Friday, 19 September 2014

Have you heard of Urban Escrima? Matt Damon has...

It’s never easy talking about a time you got yourself in a sticky situation, where you couldn't defend yourself and ended up feeling more vulnerable than you ever thought possible. Open territory for the taking was how I was left feeling several years ago, after an unfortunate incident in a night club with a man who seemed to think I was his property. At the time there was physically nothing I could have done to escape him and had it not been for several people realising what was happening and their swift intervention, it could have gone a lot differently and I might not have just come out of it with a few bruises. So it was with some cynicism that I attended a self defence class for women a few weeks back at the Urban Escrima Studios at London Fields. I felt that I had been there, done it and it didn’t work. What could I possibly be taught in a couple of hours that would change my rather dim outlook on self defence? Luckily, as it turns out, quite a lot. 

Never before had I encountered the martial art of Escrima. It originated in the Philippines and was made famous as Matt Damon’s weapon of choice in the Jason Bourne films. Urban Escrima’s studio is located inside one of the railway arches next to London Fields station and for a self defence gym it had a very relaxed and friendly atmosphere.

After a quick ‘warm up’ sparring session, which basically involved me lamely waving my hands in front of my face, we then discussed what can sometimes prompt unwanted attention i.e. the appearance of vulnerability, be it walking around somewhere looking lost or, something I certainly do on a regular basis, walking whilst looking at your phone. I found this refreshing as have had previous suggestions made that by wearing a skirt you are essentially ‘asking for it’, however the acutely sensible idea of paying attention to your surroundings was embarrassingly something that had never really dawned on me. 

At this point I must re-iterate the most important message that was communicated in this class (which I know might be a little like me telling you to always read the instructions) is that your first course of action in any threatening situation, should it be available to you, is escape. If it means losing your phone or another personal item it is nothing compared to the value of your safety and this should always be your priority. 

Another screamingly valid point that I had never considered before was the concept of giving yourself permission to defend yourself.  Where am I going with this? I am a pacifist who's only experience of live combat is some sharp elbow action at the january sales, so the thought of actually defending myself by actively fighting back, even bearing in mind my past experience, has never been on my spectrum. What if I surprise myself and really hurt someone was just one of the thoughts whilst I had flapped around in the opening sparring session and I wasn’t the only one to feel this way. So we were given the scenario of having to defend someone close to us. Immediately the thought of having to defend my children is a no brainer, I would be straight in there with as much feisty rage as I could muster and I was able to project that protectiveness onto myself. Feeling a little more confident with the idea of personal defence we were then shown the weapons, which at first I hilariously thought were just some blunted knives next to the spilt contents of a lady’s handbag. However, we were then shown how things like a hairbrush, phone or even mascara could be used as a weapon, if the situation arose. 

After lots of sparring with various cosmetic items, which was great fun and also a brilliant workout, we then discussed the effectiveness of traditional self defence moves. There were other women, who like me, had found themselves on the wrong side of someone far stronger than them. Our instructors were pragmatic about the fact that if someone is stronger than you there is no magic move that will get you away, hence arming yourself to use whatever is available at that moment is your best hope of self defence. 

A group shot of all the participants at the end of the class (I'm the one looking exhausted, in stripes)
I was worried that doing something like this would be scaremongering and make me feel more vulnerable or I would go the other way and be gunning for a fight. However, I can honestly say that I left Urban Escrima feeling more confident and self assured and would heartily recommend this to anyone who either would like to build their confidence or have a laugh and meet some lovely new people. Please click HERE for details about the next Urban Escrima Studios and the next Ladies' Self Defence Workshops 


Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Park (new) Life!

The new and improved West Hackney Recreation certainly isn't short of seating

 This isn’t the first time Mumsnet Hackney has championed Hackney’s parks. I don’t mind admitting, however, that I never thought my park of the hour would be West Hackney Recreation Ground, despite it being my most local of Hackney’s 57 green spaces. In my experience this particular park has only ever been populated by flocks of seagulls and those who enjoy daytime drinking, thus ensuring my continued and rather begrudging avoidance. So to suddenly see it closed for refurbishment (as the result of receiving a lottery grant) with the appointment of a new park keeper and a re-opening party set for this weekend had me buzzing with excitement, coupled with some apprehension. After all, surely no amount of money can change a park's inhabitants. 

One of 2 new mini play areas at each end of the park

The origins of this 1 hectare of land is that it was formerly the graveyard of St Paul's Church, which explains the, now gleaming white, tombstones that surround it on 3 sides. The site was recently awarded £670k Lottery grant to fund major improvements to both the Recreation Ground and the area surrounding the church. St Paul’s Church provides not only a place of worship and Church Hall facilities, but it hosts the vibrant Stoke Newington Farmers’ market every Saturday and also provides a venue for North London Action for Homeless, offering twice weekly sit down meals for the local homeless community. So it seems fitting that this essential community hub receives a well earned makeover, courtesy of the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The Labyrinth 
I caught up with newly appointed park keeper Sam Silverlock, for a tour of the array of newly constructed features and also find out what brought him to this exciting new project. Sam, a Stoke Newington local, previously worked in Ecotheraphy, providing counselling and rehabilitation through working with and cultivating the Earth and has firm ideas about the purpose of this new green space. Specifically, he wants to make sure that people using the space will have fun, be able to socialise and make friends and create not only a developed space for people to use, but a haven for wildlife also. These attributes the park now boasts that will promote all of these aims include 2 mini play areas (a slide, stepping stones and wobble boards) a stone labyrinth, which is like a maze but drawn out in stone on the ground, an entire circle of park benches (pictured above), an outdoor mini gym and an ecological meadow. The Police have also pledged to address anyone using the park for less desirable pursuits by including the area in their regular patrols.

Here I will be completing 50 daily chin ups

The re-opening party this week with the Rt Revd Adrian Newman, Bishop of Stepney and Hackney Mayor Jules Pipe, among others due to attend, should hopefully be the first of many events set to take place in the park. Already the church has created a fantastic archive of local stories (click HERE for more info) and are keen to recruit anyone who’s interested in researching the history of people’s grave stones surrounding the park. So if you’re looking to get involved in fresh exciting local project or just looking for somewhere to host a picnic then do pop along and if the weather doesn’t hold the Church offers free gazebo hire. You can’t say fairer than that.  For more information about this Saturday's re-opening   party just click HERE