Getting all metalled up in Ahipara

There's no doubt medieval knights are very cool. They ride around on a quest for the Grail of Chivalry, members of the Guild of the Hawk, the Order of the Boar, the Nordic Knights.

They are the protectors of the realm. Okay, that line was pinched from an old heavy metal song, but perhaps fairly apt in this unusual case.

Meet the recreationists, riding out in full period costume, clearly enjoying themselves and appreciative of all the attention they deservedly generate for bringing smiles to people's faces whilst delivering a fond tribute to a bygone era when matters of honour were settled with a good old joust.

To show their love of the medieval combat sport, a group of four internationally experienced jousters put on a free and highly entertaining display on the beach at Ahipara on Saturday afternoon in front of a crowd some estimates put at 200.

Passers-by were drawn towards the large flags flying in the warm breeze on the foreshore, indicating the various nationalities represented: Anders Fernstedt of Gotland Sweden ably assisted by his partner, Anne Lee Vikner (in wench uniform); Dale Gienow of Canada with son, North; and Kiwis, King of Pukekohe, and Whangarei she-knight Vikki Subritzky.

The re-enactment began with five of the equestrians dressed in full period costume contesting the Skill at Arms, which were in some ways are similar to mounted games: the Moor's Head (a cabbage impaled on a pole at head height for riders to slash in half with their broadswords as they ride past), the Rings (picking up rings on a lance whilst cantering/ galloping by), The Hunt (where riders try spearing a mock pig from horseback), and the Dummy (where a rider gallops towards a small shield balanced on a rotating wooden arm and tries to swing it around by hitting it with his lance). The eventual winner here was the Canadian, Gienow.

But as spectacular as it was, the skill at arms was only a sideshow compared with the main event ... As one, the riders dismounted and began a lengthy process of donning full replica knightwear as worn in historical wars as seen at the Battle of Agincourt, or in dated ITV serialisations like Ivanhoe. They metalled up. Yes, this is what the bloodthirsty local peasantry had gathered to see.

Vikki's suit was a replica of late-13th century regalia, Dale's a more modern version (i.e. more armour) based on a 16th century uniform, John in white clothed metal, Anders modelling a classic mid-13th century cut.

Think The Black Knight, A Knight's Tale, the jousting scene from Game of Thrones. A full uniform was estimated to cost up to $12,000.

Jousting may be way cool but it was certainly hot, heavy and hard work on a fine day in the winterless north; these suits weigh around 30kg each. John described wearing one in Saturday's conditions to "being in a sauna". But they allow the wearer to become one with the Knight Within, the transformation complete with lance in hand and the helmet visor lowered. "It's definitely an adrenaline rush. Something about it, helps you focus on what you are doing," he said.

While they had at it the spectacle seemed surreal, bizarre: in a warm summer breeze on a weekend at the beach in the 21st century, knights clad in full body armour were charging each other with long lances.

The crowd of onlookers which had steadily grown throughout the afternoon began enthusiastically cheering each run. The jousters' lances have breakable tips, with jousters getting 1 point for clattering the opponent's shield, 2 points if the tip breaks and 3 points if it shatters. Each tip costs $10 and the jousters went through 25 tips all up. Once the dust had cleared, Anders Fernstedt emerged as the champion.

A member of the Celeres Nordica (Nordic Knights) fraternity, Anders said there was a strong jousting scene in his native Sweden with up to 15 events held every summer. He had a great uniform with the highlight a leather chestpiece with metal plates riveted into it and chain mail loincloth. Anders also won the Mounted Melee at the end of the day (where jousters try to knock a feather off the other riders' helmets with a play-sword).

The jousters are all members of both the IJA (International Jousting Association) and the IJL (International Jousting League), two separate organisations with the same objective and apparently in the process of amalgamating.

The quartet all contested the biennial international jousting event, the Grail of Chivalry, in Upper Hutt the previous weekend watched by a crowd estimated at 10,000. There, against nearly 20 riders from New Zealand and elsewhere, Dale won the jousting championship, and John King the mounted melee.

They're all normal people - in their day jobs they raise cattle, lay drains, drive trucks. But this is their interest, albeit a very passionate one when the time involved in learning the craft and money spent on developing it gets factored into the equation.

Later that evening a fatted calf was chased down, slaughtered and cooked then brought to the round table with an apple rammed in its maw for the banquet, whilst the knights downed vast horns of ale and groped serving wenches. Okay, that bit's not quite accurate ... but it was obvious the protagonists were in a reflective mood afterwards with the thrill of the chase over once again.

All admitted that while initially appearing well rehearsed, things did have the potential to go horribly wrong for a rider especially with all that heavy metalware involved. But Vikki added that no one was out to kill or anything; jousting and skill at arms were, even historically, something for knights and soldiers to practice in downtime between or during actual wars, a Joust of Peace.

She was forced to retire from Saturday's joust relatively early in the afternoon.

"My horse wasn't running well," but she also admitted she had given her best steed for Anders to use on the day: "We tend to give the overseas riders the best horses - so they come back."

John described the Ahipara gig as a "PR exercise" to promote the art and noted this was probably the first jousting tournament ever held on the unique environment, the beach.

It also served to give their overseas counterparts a real "Kiwi experience". Musing on the day's events, he gazed into the glowing embers of the barbecue.

"We need to have a tournament up here," he muttered to no one in particular. Sounds good, how about, the Golden Horn of Ahipara?

The knights and their entourage of vassals thanked hosts Eddie and Jan Berghan for their hospitality, help and local knowledge. Both John and Vikki are putting on another joust and skill-at-arms reenactment at the Medieval Madness event being held at Whangarei Museum this Saturday.

- Northland Age

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