Taking an opportunity to enjoy the summer sunshine before an evening boxing session, Solstar founders Ella Gilbert and Paula Lamont indulge in a light sparring match in a North London park. Even as a friendly bout, the padded hits make me wince. I side-eye the four jeering men a few yards away, but the fighters are focused only on each other. Gilbert sends a gloved right hook that swiftly connects with Lamont’s nose. Lamont, nonplussed, flicks her ponytail back and they laugh in unison.
As a women-led boxing and martial arts gym run along anti-fascist community principles, Solstar is among the first of its kind in the UK. When it opened in February 2016, both Gilbert and Lamont were determined to build a space where women could learn practical fighting skills without the machismo. Lamont has competed in MMA, trained in boxing and jujitsu, and was the first woman in 15 years to gain a Taekwondo black belt classification at her gym. Gilbert, who started her boxing career at university in 2012, now fights for Islington Boxing Club and won in her weight category in the prestigious London Development Championships last year.
Gilbert is blasé as she recalls her first experience at an amateur boxing club: “I was the first woman in 100 years and they haven’t had another one since. But I was stubborn, I stuck it out and refused to go away and eventually they had to notice me.” She adds, “It’s the general culture. Even in my current competitive gym, which has arguably the largest female squad in the country, men still outnumber us six or seven to one.”