RACHEL JONES meets the history buffs who step into the shoes of our ancestors and bring the past to life.
Like most people, Wayne Letting looks forward to seeing his friends and enjoying some free time at the weekend.
But instead of lounging around in jeans, he’s more likely to be dashing around in chain mail. And when he meets his mates, it usually ends up with a sword fight.
Colleagues might know him as Wayne, but to others he is Wihtgar (or White Spear) – the elder of a sixth century Hampshire tribe.
Wayne, 45, and his partner Julie Newby are the founders of Weorod, a living history group based in Portsmouth and south Hampshire.
Weorod visit events, dressed in the clothing of sixth and seventh century Hampshire-dwellers and give combat and crafts demonstrations.
‘We set it up because there wasn’t really a group in this area covering that period,’ says Wayne. ‘We focus on the period after the Romans and before the Vikings. This area is rich in finds from that time, so it’s an important part of Hampshire history.’
Weorod base their re-enactments and costumes on the Meonware – the people who lived in the Meon Valley in the early Anglo-Saxon period. It is thought that they were Jutish people (settlers who came from Denmark).
‘It is called the Dark Ages because there isn’t much written evidence from that time, so there is a lot we can’t be sure about,’ says Wayne. ‘But from what we do know it seems it wasn’t such a Dark Age at all. These weren’t barbarians living in holes in the ground. They were cultured and civilised people with metalwork skills and trade links all over the known world.’
Members of Weorod give demonstrations in the pottery of the period and the making of goods using antlers and bone. A medicine man talks about some of the herbal remedies and surgical practices of the period.
‘We know they used trepanning, which is making a hole in the skull to relieve pressure,’ says Wayne. ‘It’s still used today, obviously with different equipment and in different conditions. But they knew it worked. Of course we don’t demonstrate that, although our medicine man has offered to pull children’s teeth when he’s been talking to a group. He hasn’t had any takers so far.’
Remedies include willow bark, crushed, soaked and mixed with honey, which acts as a painkiller. Wayne says it works, so the group’s doctor – or leech as he would have been known at the time – is onto something.
The public will be able to see Weorod’s experts in action at a living history event at Portsmouth’s City Museum next weekend.
Members of the group have developed different areas of Anglo-Saxon expertise but some of them already had plenty of knowledge. Among the group’s number is a metal conservation expert and a ceramics expert who has worked for Hampshire Museums Service.
They all take Anglo-Saxon names when they are giving talks or demonstrating crafts. ‘We don’t stick to it all the time like some groups,’ says Wayne, who lives in Portsmouth and is a civil servant. ‘But it creates a bit more of an illusion for the public. It just wouldn’t work if I was talking about going into battle and said “these are my friends Fred, Bert, Harry and George”.’
Wayne specialises in weaponry and combat and also gives talks on trade and diplomacy. The group practice combat displays every other week and use blunted weapons.
‘We try to make it look as realistic as possible without actually killing each other,’ says Wayne. ‘One target area would have been the face and we don’t do that. But anything else is a free and available target.’
He admits that accidents can happen but adds: ‘Actually it’s probably safer than rugby, and we make sure everyone is trained.’
Weorod have most of their weapons made by swordsmiths. They discuss what they want with the suppliers using knowledge from archaeological finds. Clothing is based on archaeological finds in some areas of Europe, but as these aren’t generally preserved, absolute accuracy isn’t possible.
‘We do a lot of research and we’re often updating things according to new finds and information,’ explains Wayne. ‘But this is a period of history that we can’t know everything about, although we are as accurate as possible. But that makes it so much more fascinating. There’s always more to know.’
He says the work of the group is significant for several reasons. ‘This is probably one of the most important periods of what we have come to know as England. Everything has an impact on something else and without this period we wouldn’t have had the Norman Conquest and the changes in society and class systems.
‘I think it’s important for young people to understand the history of the area they live in and this is such a good way of doing it.’
Bringing history to life is what it’s all about, says Wayne, and grabbing people’s interest is what keeps him donning the tunics and taking up Anglo-Saxon arms.
‘People are fascinated by the textiles and weapons and they want to keep talking about it.
‘I do this partly because of my own fascination but to be able to educate people about the past is wonderful.’