Once more into the breeches

They spend their weekends fighting in rainy fields, pretending to be Vikings, Saxons, even Nazi officers ... Who are Britain's `re-enactors' and why do they do it? Michael Booth goes behind the lines.

pparently there had been a "bit of a to do" with the Nazis last night, but it was proving very difficult to persuade anyone to spill the beans. I'd tried the straightforward, "So what happened with the Germans last night?" and the more catch'ee-monkey, "So, those Nazis, eh? Cuh...!" But the only hint I was getting that there had been friction among the normally amicable brotherhood of historical re-enactors was the odd meaningful look with, if I was lucky, a mouth forming an angry hyphen of disgust.

I decided to give the Nazi-hunting a rest for a while - besides, I had plenty of other things I wanted to ask the 2,000 history-lovers who had gathered at Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire for a third annual History in Action weekend, billed as the most spectacular event of its kind in Europe.

These historical obsessives go to extraordinary lengths to dress, eat, sleep, party and fight as in days of yore (a parade of Portaloos by the entrance to the grounds is their only concession to modernity). While the rest of us are battling round Ikea or jostling for space on the terraces, these refugees from the modern world prefer to escape entirely from the present-day for a weekend by taking on the role (they call it "portraying") of anyone from a Viking to a Vietnam veteran in "companies" with names such as Ye Order of Ye Blak Prince and Kynges Ordynaunce.

It was raining hard when I arrived mid-morning, but the Saxons and Vikings were already at it, gingerly recreating a battle on the perilously slippery grass. A sizeable audience had assembled beneath a sea of golf umbrellas; facing them was a group of period onlookers - nuns and wenches lined up like cheerleaders. "Come back with us to a time of heroes," said a sombre voice over the PA. "As among the slain go the men seeking the tribute they have fought for." A couple of the soldiers, clearly enjoying themselves a little too much, refused point blank to die despite receiving apparently fatal injuries, and several of those indisputably run through with swords or pikes were milking their death for all it was worth; one managed to prolong his exit for a full five minutes by staggering, rolling, momentarily reviving and then finally collapsing in a twitching heap of soggy wool.

With the 11.30am fight cancelled due to waterlogged gunpowder, I went for a wander among the encampments ranging across the fields behind the house. Some had made beds of straw, others stirred cauldrons of soupy grey mush over open fires as their children (also in costume) cavorted with plastic muskets and longbows. The air smelled deliciously of wood smoke, conspiring with the wind, which carried the shouts from the mid- morning American Civil War skirmish in Arena B and some live medieval music (courtesy of the Hautbois Musicians) to conjure goosebumps on even the most cynical.

Though they camp separately the groups do mingle and as I walked, I saw several improbable vignettes: a Second World War pilot saluting a confederate soldier, a Roman in Reeboks, and a Viking queuing for a savoury crepe. Another Roman clanked past wearing a full-length suit made from brass scales (Romans are the aristocrats of the re-enactment world, their costumes can cost over pounds 1,000), accidentally brushing the elbow of a Roundhead who dropped his Cornetto into the mud, prompting a unique exchange of scowls spanning half a millennium. My most disturbing encounter of the day occurred soon after that with a man portraying a Red Indian. Despite the inclement weather he had eschewed clothing in favour of a loincloth and face paint. The Indian, Greg Bates from Uckfield in Sussex, told me that another of his group had been adopted by a genuine tribe in North America and that he often spends his holidays with them.

Some of the more serious re-enactors take on entire personas; I listened in on a couple of their conversations, conducted in ye olde pseudo middle English: "She 'tis a wench sir," "'Tis our very own king of England!" and so on. Later I spoke to a Land Army volunteer with a live ferret on a lead. She had taken on the character of a rat catcher: "They call me Stinky Williams, can't think why," she told me. Many conversations were along the lines of, "I spent 10 hours on these gloves," "Oh that's nothing, it took my wife four years to make these earrings... " One woman was proudly telling a small audience how she dyed her clothes with her own urine, fermented for six months in a vat in her airing cupboard, while a member of the English Civil War Society explained how tansy cakes were used to cure flatulence in the 17th century (and, by the way, did you know onion juice is good for burns?).

The first camp I stopped at was the Victorian infantry's. They were not in the best of humours. "We are dogged by that terrible Michael Caine film Zulu," Tim Rose, dressed as an officer, told me as we sheltered from the drizzle in the mess tent. "Everybody thinks that they can quote the lines to us. The first time it's not even vaguely funny, and by the 50th we've had enough. I have to say, though, my own involvement started with the film, it's something about the uniforms, and the lure of the Martini Henry."

The Martini Henry is a type of gun, Tim explained, but unfortunately Victorian infantry fans rarely get to wield them: "We don't re-enact battles, it's not very politically correct. Most of our opponents in the late 1880s were assorted natives and strangely there's no fuzzy-wuzzy re-enactment group."

Tim, who works for the prison service in Bognor, was at Kirby with his "memsahib", as he called his partner. Their pride and joy are the only two pairs of original Victorian army-issue long johns in existence, for which they outbid the National Army Museum at auction. This, I learnt after speaking with other re-enactors, is more significant than it sounds. Historically accurate underwear is fundamental to the committed re-enactor; more than a few offered to show me theirs, proudly boasting of the itchiness, discomfort and poor hygiene inherent in ancient smalls (if they can't die heroically in battle as their forefathers did, this is the next best thing, it seems).

While Tim had been the epitome of a Victorian officer not only in his dress but in his physiognomy too (haughty, bird-like, a touch gothic), the first Saxon I met having left Tim to his potato peeling was, again aptly enough, the epitome of a thick-set, stout yeoman-type, right down to his West Country accent. But this Saxon's prosaic appearance betrayed a fertile imagination.

