I spent last Saturday at the English Heritage Festival of History. It’s an annual event held at Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire, and as it’s only a few miles from where I live I pay a visit every year.
One of the many joys about this event is that I can spend a whole day speaking to re-enactors about the different periods of history they’re recreating. Nothing is more exciting than history, so to chat with a Roman legionnaire and handle a gladius, or listen to a half-hour talk about air combat in the Great War, or feel the weight of a Bren gun, or to learn about Elizabethan cooking – or a hundred other things – is heaven to me.
What a pleasure to approach someone dressed up as a Wehrmacht infantryman – perhaps just to ask them about a detail on their uniform – and end up learning bizarre facts about the types of bicycles they were issued with or how a mortar works. Or perhaps to have an Imperial Russian officer tell me about the expeditionary force the Tsar sent sent to the Western Front in WW1. Or to learn that Viking swords were more important as status symbols than weapons, as they preferred to fight with spears or axes.
Being a history buff in a field with over a thousand people kitted out as men, women and children from various periods over the past two millenia, I was always going to be among kindred spirits. Even the atrocious rain that morning – it always seems to rain at the Festival of History – couldn’t dampen my spirits; and when the sun came out in the afternoon it was better than perfect.
The problem was always going to be that I had my girls with me. They’re seven and nine so I wasn’t even expecting them to last an hour before a) falling out with each other and b) getting bored and wanting to go home. Fortunately they did neither. From the moment they were invited to jump into a muddy trench and dress up with helmets, hand grenades and rocket launchers, I think they fell in love with it all. They were starting to see that history isn’t a dusty subject about dead people; rather it’s the exciting, action-packed, emotional story of all of us. Speaking to Viking re-enactors and realising some of their distant ancestors were Norsemen (our family name, Iliffe, is derived from Olaf) helped them to form a link with their own past. Seeing a Vickers machine gun – their great great uncle operated one in the trenches – helped them form another.
In the end, we spent eight hours in that big, muddy field, overlooked by a Georgian stately home and surrounded by the living ghosts of our predecessors. It reminded me of the times during my own childhood when my dear, departed dad had taken me to historical places and events all over the country – museums and castles and battlefields – and how those experiences had influenced and shaped me. And perhaps, when they’re all grown up, my girls will look back on our day together as one of those formative times in their own personal histories.