At first there seems nothing remarkable about Bracknell. Nestled between the M3 and M4 corridors in Berkshire it was one of several New Towns developed in the early 1950s to address the housing shortage in London, which was only beginning to recover from the ravages of the second world war.
The New Towns were planned to similar templates which made for practical but uninspiring surroundings for the displaced families that moved there. Most will argue that things haven’t improved with age and Bracknell, alongside contemporaries such as Stevenage, Basildon and Hatfield, hasbecome a by-word for provincial mundanity.
But things are changing. In September 2018 work was completed on a new, rejuvenated town centre prompting a visit from Her Majesty the Queen for an official opening. Big name brands have laid claim to the new retail space and those looking for a bite to eat now have a host of popular restaurant chains to choose from. But although much of Bracknell’s buzz in recent years has focused on this shot-in-the-arm from private investment, something else is galvanising the communities that surround the regenerated town centre;boxing.
Charlie “Dynamite” Knight is 11 years old and a prodigious talent. His bright white gloves are a blur as he peppers the pads and body protector of his father and trainer Dan, 41, with flurries of punches. “I noticed from a very young age Charlie was an active boy and extremely competitive” says Dan during a break between rounds. “He started training with me in my garage when he was only three and I saw that he was very talented at boxing”.
For the time being Dan’s garage is his centre of operationsand he laments the restrictions that have forced the temporary closure of In Your Corner, the community boxing club he runswith friend and fellow coach Troy Carpenter; “It’s crazy that you can go shopping at The Range or have your bike mended at Halfords but you can’t go to the gym” he says and gesturesa padded hand towards Charlie “These kids need to be boxing again”.
Despite the pandemic, Charlie and older brother Tommy have kept busy, fitting their training around online learning whileschools are closed. With the post-Christmas lockdown affecting his PT business, Dan dedicates much of his time to training his boys, documenting their progress on the Club’s social media channels to help keep connected with the community it serves, something that is extremely important to Dan; “The club is all about the community and being inclusive. Anyone can come to train”.
The seeds of the club were sown five years ago when Dan began boxing classes in a local school for children with special educational needs (SEN). “I wanted to show the kids that boxing could be a good way to keep fit while having fun. After a few sessions they were hooked and I realised that young people with SEN were being overlooked when it came to accessing the sport, so I began running classes at the weekends from various local gyms”.
The transformative powers of boxing are well known and as word spread about the SEN classes the local council approached Dan to do some work with secondary school children that were at risk of exclusion. “The idea was to get them out of the classroom for an hour a week and get them into to gym for some hard, physical work to let off steam. We had pupils from three high schools in the area come down. Most had no experience at all, but by the end of the 12-weekprogramme they’d come along really well. The schools all said there’d been a massive improvement in behaviour too. That’s what you get from the discipline of boxing”.
Plans for a club started to gather momentum after the success of the programme as Dan looked for a way to continue the community work alongside developing elite boxers like Charlie for competition. He approached his close friend Troy Carpenter who he’d trained for White Collar bouts. “It’s long been a dream of mine to run a boxing club” says Troy. “I’ve always had a passion for the sport and boxed on and off from a young age. My dad boxed at a high level in the Army and it was almost expected of me”. It’s the day after his 50th birthday andTroy gives a wry smile as he continues; “Of course the inevitable happens and one day you are too old to box for any affiliated clubs!” Not wanting to lose contact with the sport, Troy began competing in White Collar shows for charity, but found himself wanting to give something back at grass roots level. He undertook the England Boxing coaching courses on the suggestion of a coach from one of his old clubs; “I was a little unsure at first as I thought I’d been out of the sport for too long but in reality coaching is so much more than showing people how to box. It's about encouraging people, spotting a talent and helping them grow or just building confidence and being someone to confide in”.
The shared vision of inclusivity and accessibility made Dan and Troy the perfect team to meet the challenge of turning the idea of a community boxing club into reality. They found shared premises with a local business called BM Active who scheduled a date for a grand opening complete with local dignitaries. “It turned into a race against time” recalls Troy. “We had no ring, no bags or other equipment. We had to fund everything out of our own pockets, but somehow we managed to get it all in place in time for the big day”.
The club quickly took off and within four months had attained England Boxing affiliation, allowing its boxers to compete in tournaments. At 10 years old, star prospect Charlie Knight enjoyed his first skills bout in the black and gold colours of the club just before Covid restrictions were bought into place in 2019. “Charlie’s a bright hope for the future and every club wants to produce champions”, says Troy, “but while some clubs seem only to focus on this we want to offer so much more to the community via our SEN classes and through working with local schools, social services and the police”.
