Sunday, October 05, 2014

A great day out

As a member of an amateur operatic society in my youth I got used to dressing up and appearing in public, but there was always physical separation between them and me. To appear among the public, in costume and role playing would make me feel somewhat eccentric, but some do it on a regular basis. Today I visited Basing House, or at least the ruins of it, and witnessed for the first time something of a civil war re-enactment. There were Royalists in large hats with feathers and Parliamentarians in helmets and armour. Muskets cracked and a three-pounder cannon boomed. Orders, alien to modern ears, were rapped out and men with sixteen feet long pikes snapped to it. 

The site of Basing House is huge. The house used to be the size of Hampton Court Palace, in its prime, but was in fact two houses, the old (11th century) and the new (16th century) standing side by side. During the English civil war the owners of the house, Royalist supporters, together with their tenants and staff held out for three years against the Parliamentarian siege until eventually Oliver Cromwell arrived in person with six thousand troops and a very large gun. Holes were blasted in the walls, the postern gate was breached, and Cromwell's troops were in. Within forty five minutes the occupants were either dead or captured and the house was ablaze. Cromwell ordered its complete destruction.

The re-enactment does not seek to replicate the siege or its outcome, it is merely a flavour of the seventeenth century on the site of a historical event. What it does replicate is the costumes and weapons in as authentic appearance as possible. I cannot speak of the methods used to make them, but those materials used, wool, iron, wood etc are true to the age. Certainly the appearance is impressive, as is the knowledge of the event and the enthusiasm of the participants. The noise and smoke generated add to the atmosphere which is more than could be said for the younger children present who cried when the guns went off, but the afternoon was very pleasantly passed in the warm October sun.

Speaking to one or two of the participants it is clear that historical re-enactment is an absorbing hobby which takes many of them around the country. New recruits tend to be chosen as the early bodies, while the more experienced get to be musket men (a shotgun licence is necessary) or artillery men. There is an emphasis on safety, as you would expect, and the womenfolk also participate in the more craft related activities like lace-making or basket making. Cooking is also done in seventeenth century style (and we all got to take part in its consumption!), and there is a scribe and clerics. Truly something for all. 

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