Families go time-travelling at English Heritage's spectacular Festival of History 2009

By Rachel Hayward | 27 July 2009
Showing a family sitting down at one of the Festival of History events and smiling at the camera

(Above) Festival of History regulars, from left to right: dads Kumar Patel and Bob Dickinson, mum Nila, 11 year old Matthew, Ajay Patel aged 9 and mum Saroj Patel. All pictures © Rachel Hayward and Rosie Clarke / Culture24

Festival: Taking place last weekend (July 25-26 2009) Festival of History, set in the grounds of Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire, is English Heritage's truly spectacular annual show case experience for all the family.

Showing three boys in army uniform

(Above) From left to right: Raphael, James and Max come dressed to impress at English Heritage's Festival of History 2009

Forget about those dusty history lessons at school full of dates and maps, English Heritage's Festival of History offers an epic cast of hundreds of dedicated re-enactors who set up camp in the East Midlands for a weekend living the life of our ancestors.

Showing a boy trying on a gas mask and helmet and standing with a soldier

(Left) Samuel gets to try on a gas mask for size in the WWII section of Festival of History 2009

And the re-enactors stage the most amazing historical events, including jousting, drill displays and re-enactments of battles from Agincourt to Waterloo and Tank Attack 1944 which will have you and the kids enthralled.

Showing a battle in full flow

(Above) One of the many battles in action at the Festival of History 2009

You are metres away from charging cavalry, explosions and high-octane sieges and the sheer number of different shows – 50 in all around the site – will leave you wishing you'd come for the whole two days of the Festival.

Showing a sign saying Gone To Kill

(Right) A sign left in the medieval encampment at Festival of History shows that re-enactors have a sense of humour

The paramedics, parked a discreet distance away from the main arena during the battle re-enactments, reminded me just how dangerous these displays of fighting can be for the men and women who take part.

As one re-enactor told me, fighting training takes up one evening every week and the practice pays off because it all looks pretty realistic.

Showing a father and son with the son wearing a Roman soldier outfit

(Above) Isaac, in his Roman soldier outfit with his dad John, are also Festival of History regulars

My seven-year-old was so caught up in the gladiator fighting that he followed the "fatally wounded" gladiator as he was carried away from the Gladiators Arena and then ran back to us to report that it was alright – the gladiator was just faking it. The look of relief on Benjamin's face, however, confirmed how pleased he was that this was the case.

Showing a panorama of the Festival of History site with lots of tents and people in view

(Above) A view of what the Festival of History looks like with its different encampments. The big re-enactment arenas are off camera

And unlike certain theme parks where you queue for 40 minutes for a three-minute ride, at the Festival of History, you are pretty much guaranteed no queues and front row viewing for all events especially when you come with kids because everyone's so accommodating and lets them through to the front.

Showing two men in period costume entertaining a crowd with stories

(Above) Families are entertained by the many story-tellers at the Festival of History

My advice is take a picnic and a rug and follow the action around the site from the main Arena, and Parade ground to the Tournament Arena and Agincourt.

Showing a woman dressed as a WWII nurse with a girl and boy wearing army helmets

Re-enactor Amanda Ware as Captain Evelyn Swansea, WWII Head Nurse pays particular attention to period detail and poses with Hannah and Alden

But that's just the arena events. Festival of History is a camp on a grand scale and nearly every well-known period of British History is represented.

As you wander around the different camps, there are countless hands-on activities. You can sit in a WWII jeep, check out a hospital tent on the Italian front complete with nurses attending to their soldier patients, try out some craft activities with the Medieval families or don some Roman armour with the Centurions.

Storytellers and entertainers including a hang man were also pulling in the crowds around around the Festival site.

Showing two boys trying on Roman soldier helmets and standing with two men dressed as Roman soldiers

Benjamin (seven) and Joseph (eight) get up close to a couple of infantry men from the Imperial Roman Empire

My sons, Joseph and Benjamin, enjoyed rubbing shoulders with the re-enactors who themselves were taking the opportunity to visit other time periods. The re-enactors always stayed in character and sometimes it felt like being on a Doctor Who set without the Time Lord himself.

Showing a sister and brother carrying toy bows

(Above) The Festival of History is the right place if you need to kit yourself out for battle. Alice and Harvey carry their bows and are ready for action

We couldn't resist the Historic Market and the English Heritage shops dotted around were so tempting that the boys were soon armed as Centurions.

We've got a dressing up box of costumes at home and I do wish we'd kitted the boys out in their knights' costumes for the trip but hey, we've now got Roman soldier outfits thanks to the Festival of History!

Showing families enjoying playing in the sand at the Victorian Seaside Scene as part of Festival of History 2009

Children enjoying the Victorian Seaside Scene in the Family Zone

The boys were so engrossed all day in the battles that they didn't make it to the Festival of History's Family Zone.

Leaving them with my husband to watch the Viking warriors at the parade ground, I made a detour to see what was on offer and it didn't disappoint.

Showing a Punch and Judy show with families watching

Families are entertained by the Punch and Judy show at the Victorian Seaside Scene

The Family Zone was situated near the medieval encampment. There were outdoor games and activities and a huge marquee with lots more to do under cover, including make and do activities and dressing-up fun facilitated by an enthusiastic team of English Heritage staff.

The centre of the Family Zone 2009 was a Victorian Seaside Scene (real sand, buckets and spades and deckchairs) complete with a Punch and Judy show.

Showing two men playing a giant game of chess in a marquee

The Family Zone is for grown-ups too as well as their children

I haven't even mentioned the Pavilion yet with historical catwalks amongst its shows and the Festival Stage and Space with almost non-stop musical entertainment. This was something I could hear from afar but again, didn’t have time to visit.

But there's always next year…

Showing a young girl dressed as a princess and her little brother dressed as a knight

Festival of History visitors like to come dressed for the part. In their fabulous outfits, five year old Amy and her three-year-old brother Alex give the re-enactors a run for their money

Final tips:
Don't forget to pack the kids' swords and shields because they will soon want to be doing a bit of battle recreation themselves...

Lots of food and drink stalls mean you don't have to take refreshments with you but many families had packed a picnic and treated the kids to an ice-cream instead.

You're also not that far from the car parks, so you can always go back for more supplies.

Showing a young girl dressed in period costume with her mother standing close by

Don't worry if you haven't got your own costume, the Family Zone marquee has lots to try on

There are marquees and indoor activities but the arena events are out in the sunshine, so take hats and suncream.

The toilets did get busy – it's worth making sure you stop at a service station on the way to the Festival to get the day off to a comfortable start.

Read Rachel Hayward's feature about families who re-enact together at the Festival of History and Rosie Clarke's lively encounters with soldiers, snails and silken gowns

Ever wanted to know more about re-enacting and why it can be a great past-time for the whole family? Be won over by 13-year-old Harry and his father, Neil as they describe the thrills of being Boer war soldier re-enactors:

If this has whetted your appetite, why not read our Culture24 guide to family re-enactors, Re-enactors at English Heritage's Festival of History keep it in the family?

We've also got much more in our round-up, Soldiers, snails and silken gowns: social history comes to life at the 2009 English Heritage Festival of History.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:

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