Monday, December 9, 2013

I'm a veteran of the English Civil War – and I've fought Napoleon. This is why I do it

Re-enactors of the Battle of Tewkesbury, fought during the Wars of the Roses
I first got into re-enactment in 2001, when I took my family to see the 350th Anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Worcester. We had only recently moved to Worcester and I had become interested in the city’s historical importance as the location of the first and last battles of the English Civil War.
Against my wife’s express instructions I filled in a form at the Sealed Knot’s recruiting tent and within four months found myself on the field at Nantwich, fully kitted out as a Parliamentarian pikeman and having the time of my life.
I will never forget that first battle – the moment of sheer terror when, marching slowly towards the massed ranks of our Royalist enemies, we were given the order “charge your pikes”. As one man (and occasional woman) we performed the manoeuvre that had become second nature to me after weeks of practice. Across the muddy field the mean-looking battle-hardened Royalists drew ever closer, then engaged… and I was chest to chest, helmet to helmet, with a facially-pierced monster who looked me in the eye and snarled: “All right maaaate!”
I didn’t know this chap, but there is a bond between re-enactors which is not limited to which side you’re on or even which period you “do”. This bond is built from a common experience of regularly getting wet, cold, hot, hungry, injured, drunk, teased, misunderstood and abused, all in the name of our hobby. Because like anything worthwhile, re-enactment isn’t easy. It can be done badly and it can be done well, and to do it well takes time and effort.
I’ve long since left “The Knot” and moved on 150 years to the Napoleonic era. I’ve fought as British and as French and taken part in battles in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and the Czech Republic, often with thousands of fellow re-enactors from all over the world. That day in 2001 changed my life for ever.
So what do we get out of it? First and foremost it is tremendous fun. Quite apart from the visceral thrill of being part of something that feels to all intents and purposes like a real pitched battle, you get to camp in the gardens of stately homes, make fires and cook food on them and generally forget the 21st century. You make more friends than you know what to do with, and if you have kids, you couldn’t ask for better weekends away for them away from TV.
Beyond the fun, re-enactors do perform genuinely useful functions. Those of us who are striving to improve our authenticity (a word bandied about a great deal in the re-enactment world, not always positively) are actively involved in research into our various specialities; stately homes are getting visitors through their gates and the public is having history thrust upon it. If a picture speaks a thousand words, then a walking, talking, sweating, smelling pikeman must speak volumes.
So spare a thought for the re-enactor. He’s working hard to keep Britain’s breweries in business while bringing a clearer understanding of our past to the masses. But, most of all, he’s probably having a better time than you.

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