Event held at Kirby Hall, Nr. Corby, Northamptonshire
Tel: +44 (0) 1536 407507. 11/12 August 2001.
The re-enactment event of the year: This spectacular annual event, the world's biggest, boasts more than 3,000 performers, with dramatic and colo „
You know something is there, beyond your sight! Something malicious, malevolent, threatening... But you can only wait. And listen. What is it that you hear? A myriad of sharp, metallic clicks of metal touching metal. Cold, brusque, and unrelenting in the distance. Growing louder - surely closer – yet still unseen. Could it possibly be...? You strain your ears and eyes. Every nerve in your body focuses on the horizon. Every muscle tautens. Another sound becomes discernible. A rhythmic beat that neither pauses nor fades. Steady, predictable, unfaltering. It surely is...? You squeeze the tiny hand that has just slipped into yours, vaguely aware that, in the silent crowd, a hundred children have just reached out for parental reassurance. Should they be there? Are they about to be frightened out of their wits? Your attention alternates between the corn that wavers on the hillside, and the child who quivers at your own side. The sounds are closer still. You know exactly what they are now. Marching! Marching, and the cold, hard clanks of armour! But you haven’t seen anything quite like this before... You can only guess at what will happen next, as the colours of the Roman army appear, brazen and impertinent, against the skyline. And the beat goes on... Your youngster’s eyes are open wide now. A little like Christmas day - when the wrapping is almost off of the biggest present – and the waiting, and the wondering, is almost over. But today, his excitement is of a different kind. There is no laughter in those eyes. He is overcome with awe. Just as you are. An air of respect spreads through the waiting crowd, as their eyes follow the column of marching soldiers. Horses pace alongside the marching column. With shining coats and tossing heads, they bear the weight of their armoured riders effortlessly, courageously, ardently. Proud of the part they play. It is easy to imagine that both men and beasts
hunger for the excitement, and the glory, of the battlefield. Hissed gasps of amazement exude from the waiting, spellbound crowd, as the first of the grim-faced marchers are reaching the field, but still more colours appear in the sky on the brow of the hill. Torn between curiosity and trepidation, your little one now has a very firm grip on your arm. His eyes flicker back and forward along the column of armour and brilliant red shields, which move as one fluid body. Without a sideways glance, the army approaches, growing ever greater... as the beat goes on.... Storm clouds gather in the sky. Dark. Threatening. Building on the atmosphere of strength and power. But the crowd doesn’t heed the warnings in the sky. Rooted to their spots, they know that thunder, lightening, hail or snow won’t stop this army. For they are marching, marching, marching; with a purpose and a pride that will allow them to be stopped by nothing. Or stop at nothing. Their banners high, their swords still sheaved, they turn and change formation. Drilled to faultless perfection; they represent an army trained to intimidate, to persecute, to obey, to fight and die with honour. A killing machine without compassion. And it’s heading your way! The banners fight with the wind, but will not fall. The soldiers seem unaware of either wind or crowd. Their eyes look forward; cold, unsmiling... almost unseeing. You are of no importance to them... no match, no threat, no menace. The crowd in which you wait are only a little less well trained, protected, or armed, than the crowds that the forefathers of this Roman Legion would have slaughtered. Your attention wavers from the gleaming precision that moves in from of you, to the huddled child who peers, transfixed, over your arm, to the flimsy green tape that flutters in the wind between these warriors and yourself. For a second you wonder why the hell you chose to sit in the front row! Of course! You’d
intended to take photo’s. But the camera is in your hand, forgotten, and all you can do is wait and wonder, feeling your breathing hasten, and the adrenalin flow faster, as your body struggles to remember that the fight or flight response isn’t necessary today. And anyway, it’s too late to move now. In lines, in squares, in the famous turtle formations that defeated so many, the men march like a colony of ants, ignoring everything except their commanders. You see their coldness, their loyalty, their discipline; and you understand how the Romans left nothing living in their wake. Where they advanced, every man, every woman, every child, and every dog, fell by their swords. You feel some of the fear and the helplessness that must have befallen a people who saw a column of red cloth and glinting metal approach. You feel an admiration for a people who built a mighty empire, so many centuries ago. You feel the fear, the thrill, the excitement, the awe, and the smallness of being on the sidelines. You watch, as the horses charge, the swords flash, the shields rise, and the ballistae fire. And all the while, like a harbinger of death, that dreadful, defiant, hypnotic, beat goes on.... But what of the child at your side? A child is like wet cement. Everything that falls upon him makes an impression. And he is very impressed. Of that there is no doubt. The past may never seem dull to him again, for he has tasted real insight, real empathy. What he has witnessed is the pages from a once dull history book coming to life... This is history, presented in its strongest form... History in Action. ............................................................... My first encounter with the Romans at Kirby was two years ago, but it was an experience that I will always remember. It completely turned around my negative attitude towards history. As a teenager, I struggled to get a miserable 14%
in the history mock ‘O’ level, and have given the subject a very wide berth since then. So why did I make the 4 hour trip to Kirby Hall? It was a sort of error of judgement, I suppose. I had a leaflet of coming events, and gave it to my son after a very bad visit to the dentist, with the promise that I would take him to any event of his choice. To my amazement, he chose ‘History in Action’ at Kirby Hall... and... a promise is a promise. I couldn’t face a return journey the same day, so we took a tent and stayed overnight – and I would now recommend anyone to make their visit as long as possible. Spend one day at ‘History in Action’ only if you really can’t remain for the two, because even then, you won’t be able to see all that this event has to offer. The programme is repeated, but there will be parts of it that you would love to see twice, and several display areas are running simultaneously. I have spoken about the Roman Army display, because it had a great impact on me personally... maybe because it was the first major re-enactment that I saw, and I really had very little idea of what to expect. Other people will have their own favourites displays, and there are certainly plenty to chose from. Soldiers through the ages... including the Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Celts, 15th Century men-at-arms, 18/19th Century Redcoats, Victorian riflemen and lancers. There are battles depicting many periods – including the English Civil War, the Napoleonic War, World Wars I and II. Going away from the battlefields, there are jousting Knights, dancers, minstrels, entertainers and craftsmen from various ages. Finally, supporting the tightly scheduled timed displays, an extensive living history encampment and historical market, offers interesting displays and wares from a wide time period. The encampments offer visitors a unique opportunity to see clothes, armour, ornaments and utensils
at close quarters, and learn in-depth information from the brilliantly costumed re-enactors. The development of armour, uniforms, weapons and battle tactics are explained and illustrated throughout the whole show, in a way that makes sense to even those of us with no previous knowledge or understanding of the subject. You will also see how things were done... cooking, building, chain-mail, and sewing, for instance. What you will NOT see is a lack of professionalism. We saw nothing that was poor, and certainly nothing that was dull. And don’t go with the thought that you will be looking at ordinary people in fancy dress. Ordinary people they might be... but this is no fancy dress party! The attention to detail, and aim for historical authenticity, are very apparent throughout this event; and the enthusiasm of the artists (and their sheer numbers!) ensure that the illusion created is awe-inspiring, and the spread of information and knowledge great. This isn’t an event for the faint-hearted... I would advise packing your favourite headache cure with the picnic, just in case the cannons, tanks or machine guns begin to get too loud for you! Quiet areas can be found, and there is beauty and humour to lighten the day as well – but if you have a child who hates loud fireworks, then this is not the place for them to be! Be prepared to prevent the weather from spoiling your visit, take rainwear, boots, sunhats and sun cream, as appropriate, for much of the area is quite open. Take comfortable foot-ware, and folding seats and/or something to sit on such as a rug or plastic sheet – the ground is sloped, and to ensure maximum pleasure, viewing areas are split so that people stand at the back, use their own (a few are supplied) chairs in the centre, and sit on the ground at the front. A picnic will save you spending valuable viewing-time in long queues, although the catering is better than it often is at outside events. Toilet faci
lities are adequate; again, better than one often finds on such occasions! Access to the site is not brilliant, and there is a lot of traffic entering and leaving any event of this size, but parking is done as sensibly and quickly as possible, it seemed to me. Accept the problem as an unavoidable fact; take a packed breakfast and entertainment for children to help while away any time spent in slow moving queues (easily an hour or more to cover the last few miles last year, at peak travelling times), and aim to be early! The setting, Kirby Hall, in Corby, Northamptonshire, could not possibly suit all periods covered (no building could!), but the ruins of this gracious hall add a haunting, romantic quality to the event, and the grounds are ideal, with their slopes and hillocks. If you find some spare minutes, take some time to see the formal garden. The final parade, with all the cavalry, infantrymen, Lords and peasants alike, is a display that stirs high emotions, as it appears on the brow of the hill, and makes its way down to the viewing area. It really brings home to the visitor the size and complexity of the event, with literally thousands of re-enactors. It’s like having a history book’s pictures come to life in front of you, as soldiers from across the centuries pass by you; marching in columns, each group with its own sounds and sights. Don’t even THINK about missing it in order to try and beat the queues of departing cars! The historical market offers a wide range of wares, from children’s souvenirs to re-enactor’s fabrics (yes – many make their own clothes), armour and weaponry. In between, there is a delightful array of reproduction ornaments and implements from all ages, sold by knowledgeable tradesmen, many of whom are also there as re-enactors. The weekend offers excellent value for money. The cost of two-day entry is little more than a year’s membership to English Her
itage... and as members are admitted free of charge, it makes sense to join! You then have a full year’s entry to English Heritage properties and events (many properties are castles, most events are re-enactments, although none match the size of ‘History in Action’). You can become a member at the gate, but joining before the event will save you time queuing. My final advice then... if you enjoy history, then you can’t afford to miss this event; if you hate it, then here is the event to change your mind; and if you have children, then you can teach them that history is as ‘real’ as today, by letting them see it come to life!