As the last embers of summer start to fade, I'm stood in a Walthamstow primary school's sports hall on a Wednesday night, watching grown men and women thwack each other as hard as possible with blunted metal swords and shields. Welcome to the world of Viking Martial Arts.
Let's rewind a couple of hours. I exit Wood Street station late afternoon, and head down a road decorated by murals, and populated by cafes, off licenses and pubs. There is one obvious exception, and it's the reason I'm here. 'The Viking Store', the shopfront proudly proclaims.
Inside the Viking Store
I'm here to meet Max, short for Maximas — a name that, however intimidating, is actually more Roman than Viking. I step inside but he's just popped out to the shops. While waiting I admire the cosy space, filled with intimidating armour, glistening swords (made of foam, I later learn) and plenty of other ancient-looking trinkets.
I'm nosing through them when Max struts into the store. He's a bear of a man, with the hair of a 80s metal star. He jubilantly greets me before jumping into the plan for the rest of the evening, and makes incredibly clear what I'm going to witness. "Just so you know, it's really quite violent what we do. We hit each other incredibly hard."
I'd originally planned on making this trip a week or two earlier, but that didn't work for Max as he was attending a massive Viking festival in Poland. He rhapsodises about being out in the fields, working as a unit to try and outsmart opponents. And by 'outsmart', I do still mean hit them forcefully with blunt steel weapons, but there's an art to it
Before we get to that, I want to know a bit about the shop itself. Who are its customers?
"It varies. We get a lot of cosplayers." The rising popularity of shows like Game of Thrones has led to hundreds of fans wanting to dress up like their favourite characters at conventions. If they want to get a replica of The Hound's helmet, this is where they come. The shop is also popular among prop-masters in both theatre and film. Finally, there are those enveloped in the world of Viking Martial Arts — a universe I'm about to get a peek into.
Max needs me to clear out so he can close the shop up, and then pops home to get his gear. He recommends the pub across the road, The Duke E17, and tells me to meet him round the corner at a local primary school in about 40 minutes.
I find Max parked up outside the school, unloading weapons out of his boot for a night of battle. We walk through a playground, where plenty of young children probably playfight every day. But they have nothing on this.
In the sports hall, a ragtag group of warriors — nine in total — is gearing up for the night ahead. It's quite a look they're going for. The top half looks reasonably Viking: shiny silver helmets with chainmail draping beneath. But beneath that, everyone's just wearing sports gear, along with thick ice hockey-esque padding and gloves. Max stresses the importance of this equipment: "Abroad I've seen people lose fingers who weren't properly prepared."
What is Viking Martial Arts?
After a quick warm-up, things really get going. People pair up and face off in one-on-one combat. The aim of the game is clear — to land a killing blow on your opponent. Well, not actually killing — that would be murder nowadays, which is why the weapons are blunted. But the aim is still to hit them, and that's usually going to hurt. Max admits the class has seen the odd broken rib and — he adds extremely nonchalantly — "a really damaged spleen from a hard shot."
So why do people do it? Like all martial arts there's an adrenaline rush, but there's more going on here. People clearly buy into the Viking lifestyle, as some members of the class practice a viking handshake with me, and others are keen to show off their pristine weapons. Max also eulogises on the sense of camaraderie, "when you're with your brothers — [or sisters, the class has one female participant] in the open field." The sense of honour that ancient societies once had is a massive draw for everyone here.
There's also the occasional financial reward — Max appeared in an advert for a major drinks brand, filmed in Epping Forrest.
The night ends with a display of that teamwork as the class splits up into two groups of four. They charge at each other as a unit, shields raised, and swords lofted high into the air.
The Viking Store, 119 Wood Street, Walthamstow, E17 3LL