It was summertime…it was Cornwall… it was the Kung Fu Summer Camp. This was the third year and the numbers just keep growing. That’s even if you don’t count our instructor’s children, the ever-energetic Max and the tireless and strong-lunged baby Zach. So far, every year we have come here to the same campsite near to Newquay which is run by Geordie Christine, a woman who is, shall we say, larger than life and who is friendly when you’re good but terrifying when you don’t drink up on time in the oddly named camp (site) pub, the Cottage Inn. It is worth learning martial arts just to protect you against women like her when they’re roused.
So for three years now, we have all driven the long route from Sussex to Cornwall in the hope of fine summer weather and calm nights under star lit skies. We know, deep down though, that North Cornwall isn’t really like that…it is rugged with weather systems which can be called variable but which mostly gust across the Atlantic Ocean making the surfing outstanding and everything else damp if not sodden…. camp erection can be perilous.
If we weren’t bonded before, we certainly were when we tried to get our tents up in the fresh to moderate winds that howled round the field that had been allocated to us. As usual Lucy and Richard…stalwart refugees from collapsing tents on every previous occasion, helped to show us how it was done. We all shared out the rubber mallets, gave useful advice that was often ignored and usually wrong but somehow a small village of strange Sussex martial arts folk was born huddled together under the gathering clouds. Would we survive? Who would break first? Why were we there? It could have been one of those television programmes where highly unsuitable people are thrown together in a hostile environment. Was it comforting to know that no one could be voted off?
Instead of shaking hands like civilised people do when they meet, we started with sticking hands…the great leveller of martial artists who think that they have a suitably relaxed technique. Sticking hands is a two-person exercise where, whilst staying ideally light and soft, you are supposed to knock your opponent off their feet. It was a good way to get reacquainted with old friends and to meet two members from the Portsmouth club on their first visit to summer camp…. green haired, multi-pierced Owen and brown haired, piercing-free Ali. Soon they were well and truly bonded with hands well and truly stuck.
The routine was established…training followed by bar-b-que (carnivorous in one corner, veggies in the other), followed by some hysterical washing up water fights which rapidly became a highlight of the week, and then to the Cottage Inn for, what would also become a regular habit, a refreshing glass of weak beer.
We had arrived, we drank then we returned in the dark to our tents and the heavens emptied its worse on us all night. Hello Cornwall.
We started the day, before breakfast – yes, seriously – by meeting in the field by our tents for Qigong and Da Mo meditation exercises before moving on to our sixty-six movement Tai Chi form, known as Shuang-Yang.
We practised trying to feel the movement of our breath on the inside and as well as the outside of our bodies. All was well until Neil Johnson introduced the concept of Chi being an energy force that was first identified, thousands of years ago by Taoist monks. At the first mention of the word “monks”, one of our number, Colette, vomited violently in a manner that strongly resembled the scene in the film The Exorcist where a small girl is possessed by the Devil. Luckily her head didn’t rotate a full 360 degrees and she didn’t start swearing in Latin.
After a fine substantial breakfast at the campsite cage, Abigaille’s, served by fine substantial Sue, we made prepared packed lunches before heading off in a convoy of vehicles for Crantock Beach where on classic Cornish sands, under classic Cornish black skies, we practised Kung Fu, a sequence of three hits and three blocks in White Crane style. We were encouraged to concentrate on circular movements, precision in our stance and the use of distance, both close-range and distance, to out manoeuvre our opponents. A much repeated theme of these classes was the focus on how so many of the positions in White Crane style are based on the triangle shape…. sometimes obvious and mostly subtly hidden. Maybe too subtly hidden for some of our eyes.
Afterwards, those who wanted to surf took to the sea whilst others either went shopping or, scandalously, over-indulged in Cornish cream teas in the picturesque village tearooms under grape vines populated by friendly sparrows. I have to confess to being of the cream tea persuasion.
We returned to the campsite, which the combination of cars and rain had turned into a swamp where we had a class in kung fu patterns that focused on the use of breath and muscles in a technique known as drawing up. Where tension and relaxation may be extreme but the basic position and stance does not change. What better way to learn this than by working with a partner who had to feel your buttocks and thighs whilst you pull up and relax. We then took it in turns to punch each other in the stomach whilst repeating the technique.
