Bringing the Past to Life

Great British events and attractions that bring you ‘Living History’

Meri Williams discovers the growing range of events and places across the UK where history is expertly conjured up through re-enactment and period styling.

Time travel has been a dream for people for centuries. It is yet to be invented, but we have found other ways to transport ourselves through history, both into the future, and back to the past. Evermore creative methods have been used to conjure up the sense of being in another time- particularly in films and television, and on the stage.
In recent years, there have been great efforts to make it possible to feel the atmosphere of another era at places and events, where both the ‘sets’ and people present seem as if they are from another time. It’s a great experience and a fantastic outing opportunity.

There is much to enjoy by experiencing the feelings, environments and social activities of the past and even joining in as characters from history. Some people have great fun and even make a living from‘re-enactment’, covering periods from the Roman times through to the 1950s. Historic attractions have worked painstakingly to either preserve or re-create the original buildings, artefacts and activities from bygone times and animate them regularly by engaging performers who dress and act as characters from the period.
There are both special events to enjoy throughout the year, indoors and out, and a number of places where the past is brought to life daily!

Nostalgic transport

Rail, road and water have numerous connections to the past, and are celebrated widely at events across the country, making a fantastic group day out. Brooklands Museum in Weybridge, Surrey, is set at the site of the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit and houses collections of cars, motorcycles and bicycles. Groups can take part in the Fete Champetre on 11th June – a 1930s and 40s themed summer picnic with live jazz, vintage cars and elegant costume. On 20th and 21st August, the Hilda Hewlett Centenary Weekend marks the occasion of the world’s first pilot’s licence given to a woman whilst on 3rd September, celebrate the 50th anniversary of the classic Austin Healey vehicle. For bicycle enthusiasts, the Cycle Festival at Brooklands on 18th September will showcase vintage bicycles from Raleigh Choppers to Penny Farthings. For another magical step back in time, the Goodwood Revival from 16th to 18th September is a unique chance to revel in the glamour and allure of motor racing in the romantic time capsule of its golden era. Taking place at Goodwood in Sussex, the Revival is one of the world’s most popular historic motor race meeting, and is staged entirely in the nostalgic 1940s, 50s and 60s eras. It relives the glory days of the Goodwood Motor Circuit and offers visitors the opportunity to leave the ‘modern world’ behind and join motor sport luminaries in an unabashed celebration of flat-out wheel-to-wheel racing around a classic racetrack, untouched by present day. Last year, it even featured a complete working reproduction of a 1960s Tesco, which will be a feature for the next few years. Most guests dress up to recreate a period look, which all adds to the fun.

The 1960s Tesco store at the Goodwood Revival

The 1960s Tesco store at the Goodwood Revival

The 1960s Tesco store at the Goodwood Revival From that famous platform scene in Brief Encounter to the Railway Children, trains spring nostalgically to mind when thinking about the past, and a great way to enjoy them is at the Severn Valley Railway. On offer to groups from 20th to 22nd May is the Sound of the Sixties. Now in a new three-day format, the event features visiting steam and diesel locomotives and 1960s displays and activities at stations along the line.
There will also be 1960s fashion shows, displays of Morris Minor cars and a 1960s market at Bewdley. Groups can also take part in two 1940’s weekendson 25th and 26th June and 2nd and 3rd July, when the railway turns the clocks back to wartime Britain. Costumed re-enactors, 1940s displays, replica 1940s homes and historic vehicles all combine for an action packed day out.

The Mid Hants Watercress Line in Hampshire prepares for war on 11th and 12th June at various stations as part of War on the Line. At Alresford station, expect song, dance and merriment, the 514th re-enactment group on display with a fine collection of military vehicles and hot and cold rations available from the West Country Buffet on Platform 1. At Ropley station, you can see the Observer Corp and RAF Plotting Station, Coldstream Guards, bomb disposal demonstrations, wartime vehicles, the Hurricane Society and memorabilia stands. At Medstead and Four Marks station, meanwhile, life on the Home Front, the Ministry of Food, Land Army, a NAAFI wagon, the Home Guard and vintage vehicles can all be experienced.

Characters at Shipwrightry at Buckler’s Hard

Characters at Shipwrightry at Buckler’s Hard

Groups are taken back to the days of Britain’s most famous Royal Navy flag officer, Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, at Shipwrightry at Buckler’s Hard in Hampshire between 30th April and 2nd May, where ships for Nelson’s Trafalgar fleet were built. Visitors can watch as students from the University of Southampton convert oak timbers from the Beaulieu Estate into the main components of the framework of a ship, discovering the challenges faced by shipbuilders of the time, and how they overcame them. Living history guides will also be on hand to tell visitors what life was like, living and working in the village during its shipbuilding years.

