My column for the September edition of the Tetbury Advertiser
There’s nothing like a holiday in a place very different from home to give you a fresh perspective. This summer we headed for East Anglia, as flat as the page of this magazine. Not only was the landscape a change from the gently undulating Cotswold hills, but we also learned a lot about British history.
Neolithic flint mines: who knew? I thought flint was just something you found on the surface. But Neolithic tribes discovered that the best type for spearheads lies in a vertical seam thirty feet below the ground and sank pits to dig it out. Near Thetford, my husband and daughter descended a mine-shaft ladder to bear witness. (Smart delegation on my part.)
In the city museum of Ely, birthplace of republican Oliver Cromwell and base for Hereward the Wake, resistance leader against the Norman invasion, we learned the remarkable story of how the flooded fenland has been reclaimed and made farmable over the centuries. They’re nothing if not determined, these East Anglians.
But for me the highlight was a trip to a history festival at Castle Rising, once owned by William the Conqueror’s brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, commissioner of the famous tapestry. Dozens of linen tents pitched around the grounds housed historical reenactors in costumes from throughout the last couple of millennia.
A small boy toddling past me in homespun tunic clutched a green plastic Thomas the Tank Engine.
“Ah, a time travelling baby!” I observed.
“Just don’t ty to separate him from Thomas,” replied his dad, a medieval peasant. “Some Romans tried that earlier, and there’s not much left of them.”
A passing Agincourt archer showed me his quilted jacket, thirty-one layers thick to withstand arrowheads.
“I like your sunhat,” I smiled, thinking he must be melting in the heat.
“Armoured straw,” he said with a wink.
But this was no cosmetic exercise. Also on show were impressive demonstrations of historical skills, from handforging chainmail to armed combat with a vast array of authentic weapons. Now I know what a poleaxe looks like, I realise how devastating being poleaxed would be. This stout stick taller than the soldier ends in a combined dagger, axe and hammer – a medieval forerunner of the Swiss Army knife, on a grander scale.
How did ordinary people cope with such gruesome methods of fighting? A Redcoat, polishing his musket, explained.
“It was just normal life to them. When you’re used to slaughtering your own livestock to survive, the only difference in battle is that the blood and guts spilled are human.”
Afterwards, my daughter asked me which era I would choose to live in. I was quick to reply. “The modern era, but in ten years’ time, when all this Brexit nonsense is over and done with.”
And if it’s not, at least I now know how to fell a politician with a poleaxe.
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