We moved on to a session on the Eighteen Special pattern that some of the veterans of the 2006 summer camp had learnt but which was new to the majority. The weather showed some signs of improvement but the dramatic sight of swallows flying low on the ground, at times weaving between us, told everyone who knew about these things that rain was on its way.
After a night under canvas in torrential rain, we rose for our usual daily schedule and the Qigong and Tai Chi class under heavy clouds that soon dampened any hope of a fine day. We meditated under our waterproofs and practised Tai Chi focusing on our breathing and its internal and external effects.
The rain was so heavy today that we were allowed to have our next class in the luxurious surroundings of the Cottage Inn bar. No alcohol of course but a session on the Shuang-Yang moves where, in pairs, we took in it turns to hold each position whilst the other drew as accurate a drawing of the position as was possible. Artistic success was variable, from some impressively accurate life drawing to others’ pathetic and laughable attempts at pin men that the average nursery class would have scorned. We all learnt a lot though about the details of each move and some of us shelved any ideas of being the next Leonardo Da Vinci.
We awoke to heavier rain and strong winds. Well those who had slept through the heavy rain and strong winds throughout the night awoke, it was a surprise.
The swallows were back of course as soon as the rain stopped during our Qigong and Tai Chi class…they were flying so low that they were in danger of getting as muddy as the rest of us.
We headed for Holywell Beach after breakfast where we continued to work on Kung Fu moves with an eye on those ever-present triangular shapes…ever-present to those who could see them that is. We took advantage of the sand’s soft landing potential in a class where we learnt a series of moves from blocking roundhouse kicks with upper and lower crane blocks to put-downs from a punch to a throw down. We all got well and truly sand-covered.
We then took to the sand dunes for a session of very energetic and often hilarious not-that-many-rules sparring where we had to fight for control of the upper ground in so doing, practically no little bodily cavity was free from an invasion of wet scratchy sand.
The session finished on the dunes with a series of games which really amounted to death by snake, lizard, cartwheel or jump as we careered up and down the dunes in various moves which exposed the differences between the naturally athletic amongst us and the rest. It was all great fun of course and quite alarming to the groups of holidaymakers coming for a quiet time sitting on the beach.
We stopped for our packed lunches that today, after our morning activities, were mostly made up of sand sandwiches…. I assume that this is how the word was first coined – by families on English seaside holidays struggling to have lunch in sand storms.
The final session of the day, back at camp in the mud, was on patterns. Those that were new to the 18 special pattern this camp, carried on learning it whilst summer camp veterans started to learn a completely new pattern – Di Gun, or Finger – Explosion which we had to learn secretly behind the backs of the others. This has to remain a closely guarded secret so I shall hastily draw a veil over it. Needless to say, back in Sussex, us initiates to the secret order of the finger explosion, have to practise in a hidden room at the back of the hall. Nothing else can be revealed.
The regular evening bar-b-que was enlivened or dampened, depending your taste in these things, by an impromptu mini Glastonbury Festival where a group of us, Colin and Mike, with Linda on her maracas, who really are old enough to know better, sang a selection of possibly appropriate songs, including “Kung Fu Fighting”, “Hunting Tigers” and “My Way”, to the assembled company huddled from the rain under canvas whilst the “band” performed from relative luxury of the Kung Fu club van with the invaluable help of 5 year old Max as our own roadie, who saved several sheets of music from the rain.
After five days, those low flying swallows must have developed a fear of height because they were our constant companions. As were the rolling black clouds and long periods of rain. Not forgetting the mud. The weather along with five days of cars passing over the slushy ground had turned the campsite into a quagmire.
None of this stopped our routine however, Da Mo that impressive pioneer monk who crossed, probably on foot, from India to China many years ago to establish his kung fu system in the Shaolin Temple, would have been proud of us practising his meditation exercises every morning in a light drizzle.
We went to the beach again and climbed the dunes to a spot where everyone got to practise the Iron Shirt techniques that some members of the club do every Monday morning in Lewes. In the beautiful surroundings of a Cornish beach, with a remarkable absence of rain, we bashed the hell out of each other. Well, we went through the motions of our conditioning exercises where blows to the body are built up over a period of time to condition the bones to withstand impact.
