Farewell Bartley Green Dojo, Gone But Never To Be Forgotten
I had the chance to think long and hard about just how I should plan the lesson for what was to be the last Karate lesson held at what for me, was the mecca of my Shotokan journey over the last nearly 50 years. Bartley Green dojo is a school based in the heart of Birmingham; for nearly 45 years it has been a dojo where the art of traditional Shotokan Karate Do has been taught.
For decades, it was the main honbu of Sensei Cyril Cummins, 8th Dan. He was the pioneer of Shotokan in the Midlands. For many years, he was a senior of the highly prestigious KUGB. And along with the senior Senseis, he would be invited out at the National Championships where all the seniors Senseis and officials would be appreciated by the audience before the final events.
Shihan Cummins, as we his students chose to honour him when he received his 8th Dan rank from the NAKMAS organisation, was also a loyal student of the boss himself: Sensei Keinosuke Enoeda. He never missed a single course at Crystal Palace which the “Tiger” used to hold and which became a highly popular two-week training and grading course. It was on these courses that Shihan Cummins passed his gradings with Sensei Enoeda and the senior JKA instructors. Back in the day, the gradings were fearful with very small numbers of students passing. Shihan Cummins,however, was to achieve his 6th Dan rank with the boss before his untimely death back in 2004.
However, whatever else was happening in life, the one great constant for people like me was the dojo. Back in the day, Sensei operated several dojos. Weoley Castle, Colmers Farm, Halesowen Leisure Centre, and of course the homeland, Bartley Green. This was where the gradings, competitions, and for me the business end of training took place. The dojo, a classic school gymnasium had an atmosphere, a feeling, an aura that Sensei tuned into. It just made you work that bit harder. He was able to push you to the end of your limit of endurance and fatigue, and then push some more. Reserves of energy and attitude that you did not know that you had within you were miraculously dragged out of you, literally kicking and kiai-ing.
This dojo, in that sense, always felt unique. I recall the first time I ever trained there. Myself and two friends decided that we should visit. We had heard stories of this ferocious Irish Sensei called Cyril Cumins. He taught hardcore, no none-sense Shotokan, and we were both curious and excited. We turned up, got changed, walked into the large dojo and were assessed by the hard, tough-looking Karateka who were his seniors. We were the country boys from Worcester who had walked into their dojo. We were about to learn just how Shotokan Karate should be taught by a man who was a master of the craft, and who refused to compromise. It was both petrifying and exhilarating at the same time. Yes, we got battered but that was how it was, a hardcore martial art. Put up with it or walk out, that was it. As for me, I was hooked and over the next 31 years this dojo became my church. This was where we trained, where we learned, where we failed, where we improved, where we grew into our Shotokan personalities, week by week, month by month, year on year, decade by decade.
I went from a brown belt to eventually passing my 5th Dan with Shihan Cummins in April 2014. I could not actually believe that I had passed that grade. I never thought that I would make it passing my 2nd Dan. But under his tutelage, care, and occasional harsh telling off, he got me to that place, passing my first and second Dan with Sensei Enoeda himself, and then after he died, finally my third, fourth and fifth Dan with Shihan himself. However, in total it took me a grand total of 13 attempts for me to actually pass my Dan grades. So, I failed 8 exams, but as Sensei Cummins always taught: "Never Give Up, Never Give In" and neither of us ever did.
So, for me 31 years of my Karate life of 45 years of training were spent at Bartley Green dojo. I became his Sempai or Senior Student; an honour he bestowed upon me and my dear friend Sensei Susan Hession, 4th Dan. Indeed, one Friday night, completely unexpected at the end of a lesson, he called me forward and announced to the dojo, that in recognition of my loyalty and stalwart service (and more beatings and kickings that I could care to remember), he was now going to bestow upon me the title of Sensei. I was frankly overwhelmed and almost had a boo boo on the spot. So when I was reflecting on just what would be an appropriate way to teach the last lesson, I decided that actually it seemed appropriate that those of us training should re-trace our steps on our journey with both Shihan and Shotokan.
So, that is exactly what we did, the class was almost all senior and experienced Dan grades, so we started off doing the basics for the white belt exam, then the coloured belts, kihon and kata. Then the pace really stepped up with brown belt combinations and ata. And finally the Dan grade syllabus, hard, relentless, and uncompromising, we all went for it. Finishing off by combining the combinations of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Dan and above, Dan grade long combinations. Blood, toil, tears, and sweat, were the order of the day. However, I also asked every person there at the start of the lesson to reflect, and tell us about the day that they first ever walked into a dojo, as that raw novice, the excited and scared beginner. This, I did one at a time throughout the lesson, and I have to say that every single one who spoke, had a truly unique and evocative story to tell, it really made me realise just what a huge influence that Karate had had upon them. Their reflections were honest, funny, and inspiring and for me were great moments to ponder upon and consider.
So, as the curtain finally came down and the last seiza and mokuso took place in the hallowed dojo of Bartley Green, I came away with a sense of slight sadness when I thought about all the effort of those who over the decades had trained there, and the one man who had guided us on that journey. And on reflection, my sadness turned to pride when I think what they achieved, and the people that they became, after all, ultimately the aim of Karate is to seek perfection of character and to be better people and Bartley Green dojo and Shihan Cyril Cummins did just that very thing for thousands of people.
What a great legacy to leave, and what a great legacy to carry on. And we shall, at Halesowen and Nuffield dojos at Enso Shotokan Karate club, and as others will at other great dojos where Cyril Cummins Karate will live on, Sensei Sue Hessiao, at BHWCSKC, Sensei Steve O’Reilly at Haden SKC, Sensei Dave Prosser at Core Karate Club, and Sensei Cathy Dearden at Ippon Ken SKC. One door shuts, another door opens.