Remembering and discovering wartime

Wartime is something that is imprinted in our minds as a nation and there are many museums and venues that make sure those who lost their lives during this time are not forgotten. Located in the heart of Westminster, groups visiting the Churchill War Rooms can view this complex of historic rooms left exactly as they were in 1945 and walk in Churchill’s footsteps through the extensive secret underground site from which he directed the war. One of the most exciting events here is Museums at Night on 13th May, where you can spend the evening at the site. Groups can get in the mood with authentic music of the era before getting ‘the look’ in the vintage boudoir. A team of 1940s fashion experts will be on hand to transform your group’s hair and make-up, and there will even be a dressing up box complete with period clothes and accessories to try on. There will be a full cash bar all night where guests can enjoy sharing deli platters, bar snacks and a range of drinks including Pol Roger, Churchill’s favourite champagne!

Perfecting a period look during Museums at Night at the Churchill War Rooms

Perfecting a period look during Museums at Night at the Churchill War Rooms

Established at the end of the First World War to train the newly formed RAF’s pilots, Duxford Airfield in Cambridgeshire is now in the hands of the Imperial War Museum as one of Europe’s premier aviation museums, with many original period buildings still in use. Two hundred aircraft are on display, whilst over 50 historic flying aircraft, based at the airfield, regularly take to the sky. Duxford also has one of the finest collections of tanks, military vehicles and artillery in the UK. Focusing on wartime vehicles, the Military Vehicle Show on 19th June offers the chance to experience the sheer power of some of the biggest Second World War tanks alongside quirky smaller vehicles such as jeeps and 1940s ambulances. Groups can get up close to vehicles normally on static display in Land Warfare and can see military vehicles in action as they take part in a cavalcade along Duxford’s runway. The museum’s Sally B and Friends Day on 31st July is a brand new event honouring B-17 Flying Fortress GBEDF Sally B, currently the only B-17 flying in Europe. Groups will have the opportunity to meet with and chat to Sally B’s engineering crew and pilots and the event promises a nostalgic 1940s US atmosphere that includes a Glenn Miller-style big band and Second World War re-enactments. Showbus on 18th September, meanwhile, is where hundreds of single and double-decker buses gather every year at Duxford for an unusual and fun event. The world’s biggest bus rally, Showbus promises to provide colour, spectacle and nostalgia.

Getting a sense of military history at the Imperial War Museum Duxford

Getting a sense of military history at the Imperial War Museum Duxford

A firm favourite with groups is the Salute to the 40’s event at The Historic Dockyard Chatham in Kent on 17th and 18th September. Steam locomotives chug up and down, troops and convoys rumble around the dockyard, a real air raid siren shrieks its unforgettable warning followed by the fire service rushing to extinguish any fires and medical services treating any casualties! Four entertainment areas showcase the famous songs and humour that kept Britain going whilst the Wheelwrights’ Restaurant is transformed into an authentic British restaurant of the time and the Commissioner’s House into a Lyons Tea Room. Expect 1940s street scenes, military encampments, period hair and fashion, ration book cooking, air raid shelters and farming all coming together with hundreds of participants and vehicles against the dramatic backdrop of the preserved dockyard and its historic warships.

On 15th and 16th October, groups can relive a much earlier battle, the Battle of Hastings, right where it happened at Battle Abbey in East Sussex. In 1066, Saxon King Harold and William Duke of Normandy fought for the English throne. Centuries on, the battlefield will again witness the atmosphere and tension of the conflict as over 400 soldiers clash in the annual re-enactment. Groups can immerse themselves in medieval life around the living history encampments, enjoy Norman Cavalry displays, watch chain mail and weaponry makers and take an entertaining look at the Bayeux Tapestry on a washing line! You can also watch medieval falconry and see if you have what it takes to be an archer in battle in the have-a-go archery. Groups receive a 15% discount for 11 or more people.

Historic houses and castles

By simply walking into a historic house or building, evocative and nostalgic feelings can be invoked. Castles such as Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland are a fine example of how well the past can be brought to life, even though it is actually full of present day life, literally, as it has thirteen apartments, five of them occupied full time. The castle has had people living in it almost continuously since a wooden fortification was first erected here in Anglo-Saxon times. Bamburgh makes this history come alive through regular events such as The York City Levy between 29th and 31st May. A group of enthusiastic reenactors portray the men, women and children of the second half of the 15th century, the period known today as the Wars of the Roses. As well as the living camp, there are performances of traditional folk plays called mummers plays and talks on butchery, baking and the food of the times. Bamburgh is also bringing the past to life on 16th and 17th July with St Cuthberts Land, which will take groups back to the time of Anglo-Saxons. An encampment will bring to life the lifestyle with ongoing cooking and weaving demonstrations. There will be demonstrations about military training, and a guide to Saxon status. The day will have an exciting end with a battle between rival factions!

At Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, groups can experience a unique insight into life in Medieval and Tudor times. Throughout the year, the ever popular Tudor Group hold special events at the historic house to illustrate the life and traditions of the Tudors, starting with the Tudor Cookery Weekend on 7th and 8th May and followed by a Science, Folklore and Magic weekend on 18th and 19th June, and an insight into the private lives of the Tudors entitled My Lord & Lady’s Chamber 10th and 11th September. Historian Ruth Goodman will also be holding Tudor Cookery Workshops on 18th and 19th October.

Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire is steeped in history and conjures up life in the 1730s on its own, but will really bring the past to life when it hosts English Heritage’s Festival of History event on 16th and 17th July. Travel back in time and experience an amazing historical adventure that celebrates over 2,000 years of heritage with a full weekend of live-action events. Hold your breath as knights on horses thunder past and lances clash in a thrilling medieval joust and be transported back to World War One with the walk-through trench experience. Watch dramatic aerial displays with an original Spitfire and see fully armoured Roman soldiers on duty throughout the festival.

King Henry VIII entertains visitors to Hampton Court Palace

King Henry VIII entertains visitors to Hampton Court Palace

Home to one of Britain’s most well known monarchs, Henry VIII, groups visiting Hampton Court in Surrey can encounter the story of two palaces: a Tudor palace, magnificently developed by Cardinal Wolsey and later Henry VIII, alongside a baroque palace built by William III and Mary II. Aside from what exposure from the past visitors may normally expect from a historic palace such as Hampton Court, groups can also take part in daily events that include Don’t mention Catherine Howard, where you can catch up with what has been happening at Court – and what to avoid talking about! Also take part in The King in Council, where gentlemen are invited to attend the King to discuss the political situation. The Business of the Realm takes place in the Great Watching Chamber, where your group is invited to meet the King and offer your petitions, requests and gifts. Try and work out which lady has caught the King’s eye in A Wife for the King, or attend the King as he is prepared for bed during The King’s Coucher.

For a dining event that brings the time of Henry VIII to life in a very dramatic way, you can take your group back to1529 where culture had never been so riotous at the Medieval Banquet in St Katharine’s Dock in London. Join in the spectacle of medieval-styled entertainment playing out before your eyes with knights, troubadours, contortionists, magicians, jugglers, minstrels and medieval tumblers. The regal banquet takes place in the atmospheric vaulted cellars of Ivory House, just a stone’s throw from the Tower of London and Tower Bridge.

Re-enactment Societies

Imagine if you could be shown around Paddington Station by the chief engineer of the Great Western Railway – Isambard Kingdom Brunel – meet Thomas Coram, founder of the Foundling Hospital (London’s first institution for abandoned or unwanted children) or be taken to the Normandy beaches in 1944 in the company of one of those about to make the landings. Missed the boat? All in the past? Not at all, but how is this possible? Through the medium of costumed interpreters, well researched and prepared and using the technique of first person interpretation, where they ‘become’ their character.

Anne Boleyn by Black Knight Historical

Anne Boleyn by Black Knight Historical

One such company that offers this service is Andrew Ashmore & Associates, who have been providing actors in role for more than 10 years now. All skilled performers, whose knowledge and experience make them far more than simply a charming companion in a period costume, you can ask them questions, listen to their stories, and ask their opinions. They have characters ranging throughout history from Pythagoras to Andy Warhol and can be seen at many events around the country or hired for a particular gathering your group may be holding.

Similarly, Black Knight Historical, established in 2003, provides costumed interpreters and ‘Living History’ displays, from the Roman era through to the 1940s. It continues to expand in new directions, led by its founder, Ian Pycroft, who has been bringing the past to life for over 20 years. Black Knight is renowned for its creativity and lateral thinking, cleverly linking in buildings and anniversaries to its event planning, and providing tailor-made, historic event packages for stately homes and castles. Themed entertainments such as medieval banquets are always popular and superb world class jousting has recently been introduced, along with consultancy services and training schemes for the heritage industry.

Permanent Living History Attractions

There are also venues that bring the past to life all year round and dedicate themselves to creating sets, characters and daily life in order to recreate various eras and important events in our rich historic timeline.

The 1642 Living History Village in Hampshire allows groups to unravel the past. Within the Parish of Rowner and surrounded by woodland, the village of Little Woodham exists to let visitors experience 17th century rural life in the south of England. During a tour, you will meet interpreters dressed in period costume, who involve your group in their daily lives. Hands-on experiences include preparing timber with the sawyers at their camp, speaking with villagers as they make lace and card or spin wool and watching the Blacksmith as he beats hot iron into shape.

The Weald and Downland Museum

The Weald and Downland Museum

On a similar vein, the Weald and Downland Museum in West Sussex offers a chance to wander amongst a fascinating collection of historic buildings dating from the 13th to the 19th century in 40 acres of beautiful Sussex countryside. The open air museum really has made an effort to bring the past to life, as the buildings at the museum were all threatened with destruction and were carefully dismantled, conserved and rebuilt to their original form here. There are also hands-on activities to enjoy such as cooking and weaving.

