What Ivanhoe did on his holidays

Forsooth, the age of chivalry is not dead. Verily the clash of lance on shield still echoes across the fields of old England. Rupert Isaacson joins the modern-day jousters
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The Independent Travel
Jousting, or tilting, is one of Britain's oldest sports. Like falconry or hunting, there is a certain beauty in it - violence and risk combined with horsemanship and physical courage, an unbroken historical line connecting you with the Middle Ages.

So much for the romance. Jousting is also bloody hard to learn - hard on the body as well as on the mind. You have to develop muscles in the wrist which, even if you lift weights every day, you probably haven't used before. As Sam Humphreys, a jouster of 28 years standing, says: "Hold a lance for more than four minutes and your arm is screaming." And then, of course, there are the falls.

However, modern jousting has one fundamental difference from the medieval form - you are not actually trying to unhorse your opponent. Actually knocking someone off is terribly dangerous; in medieval times severe injury and even death was an accepted risk on the jousting or tilting field. Few of us today find such risk acceptable. So with modern jousting you have to learn a greater skill: how to clip your opponent's shield with your lance tip so that it looks and sounds as though you are trying to knock him or her off, while at the same time learning how to choreograph a fall. Of course, you may later decide to take people on in the traditional manner, but no jousting instructor will actually encourage it, as it is potentially lethal.

Sam Humphreys's Nottingham Jousting Association is the oldest jousting school in the country, and the most reliable in terms of safety and structured tuition. Sam trains would-be stunt men, but also takes on private individuals for lance-work, swordplay and falling techniques in the indoor arena of his family riding school at Bunny, just south of Nottingham. If you do not want to become a stunt man, there are several jousting display teams around the country you can join. Sam will put you in touch with your closest local team if you get the bug but, he warns: "It's a long, hard road.'

The first requirement is an almost instinctive riding ability: the kind you get from years of experience, having played mounted games as a child, or ridden to competition standard as an adult. If you have learned to ride but don't have quite this kind of background, Sam will still take you on, but only under the proviso that you hone your riding skills to a point that he deems sufficient for beginning the finer points of lance work. If you don't ride at all, you can still learn swordplay and begin taking riding lessons until you reach the point where Sam or one of his other instructors decides to give you a lance.

If do ride well (including being able to ride one-handed), a mid-week break of two or three days can be arranged at Bunny, during which you are introduced to the basics of lance work over day or evening sessions of one to two hours each. You begin with something called a quintain - a shield mounted on a wooden frame, which provides a target to aim at. From the quintain, trainee knights then move on to riding at shields held by people on the ground and spearing rings hanging from a crossbar. You have to get a lot of this kind of work under your belt before you can actually begin riding at a mounted opponent, but it is endlessly fascinating to learn how to use the lance, even at beginner level. You certainly won't be bored.

Sam's horses are well trained to the job - able to break into a canter from a standstill; stop and turn on a penny; and neck-rein (or turn by having one rein laid against the neck, like cowboys or polo players do), invaluable if you are riding one-handed. The rest is up to you. Whether you decide to go on to take the Stunt Register's grading exams, join a display team, or simply want to try out the feel of a lance in your hand, the school at Bunny can accommodate you.

FACT FILE

Basics

Nottingham Jousting Association,

Bunny Hill Top,

Costock,

Leicestershire LE12 6XE

Tel: (01509) 852366. Open all year

Accommodation

Not provided. B&B can be booked in the immediate area, but you will need your own transport to get to and from the school.

Food

Not provided

Children

Over 16s only

Tariffs

Lessons cost pounds 32 per hour for private tuition, inclusive of horse and all equipment.

The booking process is informal, with payment on the day of each lesson. However, you should book a two or three day intensive at least 14 days in advance to be sure of room. Payment by cash or cheque.

Safety

Jousting is a risky sport. British-safety standard hard-hats are compulsory during lessons. You should also buy a cross-country body protector from a good riding store.

Insurance

You need a good general accident and sports policy. Sam recommends you consult your broker for the best "carte blanche" policy.

Access

Bunny Hill Top is about seven miles south of Nottingham on the Ruddington to Costock road.

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