crease the corners of your eyes. In the last town you were Brother Symeon. The one before that, Brother Donizo.
The guard barely glances at you. “What’s your business?” he drawls by rote.
“I come to complete my pilgrimage,” you reply, holding out your hands at your side to display a road-worn cloak and knotted rope belt.
The guard sweeps his stupefied gaze over your humble visage and waves you through the gate, making a mark on a piece of parchment. You sweep a low bow and continue your steady progress into the capital.
“‘Ere!” a cry comes from behind you. You wince. “What’s that under your cloak then?”
You paste a smile to your face and turn back to the guard, pulling aside your cloak to reveal the rapier.
“Only my faithful companion,” you explain, patting the black scallop hilt. “For personal protection, you see. The road can be unkind to wayfarers like myself – and the Lord helps those who help themselves.”
“I don’t much like the look of that,” the guard grumbles. “How long’s the blade on it?”
“As long as it needs to be,” you reply through your teeth, patience wearing thin.
“Only it says ‘ere you’re not supposed to carry a blade longer than a yard and ‘alf a quarter.”
“Is that so?” you ask, drawing the sword from its sheath with a flourish. “And are you going to come over here and measure it?” You fall easily into a defensive stance, facing the paling guard.
“What kind of Christian are you anyway, threatening folks like that?” he mutters, hand sliding to hilt of his own sword.
“Oh you mistake me,” you laugh. “I said I was on a pilgrimage. I never mentioned Christ.”