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Two years ago, six fencers set out to create South London’s only sabre club. Somehow it worked…By Ceri Thomas

“Well, we could always start our own sabre club.”

Marc Lepere said that after our last Tuesday night session at Streatham fencing club in the summer of 2018.

After a six-month experiment running a sabre night, the club was cancelling it to concentrate on their core Thursday night session.

Which left the half dozen sabreurs who regularly fenced on Tuesdays feeling a bit… well, lost.

That said, my first reaction to Marc’s comment was still a knee-jerk, “Don’t be so flipping stupid. We’re not the kind of people who start fencing clubs!”

Marc is nothing if not persistent, though, and drew up a list of the essentials we needed to start a club. Since most of us had our own kit, it was surprisingly short: a venue, access to electric boxes/spools, a coach. Hmm, maybe this wasn’t such a stupid idea after all…Marc approached Brixton Fencing and arranged for us to use some of their underused space at Brixton Recreation Centre on a Tuesday night.

They fenced on lanes in the crown green bowling area – a green-carpeted space perfect for fencing and just across the road from the tube stop, making it ridiculously easy to get to. Brixton Fencing also offered us the use of their electric boxes. Now all we needed was a coach.

Enter Paolo Gattavari, a former Italian under-20 sabreur studying in London for a PhD. He was the perfect coach for us – enthusiastic, talented and committed to building a club that felt like a ‘club’, a place where everyone felt welcome and had a stake in what was going on, regardless of how much or how little time they’d been fencing.

A place where everyone happily tried to fence everyone else in the room, regardless of experience. Somewhere that suited competitive fencers as much as it did those who just wanted to hit someone with a sword once a week and then go to the pub.

And so, after a summer spent setting up a website and designing a logo (Marc’s background in advertising paid off on both of those), not to mention sorting out insurance and legal bits and bobs (having another member, Sophie DeVooght, who had just started working for British Fencing helped), we opened as Brixton Sabre on 11 September 2018. There were just four of us and Paolo there that first night. Whisper it, but I thought that if we made it to Christmas we’d be lucky.

But we did. And we grew. In that first term we blitzed local papers and forums with info about ‘South London’s Only Sabre Fencing Club’. We had British number one, James Honeybone visit for a Q&A and a footwork session (thanks to Sophie for that) and we picked up new fencers. Some just dropped in, paying fees for a night but others liked what they saw and stuck around.

We drew up plans for a beginners course. Shrewd buys from Ebay and fencing forums, and the kindness of the wider fencing community (Lyn Robinson from Wales donated some sabre kit that was sitting idle at her club, for example, while Andrew Thornley from Manchester gifted us a bunch of his family’s old masks and lames) meant that by Christmas we had – just about – enough communal kit.

After another local PR blitz, not to mention ‘try-before-you-buy nights’ and special concession rates, five beginners signed up in January 2019 (we couldn’t believe our luck – club treasurer Omar Karmi had budgeted for two or three).

We set out as we meant to go on – every session started with us all warming up together, beginners and experienced fencers alike.

And as the 8-week course went on and they graduated from footwork sessions, to exercises with steam sabres and finally to electric fencing, we all fenced together.

On their last day we held a graduation ceremony, handed out certificates, and everyone went out for a drink. And all five signed up as full members when the next term began.

At the start of 2020, Brixton Sabre was thriving. 

Our Tuesday night sessions regularly boasted a dozen senior fencers on three pistes and our beginners course saw Paolo teaching the basics to ten newcomers, ranging from twentysomething couples to retirees. Then Covid shut us down.

We immediately put everyone’s memberships on hold, promising that memberships would resume with no time lost when we finally started up again. We also promised the beginners that they could start the entire course again if they wanted for no charge.

In the meantime, Paolo offered to run video sessions over Zoom. We all cleared what spaces we had at home (from garages and spare rooms to corridors and gardens) and gathered virtually on a Tuesday night to do footwork. An additional bladework class soon followed on a Thursday.

Those evenings, together with chats on WhatsApp and jokes spread across social media have kept Brixton Sabre together. We may not be fencing each other at the moment, but we’re definitely still the club we set out to be. It seems I was wrong two years ago. We are exactly the kind of people who can start up a fencing club.

[This article appeared in British Fencing’s The Sword Magazine, July 2020]