20 August, France – ‘All Over The Place – Europe, Part 2’
This is Ben Shires’ first trip out with team ‘All Over The Place’. He’s the presenter of CBBC’s record breaking themed show ’Officially Amazing’, and looks a bit like a more 1950s version of me, with the most impeccably maintained quiff in show business. Little did he know when he signed up for this, but we were about to throw him into the deep end straight away…
After a fairly non-eventful journey from home yesterday, we rose at a leisurely hour and piled onto the bus to start our midday filming alongside the river in the seaside town of Sete, home to one of the South of France’s longest traditions – the 273 year old water jousting event. Sounds like a tame bit of knockabout fun doesn’t it? It’s not.
Ben and I learnt very quickly, in an interview with the event’s President beneath a huge statue of a proud water jouster, that this isn’t an event for the faint hearted. We eyed the jousting boats with suspicion as we were told that you have to stand on the (quite high) platform at the back, armed with a heavy wooden shield and scaffolding length wooden pole with 3 spikes on the end and attempt to prong your opponent off the back of his boat as your team of over dozen rowers get you as close to them as they can.
By the time we’d made our way down to the beach with the rest of the press who were taking part that day and started being instructed by an over enthusiastic barrel of a man called Rene, I was properly starting to poo my pants. The shield is made of very thick blocks of wood that I didn’t fancy having fall on me as I dropped off a platform several metres high above the water, and just standing on the sand Rene was capable of flinging me back with some force as he plunged his spike hard into my shield, taking off chunks of wood as he did so. It hits you with quite a thunk, and all I could think of was how much this was going to hurt if Ben’s aim was off and the spike ended up in my knee or arm.
Things weren’t made much better once I was on my boat that evening in front of thousands of people packing out the stands lining the river to celebrate the start of the festival. As our 2 boats rowed up and down the river, retired jousters in their 60s attacked each other one by one, poles and shields flying scarily close to our heads as the vanquished plunged into the water, while Ben and I were perched on the ladder at the back of our respective boats chatting nervously to our teammates. The French journalist next to me told me stories of broken ribs, smashed up noses and gouged faces that competitors have endured in years past, and once it was my turn to scale the precarious ladder-like contraption to the back platform I was starting to ponder what conditions are like in French hospitals.
As our boats approached each other and Rene manhandled me into the correct jousting position from below I became frozen like a rabbit in the headlights. All I could think of was aiming my pole for Ben’s shield so it didn’t end up in his TV face, and as I hit my target and Ben’s spike thonked into my shield I felt a tremendous sense of relief that we’d at least pulled that off. A split second later I was being flung backwards into the water as Ben slipped over onto his bum but managed to jump back up to his feet. Once I had risen to the surface and realised I was safe I felt as if I’d just won the entire competition, and swam back to the stands elated to watch another hour of jousters not necessarily being as lucky as me.
On our way back through the streets in the post match parade we bumped into our instructor Rene, who was now sporting a star shaped gash to the side of his eye. His jovial demeanour seemed to suggest that this was all part of the fun, but I think in future I’ll be happy to watch from the stands whilst regaling anyone who’s willing to listen with my water jousting war story.