"My authentic name is Comb Wolfe, I'm actually a thane of the low order," 33-year-old Stuart Douglas told me with a perfectly straight face (which soon wiped the smile off mine). "I used to work for a local lord, a high thane, and he employed me as his land lord. Over the years I became more trustworthy and was his personal guard and eventually he went off on a pilgrimage and died on the return journey, and when the will was read out he'd left most of the land to me. I could only take the land if I became a thane, so I was presented with a thaneship by my Earl." Ugh! A nouveau!

Stuart, who works for a cleaning company in Bristol, had come up with this story himself, as do many of his group, Regia Anglorum. He told me that when the day's re-enacting is over and the public have gone home the fun really begins and all the groups, irrespective of period, either get together for a great anachronistic water fight, or go down the pub, still in full battle regalia. As I moved off towards the market, Stuart called me back anxiously: "I just wanted to say, when we do go down the pub we go in kit but we don't take our weapons. I just wanted to make that clear."

Within the ruined walls of the Elizabethan house some fairly tasteless fare, from pewter jewellery to unlikely alcoholic concoctions made from berries, was on offer in the market. One vendor specialised in ancient sauces. I was about to taste his Roman relish when I caught a whiff of it. Nearby the Sharpe Appreciation Society (fans of ITV's hero played by Sean Bean) was collecting signatures for a petition to ask Carlton TV to repeat the series - they had already filled several sheets of A4. Up in the rafters to the side of the market and unseen by anyone else, I spotted a lone peacock, clearly freaked out by the hubbub.

For a female perspective I stopped to talk to Heather Hayter, from Eastleigh in Hampshire, and her friends, who were peeling potatoes (the second most common activity for re-enactors, after the actual fighting) in a Norman camp. "I think I am a refugee from the modern world in some way, this is a wonderful way of escaping from your everyday life," said Heather. "My husband thinks I'm absolutely mad. He's been to the pub with us but I'm hoping he'll come to a show. I'm a very private person, I don't like getting up on stage, but when I'm dressed like this it's like a persona you can hide behind." Women can take part in fights, as long as they dress as men and apparently some have quite a reputation as determined battlers. Generally, though, inequality rules. "If you do this as a woman you have to be prepared to be subservient to the men," said the peeler. "Having said that, the last man I was with made me choose between re-enacting and him. So here I am!"

On my way from Heather I finally encountered the Germans. I asked the officer in charge, a tall man (English, as were all the rest of his regiment) in his mid-thirties, with a complexion like orange peel, if we could talk and, after furrowing his brow for a few moments, he agreed. "But I don't want to be portrayed as some kind of neo-Nazi, I don't want my name in the papers," he warned, "I'm not being funny, we have no trouble whatsoever with the public or with British veterans, but the press have always taken the anti-view that we're just stupid people who dress up in silly uniforms and play war at the weekends."

If he had been involved in the previous night's mystery fracas this Hun wasn't telling, preferring instead to detail the lengths he went to to get things right: "We take authenticity seriously. We carry original identity cards, original pay books, we play for original money with original playing cards." (I wasn't allowed into the camp for fear of spoiling the effect.). Apparently the group sometimes holds private events at night: "If you want to truly find out what it was like for them you've got to suffer the same conditions as them. When you're sitting in a foxhole at two o'clock at night, freezing wet and hungry you think to yourself, `This is what it must have been like.' The only thing we can't duplicate is the fear, because nobody's trying to kill you."

On reflection, I didn't find the uniform of an Oberlieutenant silly at all. I found it disturbing. Whatever the justification in terms of historical research or representing "the ordinary German soldier as no different from the average Tommy or GI", as he put it ("We don't do SS officers or anything like that," he insisted), I can't imagine there would be many people of, say, the Jewish faith who would be sympathetic to people who dress up as Germans to "have a really good laugh ... let our hair down round the camp fire".

And that's not all they get up to, as I finally found out from Ian Harwood, a member of the Sealed Knot, one of the first re-enactment groups formed in this country and now the biggest in Europe with almost 7,000 members (it celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.) "I look at the people doing the Second World War and what they're doing and ..." Ian shook his head, "You know, there are still people alive who were there. Do you know, there's a beer tent on the site just over the hill and last night some of them who were dressed as SS officers walked in and the beer tent just went quiet. Everyone totally ignored them until someone asked them to leave."

As I left Kirby, having finally solved the mystery of the jackbooted Germans, I thought how easy (but ultimately unfair) it would be to paint a picture of re-enactors as adolescent role players, or insensitive warmongers. Both species are represented among the thousands in the UK of course, but that's not the whole truth. Many of those I met were genuinely fascinated by how we lived in the past, and they were fascinating and articulate when it came to sharing their knowledge.

More tellingly, re-enactors are almost exclusively white and mainly, I'd hazard, middle-class, and all the ones I spoke to who expressed political opinions tended to be slightly to the right of Enoch Powell - becoming particularly preachy when detailing the iniquities of the modern world. ("Yes, more people died in the 16th century, but you didn't have the population problems we have today," said one. "I just think the rate of progress is too bloody fast, we've become a very inward-looking nation. I remember the war...")

Why they choose to do it, perhaps only a psychologist could fully explain. Personally, I think many simply revel in the attention, some may be masochists drawn by the discomfort of the pants, others referred to the lure of the unconventional. Often a re-enactor will choose a role with contrasting status to their civilian job - it's not uncommon for a managing director to be a water-carrier or suchlike, for instance. All those I spoke to cited the camaraderie as a reason for joining (many are ex-servicemen seeking the same atmosphere they experienced in the forces), so perhaps, like all of us, whether we be football fans or worshippers at the Holy Church of Ikea, they seek nothing more than to belong. On balance, I think it's good, at least, that we know where they are at the weekends

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