We finished off the day’s sessions with another session of one block, one hit sparring with a lot of find the triangle thrown in for good measure.
Returning to the campsite there was time before the evening meal to use our weapons on the field; so some of us dug out our swords, staffs and knives and took advantage of the open space for some concentrated and relaxed patterns. The Seven and a half foot staff found a possible new use as a low flying swallow abuser.
Our regular evening visit to the Cottage Inn was a relaxed affair until that once well-known band from the 1960s, Emerson Lighthouse, now reduced to a band of two, played their standard oldies and their once famous No. One hit, Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes. Well, joking apart, let’s hear it for them…. over forty years and they are still going strong. The music was too much for a small enthusiastic elite amongst us, Ali, Colin and Mike, who demonstrated just how, dancing and low horse stance can be united in a long celebration of the twist meeting the principles of the revered Da Mo. The enthusiasm reached a new peak when Mike, with the help of a glass or two of gin, tried and succeed in his long held ambition in upstaging the other two with a perfect rendition of a conclusive full box splits.
The main event today for all those who volunteered was a visit to the local Paint Ball park for a morning of war games where it became pretty obvious fairly quickly that folk who like martial arts are also not against a bit of blood-thirsty battle training. Many bullets were fired, many bruises grew and a lot of fun was had. If these had been real bullets then there would definitely have been no survivors.
In the afternoon, there was a session on the 18 Special pattern and for those of us who had begun to learn it at the camp of 2006, we finished learning the new Di Gun pattern with its “finger exploding” techniques. This was, of course, still practised behind the backs of the other members who will just have to wait to learn the delights of this vicious and highly entertaining pattern. The only witnesses were those ever-present swallows.
We were supposed to finish the day with a weapons session but for the first time all week, the rain really did stop play, as water and steel blades are not ideal partners. A pity because there had been a lot of interest shown in the weapons by the rest of the holiday makers who had been enjoying sitting by their tents watching the weapons practise during the week. Sadly, for those who did not understand the problem of getting water on the weapons, our proud army was, to their eyes, reduced to a pathetic weather-shy rabble as we ran for cover, weapons in hand.
The evening, yet again was passed in the Cottage Inn where the wonder that is karaoke took over our better sense. Mike gave a surprisingly impassioned version of I Don’t Like Mondays. Maybe he was thinking of 6.45 every Monday morning when he is one of that stalwart group who turn up at the Lewes hall for Iron Shirt. Milad and Daniel were their usual bizarre best, with Daniel spontaneously crawling through the pub dressed, as he had done all day,(don’t ask why) as Spider Man. Colin then joined the campsite owner, Christine in a highly romantic, well maybe not, performance of I Got You Babe. Obviously, there is something about Kung Fu that gets you over any anxiety of making a fool of yourself in public.
And then the swallows vanished. They must have gone somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, because the sun shone and the temperature rose transforming the whole week.
We walked the three and a half miles from Holywell Beach, over the cliffs to a remote beach where we spent the rest of the day doing patterns practice and concentrating on Ba Gua stepping, that pattern which done properly is poetically devastating and which done badly looks like Morris Dancing. We had to practice walking on some lines drawn in the sand by instructor Neil. It was only really when walking back over the cliffs could you tell that the lines in the sand were actually the ying and yang symbol written large across the beach. A memorable sight.
There was surfing for those who wanted it or there was just lying in the sun…a forgotten pleasure.
This was our last day in Cornwall with only a half day scheduled for learning the second half of that Ba Gua pattern that some of us has learnt at the 2007 Summer Camp. It rained. In fact it rained like it hadn’t rained all week, it was unforgivingly torrential but this mud and rain hardened crew persevered, and we went to the beach for a session on learning the pattern even though it was almost impossible to see through the rain.
A damp conclusion to a challenging week but no one was downhearted. We had all been pushed to another level in our kung fu and we would be going home with a better understanding of the principles, some new techniques and patterns and the memory of an excellent time.
All that was left was a Saturday night celebration in Newquay that involved large amounts of alcohol, inevitably, and much banter and fun. Everyone made it back safely to their tents, after various adventures which will remain forever secret.
Maybe the most innocent event of the evening was the most memorable. I remember standing in the darkened field when Mike and I, hardly sober, decided to do the full Da Mo exercises under the stars. Cheers Da Mo!