Snowed in and without power, Jason Goodwin was left to live a medieval lifestyle that was rejuvenating and romantic... but not to everyone's taste.
I had my eye on something at the local auction house and, rather than leave a bid or hang about in the freezing room in person, I went onto a site that relays auctions live and got a photo of each lot as it came up, with the bidding recorded underneath.
I was hypnotised. The game was to second-guess how much the world really wants a Sasha doll (quite a lot) or a box of Minton china (fairly keenly) or a water-colour of Epsom Downs (not at all). When a lot was knocked down to the room, or to ‘the internet’, it was like the twist in a murder mystery and I drew breath.
When a box of vintage army socks, a few badges and a hat climbed from its modest £10-£20 estimate to reach £160, I am sure it went to a re-enactor. In France, we lived opposite a man who specialised in Roman centurions; he’d vanish on Sunday mornings with his sandals and breastplate strapped to the back of his motorbike.
“Only when a group turned up as Waffen-SS were they asked to change their uniforms, before revealing that they were members of the Metropolitan Police.”
The re-enactors at the Weald and Downland Museum in Sussex are whole hog: they cook their rice of flesh in scratchily tinned vessels and their children, even the small ones in bonnets and lace-up Victorian boots, sit amiably on the cobbles playing taws with pebbles. Never have I seen them surreptitiously reaching for the iPhone.
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At the Chalke Valley History Festival, boffins give lectures on Napoleon or castle warfare just yards from people bivouacking with the Queen’s Own at a Crimean camp, or filing through the trenches at Ypres with ‘D’ company, meticulously accoutred in period costume right down to the socks. Only when a group turned up as Waffen-SS were they asked to change their uniforms, before revealing that they were members of the Metropolitan Police.
I understand the attraction, of re-enactment, that is. The other day, we woke to find ourselves snowed in. The electricity was down, which meant no heating, light, Aga, hot water, telephone or internet. We can’t get mobile reception here anyway and so for the next 24 hours, cut off from the benefits of our communicative and electrical civilisation, we lived the dream.
We dressed in many layers and stuck close to the fire. Boiling the water to make tea was a ceremony. Laying out the things we might need after dark – carving knife, plates, candlesticks – was a pleasant chore. Everything took on a new importance. We couldn’t do everything – we had new, but old, boundaries – yet the things we could were invested with interest.
“Beyond the small companionable sounds lay the certainty that nothing would interrupt us. The telephone was not about to ring, the postman was not about to knock on the door.”
We read. We talked. We walked to the village to see a 4×4 harmlessly impaled on a fence. We braised a piece of silverside in the fireplace, with leek, carrot, celery, Szechuan peppercorns and cloves, and we ate by firelight and candles at a card table in the sitting room. By 8.30pm we were all in bed.
The experience was transformed by the attention it drew to sound and light. The snow reflected on the ceiling, bringing limpid clarity to the rooms. When we sat reading, the only sounds were the yawning of dogs, the spitting and slumping of logs in the fireplace and the occasional papery gulp of somebody turning a page.
Beyond the small companionable sounds lay the certainty that nothing would interrupt us. The telephone was not about to ring, the postman was not about to knock on the door.
When, instead of turning on lamps and throwing the windows into blackness, we watched the light fade slowly and saw the garden with a new intensity, its shapes and shadows, a kestrel flitting low through the beeches, I suggested going off grid every week.
‘You must be joking,’ growled a small voice. Re-enactment isn’t for everyone.