The work with Social Services and the police is set to become an increasing part of the club’s community work. Like other small towns within reach of London, Bracknell has becomevulnerable to the threat of so-called “County Lines” gangs from the city who take over local drug markets and exploit children as drug-runners. The gangs actively seek out young people who are disaffected and impressionable and those excluded from school are a prime target. “Prevention is always better than cure” says Troy. “That’s why we’re now looking to take boxing into schools to do intervention with kids who are getting into trouble. We’ve also reached out to the police for support; boxing can help build better relationships between these young people and the police. It’s all about diverting them away from crime or older people looking to exploit them”.
It’s Saturday 2nd November 2019 and a packed Bracknell Leisure Centre falls momentarily silent as the sombre notes of The Last Post rise from a lone bugler in the centre of a boxing ring. Standing at ringside is 58 year-old Clinton Montague, one half of the team that runs Boxing for Veterans, a Community Interest Company that raises money for Armed Forces charities by staging events that pit civilians against serving or former servicemen and women. Clinton is passionate about the cause, which manifests itself in a formidable determination. Like all promoters on fight night he shoulders the considerable stress of making sure everything goes according to plan in a game where things rarely do. In this poignant moment though, he is introspective and visibly moved by the former soldier playing mournfully in memory of fallen colleagues. Speaking 15 months later, in the midst ofa pandemic that has meant the cancellation of two further shows, Clinton reflects; “For me being the promotor on such occasions quite simply brings me joy. Witnessing everything unfold in front of my eyes from the crowd gathering, the tables all laid out, the music, the lighting, hearing the support for the boxers - all the elements coming together through hard work is what it’s all about”.
Boxing for Veterans’ co-founder, Terry Reed, has an altogether different job on the night; he is boxing in the opening bout. Terry, a relative newcomer to the sport, is fighting on the Civilians Team this evening against a former member of the armed forces. The air inside the arena is dense with anticipation as pumping music and the noise from the crowd accompany the boxers on their ring walk. Cornering Terry tonight is none other than Dan Knight, whom Terry knows through the local boxing community. Dan whispers a final few words while Terry eyes his opponent across the ring moments before a huge cheer from the crowd greets the opening bell. It’s clear from the start that Terry has condensed a lot of boxing experience into a short space of time and is a skilled and proficient boxer. While some white collarboxers have a hint of the Sunday League footballer about them Terry is calm under pressure, his movements measured and economical. He cuts off the ring, corners his opponent and slips their punches, countering expertly. He is a clear winner on the judges’scorecards.
“I'd always been keen to try boxing but never stepped foot in a boxing gym until I was about 31”, says Terry,now 35, “but I've not stopped since – I love it. It keeps me fit and mentally healthy.”
Both Terry and Clinton have family members who were in the armed forces and decided over a drink one evening that they should do something to raise awareness of the issues – such as homelessness and mental health problems – faced by many Veterans that had been let down by the system. For Terry, his new-found passion for boxing provided the answer; "Boxing is booming in Bracknell at the moment and Clinton and I thought that bringing white collar boxing to the town for the first time would be the best way to reach out to the community, get local people involved and raise money for Veterans charities.” Boxing for Veterans was born.
The hard graft then began, with Clinton’s meticulous eye for detail crucial in bringing everything together; “The timeline for the event was scheduled to the minute from when the first supplier arrives to the last bell. I created spreadsheets for everything and everyone involved; the medics, ref, cornermen and most importantly the boxers themselves. It was all prepared months in advance,beginning with confirmation of the date with the venue. Suppliers were sourced in accordance with our budget and the search was on for local boxers via social media and word of mouth.”
Terry’s instincts around tapping into Bracknell’s burgeoning boxing scene proved to be spot-on with the event becoming the first of four – culminating in the Remembrance Special in November 2019 – that has seen the promotion grow in popularity and establish itself as a major community event. “We feel the community treats BFV like they do having Bracknell Town Football Club or Bracknell Bees Ice Hockey team” says Clinton. “It’s special because it belongs to them. They look forward to the next event and really get involved once they are there supporting local boxers by purchasing tickets and making additional donations to our veteran charities. Bracknell now has its very own boxing event.”
Looking at community initiatives like In Your Corner and Boxing for Veterans, it’s clear how boxing has become the heartbeat of this rejuvenated town. The passion that people like Dan, Troy, Clinton and Terry have for the sport and their determination to use it to make a difference in their community will doubtlessly see the challenges presented by the pandemic overcome. The demand certainly hasn’t gone away; “Before Covid the club was already running at maximum capacity and wenow need a larger space” says Troy. “Boxing in our local area has really taken off and we want to offer more classes, more diverse membership options and expand our work with the police and social services to help in any way we can.” In a time when austerity has bitten hard and public services are stretched, the example of Bracknell proves that boxing has the power to bring people together and help those in our communities who need it most. @NickYoung_Times