Excursions: A Cavalier attitude: Every weekend, thousands of grown men take up arms to fight for king and country. Why? Iain Gale joins battle

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The Independent Culture
If you go down to the woods today you could be in for a big surprise. Amid the sounds and smells of an English summer, something other than the scent of roses is drifting on the breeze. The whiff of cordite and the clash of steel heralds a spectacle over the brow of the hill.

Three hundred and fifty years on, and maybe tomorrow in a field near you, the Cavaliers and Roundheads are bashing seven bells out of one another for king and country. This is no ghostly army, these men are flesh and blood. But at the end of the day none of that will have been spilled.

The 3,000 warriors of the English Civil War Society are peace-loving men. 'We don't want to hurt or to get hurt,' Ian Barrett, an information technology teacher from Wolverhampton, explains. Every second weekend, he dons breeches, doublet, sash and hat to become an officer of the Parliamentarian army.

Barrett, 36, joined the colours at the age of 17 and rose through the ranks. 'I was drawn to it as a child by the Ladybird book on Oliver Cromwell and it just grew from there.' Some might say Barrett has not grown up at all. Like his 10,000 fellow enthusiasts, he's just playing at soldiers. His reply is well-rehearsed: 'Sure it's fun. But I'd say about 80 per cent of us are very well-read in the history of the period. We want to rectify the myth of the Civil War.'

Involvement in the society or its sister organisation, the 6,000 strong Sealed Knot, can become obsessive. One member even had his child christened in 17th-century costume; the service attended by his entire regiment. Other members regularly meet each other for period dinner parties, perfect in every detail, down to the last capon. But for most of these latter-day papists and puritans the big thing is the battle itself.

It's easy to see why. There is something undeniably spectacular about watching up to 3,000 'troops' re-fight a particular action. 'We follow the original drill books exactly,' Barrett says. 'You have to be a bit of a showman though, particularly if you're an officer standing at the front and shouting orders.'

With a precision that belies the authentic variety of their uniforms, the two armies close up, colours waving, drums beating. Commands ring out across the field: 'Look to your right', 'Charge your pike', 'Charge', 'Fire'.

But couldn't you get carried away and lop off someone's ear? 'I would never say that we lose control,' Barrett insists. Occasionally people get hurt. But we're monitored by the Health and Safety Executive. Our swords and pikes are all blunt- edged. The majority of accidents happen in the camp - people trip over the tent ropes.'

It's clear that, despite meticulous attention to detail, the ultimate realism will prove elusive. Within a few minutes of the end of the battle you can see the 'corpses' back among the tented curio shops of the camp lines. 'You know that at the end of the day you're going to walk away,' Barrett says. 'No one's going to die.'

The Roundheads and Cavaliers are at Nostell Priory, near Wakefield today and tomorrow. For further details, and info on the full- scale siege of Helmesley Castle, N Yorks call the ECWS (0747 825693). See also 'The English Civil War Recreated', Chris Honeywell and Gill Spear, Windrow & Greene, pounds 12.95

(Photograph omitted)