A female role model from Darlington is the driving force behind a pioneering initiative to use the sport of fencing to engage Muslim women in physical activity and break down barriers. PETER BARRON reports…

FOR someone who only stumbled across the sport by accident 25 years ago, Beth Davidson can look back with pride at a lifetime of achievements in fencing.

Reigning European fencer of the year, world team champion, and world silver medallist – all in the veterans’ age category – are among her long list of titles, and she also serves as a coach for Great Britain.

But Beth insists nothing has been more rewarding than the work she has begun, around inspiring Muslim women to take up a sport that allows them to stay fit, build their confidence, and break down barriers – all while maintaining their modesty and respecting their religion.

“It’s something that has really opened my eyes and given me an insight into the challenges facing these women,” says Beth, who makes a living as a fencing coach in Darlington.

“Their beliefs mean they have to stay covered, and that can make engaging in sport difficult, but fencing is perfect – because you have to be covered, including wearing a facemask.”

The project – On-Guard For Women – was taking shape nicely on Teesside and Tyneside before being interrupted by Covid-19, but plans are in place to bring it to fruition once lockdown allows.

Working closely with a group called Muslim Girls Fence – set up by British Fencing – and buoyed by a grant from Sport England’s “This Girl Can” programme, the aim is to link up with a similar project in Bradford, share skills, and start competitions.

“It’s some of the most rewarding work I’ve done, because fencing is traditionally an elite, white, male-dominated sport,” says Beth, who volunteers as North East Region Fencing Development Officer. “I’m determined to follow it through, and I’m excited by the possibilities.”

Born in Darlington, she moved to Lincolnshire when she was 20 to pursue another passion – photography. She got a job as a photography development officer with the council in Sleaford, and it was while she was working on an exhibition featuring sport, culture, arts and music that she discovered a love of fencing.

“I was taking pictures at a fencing club and the coach invited me to put the kit on and have a go,” she recalls.

“I’ve always been sporty and had enjoyed squash because the one-to-one battle appeals to me – fencing is the same. It made an immediate connection with me, and it’s incredibly addictive because you’re constantly looking for ways to improve your strategy and reactions.”

She returned to the North-East in 2002, working as photography officer with Durham City Arts, while pursuing her love of fencing by working with Laszlo Jakab, a Hungarian fencing coach she’d met on the circuit.

That led to her involvement in the sport being taken to a new level when she was employed by Northumbria University, in partnership with neighbouring universities, as a fencing development officer.

Funding for the post was only temporary and, in 2018, she took the plunge by becoming a self-employed fencing coach. She now runs a club called Street Swords, at the Dolphin Centre, in Darlington, as well as coaching at Laszlo Fencing Club, at Maiden Castle, in Durham.

When lockdown took a grip last Spring, Beth feared for the future of her business but, like so many other small enterprises, she adapted brilliantly to offer online coaching by video from home.

Working in partnership with fellow coach, Stewart Watson, she now has five video classes open to adults, and has just launched two junior classes. Overall, the virtual club comprises around 80 fencers, supported by a £1,000 grant from the County Durham Community Foundation

Margaret Vaughan, chief operating officer at County Durham Community Foundation, said: “We worked side-by-side with Darlington Borough Council last year as it sought to support community projects. Street Swords asked for £500 but we were able to offer £1,000 as we could see the tremendous value in what they are doing. It was really special to be able to support groups like this, which have shown real creativity and resilience.”

Beth adds: “The grant really helped kickstart things because I was effectively unemployed when lockdown happened. I was nervous at first, wondering how to find ways to show the moves and techniques. Obviously, I can’t wait to get back to face-to-face sessions, but it’s worked really well in the meantime.”

Her work with the group of Muslim women has been carried out in association with a grassroots outreach charity called Ethnic Minorities Training and Education Project, which had previously launched an initiative around non-contact boxing, called Knock Out Sister, as a way of responding to race hate crimes and the need to break down barriers.

When the women involved were asked what other sports they wanted to try, fencing was the most popular choice and, by happy coincidence, Beth had speculatively contacted the charity around the same time.

“It was meant to be,” says Saeed Iqbal, the charity’s Head of Projects. “Fencing means you don’t have to wear a leotard – you are covered top to bottom – but that wasn’t the only factor. It’s also a sport that’s good for mind, body and soul, and Beth’s a brilliant role model. Her achievements make her so respected amongst the members, so this idea has massive potential.”

Meanwhile, Beth will be training hard after qualifying for the Veterans World Championships, due to take place in Florida, in October. Who knows if it will be able to go ahead but, in her line of work, you always have to be ready. On-Guard!

WHAT wonderful news that 60 million doses of the Novavax vaccine are to be made at Billingham by Fujifilm Diosynth.

It was great to see Teesside featuring so prominently in the news. Interestingly, I never heard ‘Tees Valley’ mentioned once in the coverage on national TV, or in the national press – just good old Teesside.

Mind you, that still didn’t stop Channel 4’s The Last Leg, giving Newcastle the credit instead of Billingham.

As long as it’s north of Watford, eh?

FINALLY, having already appeared on The Chase, my old friend, Nigel Dowson – Cockfield character, Darlington hairdresser, and all round breath of fresh air – made it onto Tipping Point last week.

Nigel, below, tells me that one part of the show not shown was when a fellow contestant was asked: “Which celebrity chef has just had a baby called Oscar James Ramsay.”

The answer given – “Jamie Oliver” – was left out of the broadcast.

Clearly, it should have been Heston Blumenthal.

The Northern Echo: