I’ve been re-enacting – off and on – for over twenty years. I have many treasured memories, I’ve met some of my closest friends through the hobby and even found myself a husband. So, what’s it like? And how do you go about getting involved if you fancy having a go yourself?
Is it for you?
If you have an interest in history and like dressing up I’d say ‘yes’. It’s certainly one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I can’t imagine a life without re-enactment.
There’s only so much you can learn from books but by re-enacting you can actually live history – taste the food, wear the clothes, fight in a musket or pike block – all with the knowledge that you can go back to the 21st Century, have a takeaway, a nice hot shower and fall asleep in a warm, comfy bed.
No matter how knowledgeable you think you are about the past, sometimes things just ‘click’ when you’re in historical clothing, things just start to make sense about life long ago. It’s almost like you’re putting on the historical mind-set along with the woollen doublet and hose.
You’ll also have the opportunity to visit some amazing historic sites, and sometimes gain privileged access which the general public doesn’t have.
But be warned - re-enacting could take over your life…and your wallet! You’ll need to acquire good basic kit – and obviously you can’t just pop down to your local high street to get ‘something that will do’. Many re-enactors are more than happy with one set of clothing, but most will want a change at some point, perhaps something a bit more fancy for the beer tent or banqueting. There might be extra role specific equipment to buy – armour, weapons, period appropriate craft equipment and perhaps books for reference and research. You might need to travel across the country to attend events, buy camping stuff if you don’t already have it, and money for food and drink whilst you’re away.
But it’s a great way of meeting likeminded people, perhaps from parts of the country, and walks of life you’ve never encountered before.
How do I connect with these ‘likeminded’ people?
Firstly, have an idea about what you want to do. Is there a specific historical period you’re interested in? And what role appeals to you? Do you want to get stuck in on the battlefield, or pursue a more sedate activity on the living history camp?
How authentic do you want to be? Do you just want to dress up in fancy clothes and socialise with people with similar interests, or are you willing to make all your clothing by hand and then spend the weekend sleeping in a ditch – whatever the weather? And there are groups out there which cover everything in between. The level of authenticity you’re happy or willing to achieve should influence the type of group you consider joining.
The internet can be an amazing tool. Do some research into the groups available, most will have a website or Facebook page. You should be able to judge whether they prioritise having a good time over high historical accuracy (this might be what you’re looking for) or authenticity over friendliness. I’d suggest having a good look at any images of female members, especially for groups which adopt some form of uniform for the male members. I find this usually gives you a good indication of the general standard of the group, as women generally have to decide on how to interpret the period themselves. Does the group’s website include dress guidelines/regulations and/or rules of conduct? Is there an events list? What type of venues are the group getting gigs at? And another word of warning – having events at sites run by the likes of English Heritage or National Trust is not always a guarantee of quality. As a previous employee of one of these organisations I’ve seen it from both sides.
Try and see groups at events. Ask questions. How approachable are their members?
If the group is local, it might be possible to meet up with some of the members for an informal chat at a neutral relaxed venue, such as a pub. You’ll be able to get a good feel for members as real people and whether you’ll get along.
So – what’s a typical event like?
First of all - there isn’t a typical event. They’re all different. They might involve a handful of re-enactors giving informal living history demonstrations, to over a thousand taking part in a recreated battle. But there are usually a few common elements.
Expect to camp – there is usually some opportunity to camp, either in authentic tents or modern ‘plastic’ camping. Hopefully, toilet facilities will be provided, but these can be basic and might not be cleaned/emptied as much as really needed. And don’t expect showers and other washing facilities. Again, food vendors and a beer tent might be provided, especially at bigger events, but it’s not a given.
If you’re camping on the plastic camp you can wear what you want (period clothing, modern or a mix of both), drink out of cans, eat crisps etc. But if you are on the authentic/living history camp you will have to be up and dressed in appropriate clothes for the event and hide any modern items you have been using by the time the event officially starts and the public arrive.
Expect to be authentic – participants will need to be dressed, and act, like people from the past whilst they are in public areas, or whilst the event is officially running. This might mean smoking pipes instead of cigarettes, drinking beverages out of suitable vessels – ie decanting fizzy drinks from cans into wooden beakers, not eating modern foods such as ice cream, crisps, burgers etc, not using mobiles in public and turning phones to silent.
