Re-enactors at English Heritage's Festival of History keep it in the family

By Rachel Hayward | 27 July 2009
Showing a mother and daughter in medieval costume

(Left) Medieval re-enactor Marie and her eight year old daughter Natasha keep it in the family at English Heritage's Festival of History 2009. All pictures © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

Hundreds of re-enactors, encompassing a thousand years of history, camp in the grounds of Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire for English Heritage's annual Festival of History. Culture24's Learners and Teachers' Editor Rachel Hayward discovers why families become historic re-enactors.

We are all intrigued by how people lived in the past but there are families who are so inspired by history that they become re-enactors.

Immersing themselves in every detail of their chosen past they spend hours creating authentic costumes, tracking down those elusive accessories, polishing their weapons and battle-training – not to mention the weekends spent camping away from home.

At English Heritage's annual Festival of History, and other events around the UK, you can see these dedicated living historians in action and discover for yourselves the attraction of re-living the past.

Showing a father, mother, son and daughter all dressed in medieval costume

(Above) Family of medieval re-enactors: father Martin, mother Marie, son Thomas and daughter Natasha

The fascination of re-enacting is clear from medieval re-enactor Martin's first words. "20 minutes with a sword in my hand was enough to convert me," he says with a glint of the enraptured convert in his eye.

Martin's brother originally got him into re-enactment back in 2000. "I told him I don't do camping. But how can I put it…I picked up a sword went on the battle field and wondered why I hadn't been doing this all my life. My knowledge was so limited before – you're talking to people and start to learn things and then find out for yourself. It's not just history but a greater understanding of why you're here," he adds, pausing.

"Today we're stood on the shoulders of everyone who went before."

Showing a husband and wife in medieval costume

(Left) Assisted by his wife Marie, who makes most of the family's costumes, Martin shows off his authentic linen underwear

I can see why Martin has been won over – he does fighting training every Wednesday evening and is just about to join Henry's troops in battle against the French for an expectant Festival of History crowd. But what's in it for the family?

Eight-year-old daughter Natasha describes how she loves coming along to re-enactment events and even has her favourite outfits, but especially likes being able to buy things. "I've been doing re-enactment for seven years," she says proudly.

"It's like a coming together of everybody," says Martin, his wife Marie nodding in agreement. "My children have got more aunties and uncles then ever they would have had.

"It's like a big social event and the safest environment for them. We're doing things together as a family, not just sitting at home with a computer or watching telly. Thomas enjoys it and takes part in our shows. He's proficient with the sword and has got his own kit and armour."

Martin is full of praise for events such as the Festival of History. "There should be more of this type of thing, there isn't enough. The amount of history going on here is staggering."

Showing a father and son in Boer War soldier outfits

(Right) Harry and his father Neil are Boer War soldier re-enactors

At the Boer War encampment, 13-year-old Harry and his father Neil are finishing their lunch. "I'd better put me fork down as that's not authentic," admits Neil as he poses for a photo for Culture24. Neil is such a stickler for historical detail that he tells Harry that they should be facing away from the camera. "Just like the soldiers would have done - all present and correct."

Harry, dressed as a Boer War drummer boy, duly obliges. This is clearly a close father and son relationship, and their love of historical re-enactment has done much to cement the kind of strong friendship many dads would love to achieve with their offspring.

"Harry's typical of the boy soldiers," explain Neil, "Often sons would join up with their fathers. They would be the ammunition carriers on the battlefields."

Harry relishes donning his soldier costume and joining his dad for events such as the Festival of History. "I do this as often as I can," he says. "I like being outdoors and I like dressing up, but it can get very hot in the uniform. I like the weaponry and get to learn a lot about them and I am taught the safety of them."

Showing a father and son in Boer War soldier outfits

(Above) Boer War soldier re-enactors Neil and his son Harry have been living the past for five years

The pair recently visited the original battlefields in South Africa where the Boer Wars (1880-1902) took place in a battle recreation for the History Channel.

"Harry got to fire a weapon," says his dad. "We had to do it properly because then you get the authentic sound."

"This is the second time we've been part of the Festival of History," concludes Neil. "It seems to get bigger and better every time and it's drawn the crowds out. There's something here for everyone."

Find out more in our Culture24 interview with Harry and his father, Neil:

See Martin and his family's interview for yourself in our YouTube clip:

Read Rachel Hayward's feature about visiting the Festival of History as a family and Rosie Clarke's lively encounters with soldiers, snails and silken gowns.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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