Meet the re-enactors bringing history to life

Next time you’re in a big green field or perhaps a forest, don’t be surprised if you bump into a Victorian rifleman or an Anglo-Saxon warrior. For according to re-enactment societies, an increasing number of history-lovers from this area are joining up.

Thursday, 9th January 2020, 11:11 am
Updated Friday, 10th January 2020, 12:31 pm
Regia Anglorum reenactment society during their first event at Fort Nelson in July 2019. Credit: Jenn Peters

And new members are being taught ancient skills, taken to foreign battlefields, and even introduced to the Time Lord herself.

Stubbington resident David Brightmore works as an architect, but in his spare time he is a blacksmith for a 17th century village – and he is inundated with potential apprentices.

He says: ‘We’ve just tried out forging lessons and I’m already taking bookings for 2021. We are quite surprised.’

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Body armour belonging to Regia Anglorum reenactment society. Credit: Jenn Peters

In 2011, David and his family visited the Little Woodham Living History Village, at Gosport, and were drawn into the world of late renaissance living.

The 47-year-old says: ‘I had never done forge work before. I went on a few courses and became the village blacksmith.

‘I have four apprentices now. The youngest is my son who is only eight years old.

‘The oldest is Eve who is 83 – she has been a member of the village for more than 30 years.’

Henry (8) and Evie (10) Brightmore with Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker.

David believes it’s not just an interest in an historical period, but also a longing for a different way of life that attracts people to acting out a bygone period.

‘People are attracted to the nostalgia, harking back to a golden age’, he says.

‘But a lot of it is to do with working with a laptop or computer all day.

‘People want to work with something physical and walk away having made something.’

The village is open from April to October, and it is open for anyone to become a member.

Barry Roberts, the chairman of the Gosport Living History Society, which manages the village, says: ‘We have 50 members at the moment, so it’s a good sized community.’

If you become a member there is a fee of £20, and then it’s £10 a year.

They can run a village with five members but 25 members would make it a lot easier.

The village’s inclusivity applies to visitors no matter how alien, with an episode of Doctor Who filmed on site last year. David says it was ‘amazing’ to introduce the kids to Jodie Whittaker.

And TV crews are due to return soon, according to Barry.

Barry said: ‘A lot of TV companies come down and do filming with us.

‘BBC Two want to come along and do some filming in March and April for a children’s television series.’

As well as giving members the opportunity to appear on TV, many re-enactment societies offer the chance to travel the country – and further afield.

Portsmouth resident and part-time Anglo Saxon fletcher Martin Bright is a member of Regia Anglorum and the Vikings Re-enactment Society, which have enabled him to see more of the world than any archer from the dark ages.

He said: ‘I have been to London, Kent, York – even Poland. I was invited to events in France last year.

‘There's lots of opportunity to travel.’

And for some, travel offers the opportunity to perform in front of royalty.

Last year James Dix, a former Portsmouth resident who runs The Queen's (Royal West Surrey) Regiment Re-enactment Society, travelled to South Africa to commemorate the Battle of Isandlwana for its 150th anniversary.

The 34-year-old says: ‘About 20 of us from the society went out there to take part in a re-enactment of the battle with 150 Zulu warriors, performed in front of a Zulu king.

‘What surprises a lot of people is the Zulus were extremely willing to remember it alongside British visitors.’

The battle was a major victory for Zulu forces during the war against the British – and the re-enactment stayed faithful to the historical record.

James says: ‘We were all cut down, unfortunately.’

The part time Victorian soldier and full-time insurance firm director will be returning to Portsmouth with his regiment to take part in a mock-invasion at Fort Nelson on Friday, February 7.

But despite frequent sword-swinging and bayonet charging, re-enactment societies work hard to keep actual injuries to a minimum, Martin says.

He adds: ‘We are not so daft as to think we are really Romans or real warriors.

‘We can teach you how to fight, and we try our best to re-enact the battles as authentically as possible without hurting each other.

‘Last year, we only had two minor injuries.’

Authenticity plays a vital part in all the societies, but it should be carefully balanced with being inclusive for new members.

James says: ‘We work with people to be historically accurate. I've moved up the ranks as I have got older, but when I'm 70, I will be thinking, “you wouldn’t have a 70-year-old soldier” .

‘I’ll have to think about what role I can portray.

‘I know six different Queen Victorias, and they all portray a different time in her life because of their ages.’

While franchises like Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings were attracting a younger audience to LARPING (live action role play), other shows like Vikings and Last Kingdom are increasing people's appreciation of history, according to Martin.

He said: ‘There is a growing interest in not just watching history, but living it.’

Blacksmith David agrees: ‘You cannot do this without a fondness for history.

‘We love to go out and find things that would be interesting for visitors. To bring history to life in a truly unique experience.’