I guess we all have strange unfulfilled ambitions in life. A bucket list of things we would love to see or do. Fortunately mine are all quite low key and generally realistic. I’ve just managed to tick one off and it still gave me a little buzz (I think that a large part of that came more from getting Louise to agree to come with me). Since a young boy, fed by trips to the Imperial War Museum and the Royal Tournament, I’ve always had a bit of an interest in militaria, and have always wanted to go to a Napoleonic re-enactment. Up to this weekend I had always missed out. Like illicit rave parties in the late 1980’s they seemed to be something that were just out of reach unless you knew someone who knew someone who had the details. I knew they existed, I just didn’t know where or when. 46 years into my life and looking at potential events for a sunny Bank Holiday I finally found one !!!!
Painshill Park http://www.painshill.co.uk/ was hosting the Napoleonic Association http://www.napoleonicassociation.org/ only half an hour away from where we live. As with any day trip for us, the next step is negotiating with my lovely wife Louise. Lou’s thought process always takes her to a nightmare ending scenario whenever I suggest anything. This is mainly because, whenever I suggest anything, we end up in a nightmare scenario by the end of it. Lou knows that if something does take my interest I do tend to throw myself into it, but only usually for a short time. As soon as I mentioned the trip I could see in her face a look of horror. Rain filled weekends away, sleeping in a tent cooking on open fires. A house filled with uniforms and large guns. ‘Ok we can go………… as long as you do not bring so much as a Napoleonic button into the house EVER, and we can go and see the Wedding dress exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum’. Despite photographing many weddings, Lou feels that my blank spot is wedding dresses. ‘Name me 3 details of my dress when we got married ?’. Our wedding was only last year. I remembered it was white, but couldn’t get another two, so it seemed a fair deal.
Painshill is a great place for a day out. Described as ‘England’s most elegant 18th century landscape garden’, there are endless places to explore for an energetic 3 year old. Jack loved it, especially the Crystal Grotto, which he thought was a real adventure. The Napoleonic Association had also put on a great show. Set in two camps, the French and the English, it is a great way to show children a ‘living history’. Trying to explain to Jack that people did actually exist without electricity was a wondrous thing. The guys in the Association have a real dedication to not just re-enacting the battle, but also the whole camp life that existed for soldiers of that era. For me it was photography gold (again Lou is very aware of my ability to link ‘family days out’ with the opportunity to take lots of photographs). There is a real challenge to capture images that give a sense of history, but keeping out any modern reminders. With a car park only a few feet away, and lots of other people wandering around, it does mean grabbing opportunities and angles very quickly. Hence my battle of Portaloo heading, and the first image in this set…….. which I may add, was a shot I actually wanted to get as soon as I saw them there.
Whilst obviously leaning towards the English camp, our stroll across to the French camp begged a lot of questions. Given a free choice, who does actually choose to be the enemy. Would it be a whole camp full of football referees enjoying a day off ? People getting their kicks out of being booed at, and generally regarded as making the wrong decision by the spectators. Lou instantly warmed to the French camp when she saw the menu they were offering their troops. None of that carrot stew muck the English guys were warming up on, but instead treats such as goats cheese littered the menu. The French were actually a very friendly crowd, and even let Jack try on some of their clothes and play their drums.
Then, as if it wasn’t bizarre enough walking around a Napoleonic camp on a Bank Holiday Monday, one of the French camp followers came over and said hello. I didn’t recognise her immediately but then realised it was Wes, a colleague from back in my ONS days. It turned out that her and husband Duncan, had been involved in re-enactments for some considerable time. The 45eme http://www.45eme.com nit is obviously well established and very active, just the thing that Louise would REALLY hate for me to get involved in !! Wandering around their camp we were able to get a few more questions answered. How do you know when you are ‘shot’, is the result fixed, do you stay in character in the evenings. All things that suddenly occur to you as you walk around the camps ……. but if you want to know the answers get down to a re-enactment.
The actual skirmish was also quite impressive. It did occur to me as an observer that you can see why the glory of war often overtook the horror. A lot of co-ordinated movement of brightly coloured uniforms, galloping horses and weapons glinting against green fields on a sunny day. It really must have masked what was going on at close quarters during battles. As a sweeping vista it is artistic, combining natures and man’s flare for colour. It ended a French win, but I guess you can’t have everything
As we left the park, there was an outbreak of Napoleonic dancing going on. Those staying for the night were getting ready for whatever takes place there in the evening, and more importantly, for next year, when 2015 marks the 200th battle of Waterloo. I’m sure any re-enactor will have been dreaming of that moment for many a year. It had been a day I really enjoyed ……… and that Napoleonic button, well I’ll just keep Louise guessing for a while.