REPORTER WILL BAIN swashes his buckle and tries his hand at being a fencing coach, with the Gwent Sword Club.
AS A CHILD I had a hero. He wore a floppy hat, swore allegiance to the king and was the finest swordsman in France.
That’s right, Dogtanian the Muskehound.
Battling the evil Cardinal Richelieu, protecting the king alongside Athos, Aramis and Porthos he was the mustwatch cartoon.
So I’m off to follow my dream. Not in Paris at the court of Louis XIV on this occasion mind but the sports centre at the Caerleon Campus of Newport University.
There, I meet the Gwent Sword Club, a band of volunteer coaches, a pro-coach and wide range of fencers including Welsh title holders, like Welsh intermediate champion Carlie Morgan and total novices like myself.
We kick off with an energetic warm up as it transpires I’ve plumped yet again in this series of features for an activity that requires no little amount of flexibility and suppleness.
For regular readers of this feature the stretching in fencing is slightly more than Spytty the dog but mercifully not quite as tortuous as ballet.
After a stretch I join three other newcomers and join volunteer coach Carl Difford.
Carl gives us a brief run through of the history of the sport chronicling its French origins hence the French commands such as en garde given by the referee to start a duel.
The next thing to do is get us moving. A fencing en garde position for a right-hander like myself sees you stand with your right foot out in front and your left slight out to the side to enable the fencer to shuffle forward and back as quickly as possible to get in and out of range to strike your opponent.
The first drill involves just that, Carl calling out demands so we make a mixture of moves forward and back to replicate a duel.
The key is to maintain the distance between your feet so you neither over stretch leaving yourself vulnerable or have your feet too close together meaning when you try and shuffle out the way of an incoming blow you don’t end up in a tangled heap on the floor. I don’t appear to be blessed with the most naturally rhythmic footwork. It means I’m regularly singled out as the plum who is highly likely to take one nifty shuffle out the way of a lunging sword only to end up cowering on the floor waiting to be finished off.
Once we have the swords in our hands we are set to repeat the exercise.
The swords, known as foils, measure about 90cm in length and are made of a light flexible steel which allows the bend when you strike an opponent.
One would expect being faced with three grown men and a slightly younger man, all armed to the teeth with a nigh-on metre long blade none of whom have the faintest idea how to wield the thing might be slightly unnerving for our coach. But Carl seems quite the opposite, calmly explaining the correct way to hold the sword (between thumb and forefinger), and explaining how the button on the point of the weapon prevents injury and that the protective kit which will come later is only really necessary in the unlikely event that a sword snaps.
That kit itself is a slightly odd thing to get into. A thick jacket with just one sleeve to cover your sword arm, then a sort of jumpsuit apron to be stepped into over the top, before a thick glove and the iconic full face mask helmet complete the ensemble.
We go into some more drill shuffling forward and back in pairs before one of us drops our sword and the other strikes.
I don’t know whether it’s a false security but I don’t flinch on the first strike. That’s helpful because I get struck a lot.
Dogtanian and other Hollywood swordsmen swoosh and slash but in reality fencing is incredibly technical.
Carl, perhaps unsurprising for a man unperturbed by the sight of four swords being brandished at him, is again calm, precise and methodical in ironing out our technique.
I’m not sure my red-blood and red-headedness is an asset in this field. As Carl explains, if your sword isn’t correctly positioned (angled slightly out to in across your body so as to easily deflect blows) you are an easy target. But in the excitement and fearsome concentration of trying not to get my feet tangled I’m not a textbook example of this technique.
To score in foil fencing you have to strike on the torso – from neck to groin.
Carl, this time slightly too calmly, explains that in duelling this was the only place a strike would pretty much guarantee killing your opponent.
Sounding ever more like the black knight in Monty Python’s the Holy Grail he says that strikes to the legs and arms would produce mere “flesh wounds”, while the bone in the skull would likely see the sword bounce off.
Watching some of the more experienced fencers and their amazing speed I have little doubt that a blow anywhere to me would finish me off but fortunately the only place anyone is trying to strike is the chest, as that counts as a score.
Fast, furious and devilishly skilful I can see why the hall on a cold Monday night is packed.
For quite a young and inexperienced fencer Dogtanian appears to have possessed a significant natural talent and taste for the sport.
Disappointingly I don’t seem to share this gene.
I’m about as good with the foil and nimble on my feet as his horse Sandy and so regrettably I fear I’ve got more chance of joining the ballet than the muskehounds.