Also be prepared to remove modern jewellery, cover tattoos, go without makeup (or at least tone it down), and dress hair according to the norms for the period you are portraying. For women this will probably mean covering it completely.
Expect to stick to a timetable – most events will have a basic programme of what happens when. This can be fluid, but you will need to be ready. All re-enactors might not be needed for all things, dramatic scenarios might only involve a handful of chosen people, different demonstrations of crafts/weapons might take place at different times. At larger events, there are usually several smaller activities leading up to a large set piece – a battle re-enactment or possibly a parade, involving most participants.
Expect the weather – unfortunately something none of us can do anything about. Event organisers won’t cancel an event unless conditions are extreme and/or dangerous. So, you’ll need to keep a close eye on the forecast and be prepared. Pack wellies, waterproofs, bring a spare pair of shoes (if you have them) and hose/stockings. If it’s going to be hot, make sure you take plenty of water, sunblock etc. Extra blankets are always handy – for keeping warm in your tent, they can be used as shawls round the campfire in the evening and can be used to add some dressing to a living history camp.
Expect to deal with the general public (in all its glory) – re-enactment needs people to come and see what you get up to. It’s usually why these expensive events get organised. The public will ask obvious (and sometimes downright stupid) questions. So, you’ll need to learn to smile graciously whilst biting your tongue and try not to be sarcastic or superior (I know, it’s hard sometimes). But you’ll also be surprised at how sensible and enquiring some people are, prompting deeper discussions about life in the past. I think if someone comes away from an interaction with me when I’m re-enacting knowing just one thing they didn’t know about history before, then I’ve done a good job. Members of the public also leave their manners at home sometimes, touching objects – including food! – without asking. And it’s just as often the adults (who should know better) as the kids.
Expect there to be booze – although there should be no alcohol consumed whilst an event’s in progress (especially if you are in charge of dangerous equipment such as swords and firearms) many people use their re-enactment hobby to socialise once the day’s activities have finished. Some really let their hair down. I’ve already mentioned beer tents several times and even smaller events frequently have a communal campfire for everyone to gather around in the evenings, possibly involving rowdy singing. If you don’t fancy joining in the party better make sure you bring some earplugs so you can get a reasonable night’s sleep.
Expect to feel tired – you might be preparing to attend an event several days beforehand (I’ve been known to stay up late sewing to get new bits of kit finished in time for events), and you might have an early start to get to an event taking place on the other side/end of the country. You then have to pitch your tent when you get there and get yourself (and possibly other people) ready before fighting on the battlefield or manning your Living History station and interacting with the public all day. Once the public has left, you might decide to treat yourself to a few beers in the beer tent with friends, and there could be dancing as well if there’s a disco or band playing. Even if you prefer to sit round the campfire in the evening sharing stories and a bottle of port, you’ll probably end up going to bed later than you normally do at home. And you might have to do it all again the next day. You probably won’t notice how tired you are during the event due to adrenaline and excitement. But after packing up and a potentially long drive home you will be knackered. It’s worth considering booking the day off work after an event (especially a large one) if you can. This will give you some time to have a lie in/nap later in the day and put away kit and equipment before returning fully to the real 21st Century world.
Still Not Sure?
Want to dress up, share your passion for history, but not sure about camping, port-a-loos and beer tents? If there’s a heritage site or museum close by it’s worth getting in touch. Most will have an Education Department and there might be opportunities there which will suit. If the site is run by a large heritage organisation (such as English Heritage or National Trust in the UK) you might have the chance to claim some money to put towards travel expenses too. Most organisations which rely on volunteers also offer other incentives such as social events and free entry/discounts at sites run by the same organisation. Even if they don’t offer you the opportunity to dress up, they could have other voluntary roles which you’d be interested in. And if you’d like to pursue a paid position or career in heritage, volunteering is a good way to get your foot in the door, gain some experience and be first to know of other opportunities when they arise.
So, what’s stopping you?
It doesn’t cost anything to make some initial enquiries to groups and/or historic sites you like the look of. You might find it’s not your cup of tea after all but you might love it and find a personally rewarding and lifelong passion. But you’ll never know unless you take that first step. Go on - do it today!