Battle of the sexes
FENCING is one of those sports everyone says they've always wanted to try but have never quite got round to, says Jed Beardmore, owner of Fighting Fit Fencing club.
In fact, it was Jed's son who introduced him to the sport when he began fencing at the age of just eight.
"I caught the bug immediately," he says. "When the club I was going to closed down I decided to set my own up."
Fighting Fit at the Boston Arms' Dome Club in Junction Road, Tufnell Park, has been running since March. Every seven weeks, people who always wanted to have a go are invited along for a free taster session.
Fencing leapt into the public consciousness in recent years, thanks to films like the 007 movie Die Another Day, where Madonna plays a fencing coach alongside Pierce Brosnan's James Bond.
Zorro, featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones' sexy duel with Antonio Banderas, and the swashbuckling Pirates of the Caribbean, with its countless sword-fighting scenes, have also increased fencing's popularity among both men and women.
Jed says: "Madonna has done a lot for fencing. We get our equipment from the same people who supplied the kit for the film.
"We also get a few actors coming through because apparently fencing is quite good to have on your CV."
For me, I am ashamed to admit, it was the 1980s hit cartoon series Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds, based on the Alexandre Dumas' novel The Three Musketeers, that instilled in me as a five-year-old the desire to try fencing.
But like so many people, it was a case of something I'd never got around to doing until now, which is why the taster sessions are such a good idea.
Jed says: "We usually get an 80 to 90 per cent take-up rate for new members at the free events. They sign up straight away.
"By giving people the chance to try fencing out for free, it's giving them the opportunity to try something that they wouldn't have necessarily done before.
"So far a good percentage of my members have really fallen for fencing, and have gone out and even bought their own kit."
The kit is not cheap, at around £250 for a complete set, but it is all provided at Fighting Fit without any extra hire charges.
And I am relieved to see there is plenty of protective clothing when I go there for my trial session!
Jed told me all I needed to bring was a T-shirt, tracksuit, trainers and plenty of enthusiasm, which was simple enough.
The first bit of equipment you get is a "plastron" which looks like half a jacket, with just one sleeve. This is for extra protection and you only need half of it because you stand sideways-on to fence.
Next you get laced into a long-sleeved top which resembles a strait-jacket - and it is a great ice-breaker for any new members because you always need someone to do it up for you.
Finally a thick glove, which covers your cuff, is worn on the fencing hand. Then you are given a head mask and a sword.
The sword most beginners start with is a long thin one called a foil, which looks rather like a musketeer's sword and has a tip on the end to prevent injuries.
"It's the only contact sport you can't get hurt in," says Jed. "Sometimes you may get a small bruise, but that is about the worst it gets."
As the name suggests, Fighting Fit certainly does give you a workout, but in my experience it is a much more pleasant way of exercising than a gruelling "Abs, Buns and Thighs" Jane Fonda routine.
Most of the exercise stems from the position fencers hold while fighting, which involves squatting slightly with one foot facing forward and one to the side, rather like a surfer or skateboarder.
Jed's wife Sandra, who is also a member, agrees.
She says: "It's great for your thighs, bottom and stomach. It's been great for mine. I've been to the gym before and it's just a bit boring.
"Maybe I enjoy fencing because I like bashing people! But it's brilliant, and men and women both enjoy it."
Jed adds: "It's a bit like getting fit by going to the cinema - the main thing you get out of it is fun. But you also get fit as a by-product. You have to put the effort in, but you do it because it's fun."
Many of the members are couples - and men and women are frequently paired up against each other for matches.
Jed explains: "A lot of couples join because it's a sport they can both enjoy together.
"It's very much a thinking-person's sport. There are lots of tactics going into it, and the winner isn't necessarily going to be the fastest, the fittest or the biggest.
"Fencing is very gender-equal. The sword really is a great equaliser - the sword really makes everybody equal, no matter how big or strong they are."
Nanny Aneta Mlynarska, 25, of Archway, says: "I always used to think it was a beautiful sport and I came here and thought it was great.
"It's a really, really good workout. I like the way they move, it's so smooth and so elegant.
"It's really different [to other sports] because you work really hard on your leg muscles because you stay bent on your knees all the time. After a few sessions you get to know well the steps and moves and it gets easier. You also get to know lots of people and they are all really nice."
The classes are taught by Cuban fencing champion Leo Saurez, who helps run the club. Mr Saurez began fencing at 13 and went on to win the Central American and Caribbean Games aged 22.
"Fencing is a special sport," he says. "It was hard for me because in Cuba we have quite high-level fencing, so I had to work very hard to get into national competitions.
"I have been in England for three and a half years and have been teaching now for two and a half years.
"It's a combat sport but you have to think about how to combat your partner. You have to combine fighting, tactics, co-ordination and speed at the same time."
There are currently 25 permanent members of Fighting Fit, who learn under Mr Saurez's supervision.
The organisers hope to eventually launch a kids' club and move to their own premises.
The next taster session is on September 8, at 6pm. A six-week beginners' course costs £60, and club membership is £35 a month after the introduction.