It was becoming an increasingly guilty secret that Chris and I had never visited the Royal Armouries. As the UK’s national collection of arms and armour, it is the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of a sword-based research trip. Not only that, but many of the museum’s contents have directly inspired our creations.
So when our dear friend Dan Smith at Swordpunk offered to put us in touch with the curators, we were all too glad to rectify our past negligence and start planning a trip to Leeds.
Needless to say, we were not disappointed. Not only were we treated to an exceptional level of hospitality, with Assistant Curator of European Edged Weapons Iason Tzouriadis taking time out of his schedule to show us around. We were also able to delve into the fabled Store 3, where the non-display edged weapons are kept.
Each November, we pack our bags full of swords, smile sheepishly as the friendly folk at Gatwick Airport put them through the X-Ray, and board a plane to Malta. Malta is the improbable rock in the middle of the Mediterranean that changed military history – and home to the unforgettable Malta Historical Fencing Association International Event.
∴ Home Away From Home ∴
This prestigious event is one we attend every year, rain or shine – or in this year’s case, in the middle of an unprecedented sea storm. Held on the majestic Fort St Angelo in Birgu, a key defence in the siege of 1565, it never fails to make us feel like we’re in the middle of a fantasy film.
From running up and down limestone steps with swords swinging at our sides, to duelling on the top tower with the Three Cities and Valletta spread out around us like a snapshot from a time long past, this is the stuff of dreams.
For us, after five (in my case) and seven (in Chris’s) years of attending, the first glimpse of the fort across the water as our taxi raced across the Valletta waterfront was no less breathtaking than the first time – yet this year it was countered with a swell of fond familiarity – a homecoming of sorts.
This feeling was only increased when we met our hosts and fellow attendees, many of whom have been attending as long as we have, if not longer. Reuniting with familiar faces from around the globe over a pint of Cisk and slipping straight back into conversation is a huge part of this event’s enduring appeal – as is bringing new wide-eyed enthusiasts into the fold.
∴ A Working Holiday ∴
Of course, it wasn’t all play. As with previous years, we were offered the opportunity to display some of our wares at the event, and set up a little stall in the fort bearing some striking smallswords, a rather splendid falchion, and a bevy of deluxe care kits.
We were pleasantly surprised to sell all our smallswords almost immediately, not to mention relieved that we’d brought care kits after a riotous rainy storm on Sunday afternoon! We also enjoyed letting attendees pick up the falchion and give it a swish, as we believe that feeling the balance of a Balefire blade can help our future clients understand what sort of weighting they’re looking for.
Our reputation has grown enormously since our first attendance as Balefire Blades in 2018. It was an unexpected wonder to see just how many attendees free-fencing on top of the fort were wielding Chris’s work, and to hear how many others had ideas for their first commissions.
We couldn’t have achieved all that we have without the support of this particular community, and so it was an emotional moment to look around and see how far we’ve come.
∴ Opportunities Galore ∴
The most wonderful benefit of the esteem and trust we’ve managed to build over the years came in the form of two very special experiences offered to us by our Maltese hosts.
Firstly, our friend Franco Davies, who has recently published a fantastic book on the Swords of the Religion, arranged for us to handle one of the most important artefacts in Malta’s history: the sidesword of Grand Master Jean de Vallette.
This sword was laid upon the altar at St Lawrence’s church by De Vallette on the night that the Knights of Malta gained victory over Suleiman the Magnificent’s forces – and it has been housed there ever since. We were excited enough to visit the sword last time we were in Malta, so seeing the curator open the case for us this time around was truly thrilling!
We spent a wonderful afternoon tracing the blade, taking key measurements, and photographing decorative details. We were particularly struck with how thin the distal taper of the blade was, and how light the overall sword felt in comparion to exisiting replicas.
Our plan is to make our measurements and photographs public, to help in the overall understanding of sideswords of this type and construction. We also intend to craft the most accurate fencing replica available of this very special sword – so watch this space!
Our second great honour was to visit the Grand Master’s Palace Armoury with assistant curator Raymond Howard. The palace is not currently open to the public, so it felt like something from a fairy tale stepping through the vast and heavily decorated corridors before sneaking down a hidden passage to where the curators work.
Raymond had a particular sidesword in the collection that he wanted us to photograph and measure for a fencing replica. We were able to really take our time, discussing each aspect of the design and feel, and how this can translate to a fencing tool. We’re really looking forward to working on this commission in the coming year!
∴ Fencing and Feasting ∴
When we weren’t getting starry-eyed over antique originals, we were attending lessons, lectures and demonstrations at the Fort, as well as free fencing with old friends and new. The latter is one of the great highlights of every year, as much for the top tier fencing as for the cinematic setting.
The event inspires a conversational, collegiate style of sparring, where both partners are keen to learn something from the other, rather than rushing to score points. Each bout ends with a hug or a handshake, and ear-to-ear grins all round.
Our hosts also organised some magnificent evenings o for us, from a trip to the hallowed grounds of the Cisk brewery, to a sneak preview of the Palace Armouries, to delicious dinners and countless drinks at The Pub. Memories were made to add to the annals and carry us through until next year’s Maltese International event!
∴ Hats off to the Hosts ∴
All that remains is to thank the team behind the MHFA International Meeting once again for giving us this little glimpse of story-book grandeur every year, and for their continued support and friendship.
If you’re curious about the event, we can’t recommend it enough! Keep an eye out on the Maltese Historical Fencing Association’s Facebook page for next year’s dates – and we’ll see you on the fort!
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?
It feels like only months ago I was writing our last New Year’s update in the middle of lockdown, and wondering what 2021 would hold. While it’s undoubtedly been a year of ups and downs across the board, we have been fortunate to have the faith and support of our customers and community throughout.
In many ways, 2021 was a tentative step into a wider world, after the restrictions of early Covid. We were delighted to attend not one but two combat arts events – the madcap Swordpunk and the renowned Malta Historical Fencing Association International Event. Each gave us a well-needed shot of perspective, reminding us why we love the work we do.
We also settled back into regular training with our own fencing group here in Sussex, experimenting with new fencing forms, which in turn informed Chris’s craft and research. From heated pub debates to the heat of the forge, our inspiration relies heavily on our friends and comrades.
Perhaps the year’s greatest blessing – and testament to our hard work – was a steady stream of creative and challenging commissions. From close museum replicas to original fantasy concepts, we have been continually increasing our skills and knowledge to keep up with our clients’ visions.
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.