Yesterday’s World in Battle, East Sussex, is a place where you can immerse yourself in the past with a fabulous trip down memory lane. Discover what Victorian life was really like, with the 20 distinctive and authentic shops and family rooms from years gone by. Displays and memorabilia date from the 18th century right up to the 1970s. You can visit the grocer’s store and chemists’ shop and a further range of interactive displays heightens your journey into a lost world with skilfully-modelled characters from the last 100 years showing choice insights into life during their times. Groups can get refreshments in the charming tea room, reminiscent of the famous J. Lyons & Co corner houses of the early 20th century.

In the Midlands, the Black Country Living Museum showcases the traditional skills and enterprise of past local people through historic shops, houses and workplaces, which have been moved and rebuilt at the site. Scenes from 1850 to the 1950s are on display, brought to life by costumed interpreters.

The Co-op hardware store at Beamish

The Co-op hardware store at Beamish

Within the Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire, Blists Hill Victorian Town is another highly popular attraction that recreates a past era. A recent £12 million development included the addition of Canal Street, with a wonderful parade of shops including a Post Office and Sweetshop and an artisans’ corner where you can watch traditional plumbers, decorative plasterers and tinsmiths.

A museum that really prides itself on bringing the past to life is Beamish in County Durham. There isn’t much hidden in cabinets here, the buildings are real, brought from elsewhere in the north east and rebuilt in 300 acres of beautiful countryside. The objects are real too – displayed in the settings they were meant for – coal tubs at the pit head, pots and pans in the Co-op hardware, desks and blackboards in the village school. Costumed staff are on hand in each of the buildings, who demonstrate how people lived and worked in Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian times. The staff are happy to chat about life back then, to answer questions and show how things were used.

April

30 – 2 May
Shipwrightry
Buckler’s Hard, Hampshire,
01590 616203
 

May

7
50th Anniversary of Purslove College, Guisborough *
Tower of London,
07717 482823
7-8
Tudor Cookery Weekend
Haddon Hall, Derbyshire,
01629 812855
13
Museums at Night
Cabinet War Rooms, London,
020 7930 6961
20-22
Sound of the Sixties
Severn Valley Railway Kidderminster,
01299 403816
28
Meet Thomas Coram **
Foundling Museum, London,
020 7841 3600
29-31
York City Levy
Bamburgh Castle
Northumberland
,
01668 214515

June

11
Fete Champetre
Brooklands Museum Weybridge, Surrey,
01932 857381
11-12
War on the Line
Mid Hants Watercress Line Hampshire,
01962 733810
18-19
Science, Folklore and Magic
Haddon Hall, Derbyshire,
01629 812855
18-19
Return of the Queen Pageant *
Blickling Hall, Norfolk,
01263 738030
19
Military Vehicle Show
IWM Duxford,
01223 835000
22-23
D Day Landings **
IWM Duxford,
01223 835000
25-26
Living History Event *
Peterborough Castle,
01733 747474
25-26
1940’s Weekend
Severn Valley Railway Kidderminster,
01299 403816

July

2-3
1940’s Weekend
Severn Valley Railway Kidderminster,
01299 403816
16-17
St Cuthbert’s Land
Bamburgh Castle Northumberland,
01668 214515
16-17
Festival of History
Kelmarsh Hall, Northamptonshire,
01604 686543
31
Sally B and Friends Day
IWM Duxford,
01223 835000

August

6-7
Victorian Extravaganza *
Hoveton Hall,
01683 782558
20-21
Hilda Hewett Centenary
Brooklands Museum Weybridge,
01932 857381
27-29
Pensthorpe Medieval Spectacular *
Pensthorpe, Norfolk,
01328 851465
 

September

3
50th Anniversary of the Austin Healey Vechicle
Brooklands Museum Surrey,
01932 857381
3-4
Medieval Merriment *
Rochester Castle, Kent,
01706 924404
10-11
My Lord and Lady’s Chamber
Haddon Hall, Derbyshire,
01629 812855
16-18
Goodwood Revival
Goodwood, West Sussex,
01243 755055
17-18
Salute to the 40’s
Chatham Historic Dockyard, Kent,
01634 823800
18
Cycle Festival
Brooklands Museum Surrey,
01932 857381
18
Showbus
IWM Duxford,
01223 835000
 

October

15-16
Battle of Hastings
1066 Battle of Hastings, Abbey and Battlefield, East Sussex,
0870 333 1183
18-19
Tudor Cookery Workshops
Haddon Hall, Derbyshire,
01629 812855
* Black Knight Historical
** Andrew Ashmore Associates