A Big Day In The Norse

Chain mail, battle axes and Hagar herring breath on the high street - meet the grown men and women re-enacting ancient Viking/Saxon wars.
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Chain mail, battle axes and Hagar herring breath on the high street - meet the grown men and women re-enacting ancient Viking/Saxon wars.

Sunday afternoon: Hampstead Heath in North London. A traditional English scene is unfolding. Couples walk arm in arm, laughing as their dogs chase and gambol. The sky is blue, the grass is green and the trees are tickled by a gentle breeze. Nothing seems out of place on this crisp early spring day. Unless, of course, you count the people dressed in linen and chain mail chasing each other around with spears.

For five hours they will fight with all manner of weaponry - charging, defending and ultimately dying over and over again until they get it right. They will stop briefly for sausage rolls and biscuits, before resuming hurting each other until one of them eventually collapses to the floor complaining of chest pains and terrible chafing around the neck from the leather strapping on his shield.

Welcome to the world of battle re-enactments. If you ever wanted to look like someone from the past, then you're in the right place. Be it Norman, Roman, Zulu or cowboy, ordinary members of the public in their thousands are becoming temporary heroes every weekend - and by God they love it. To understand this obsession more completely I have joined a Viking and Saxon re-enactment society called Regia Anglorum. My group are known as Middleseaxe, the London branch of Regia, who regularly meet on Hampstead Heath to keep up their battle practice and show off bruises from previous encounters. Their age range is surprisingly young, but their passion for the subject is such that they each have Saxon names as well as their real ones. "You've done well for your first time," says training officer Janet, also known as Raedwine. "Although you might want to practice your dying."

Thorfinn Spear-Splitter and Arne Gull-Eater, who had been arguing outside Fenwick's only minutes earlier, have still not managed to settle their dispute.

One week later and practically every one of Regia's members have gathered in York for the biggest event in their calendar - the Jorvik Viking Festival. For one week the whole city goes Viking crazy with a smorgasbord of events such as traditional weddings, longboat races and a not-what-it-sounds-like season of Scandinavian cinema. The highlight of each year's festival, however, is Regia's army marching through the centre of the town to a battlefield where, for the pleasure of hundreds of spectators, they kill each other.

The omens don't look good for me on the morning of the battle, however, when photographer Tim has to help me into my rather snug leather tunic. One of those moments that would be difficult to explain should someone walk into the room. Mild panic inevitably follows when I also lose the directions to where we are supposed to be meeting. As it turns out, we actually have no problem locating the public house with around 200 Vikings stood in and around it.

At the pub I am suddenly confronted with the most beards I have ever seen in one place. Even Janet from Middleseaxe, who I meet by the bar, has shaded in a moustache above her top lip. In the centre of the room sits Regia Anglorum's leader, Kim Siddorn, owner of perhaps the finest beard of all. Long, white and shaggy, his abundant facial hair exudes authority and, besides the fact he has a girl's name, leaves no-one in any doubt of who is in charge.

"I hear you're a bit of a spearsman?" says Kim in a thick West Country drawl, referring to my session on Hampstead Heath.

"Oh," I say, slightly blushing. "I just poke around and try my best."

Kim laughs appreciatively and pats me on the shoulder, although I doubt he would have spoken so highly if he'd witnessed me putting on my tunic earlier.

Around the pub, talk is of previous battles and particularly great encounters. "I cried 'Odin' and ran at them," I overhear someone say. "I took about ten of them out before they had a chance to jump on me. I went berserk."

Trying not to look like the new boy, I find a table with a group of Vikings and my gaze is drawn to a bloke making final adjustments to his sword. His Saxon name is Dermot (real name Dave) and he's been in the re-enactment game for 13 years., ever since he saw a Battle of Hastings show.

"I wanted to stop reading about the history," he tells me. "I wanted to get it off the page - I wanted to see it."

Dermot loves Vikings the best. He tells me about their first attacks in England, how they discovered America and holidayed in Greenland and dyed their own hair and never actually wore horned helmets. The thing

that impresses me most about Dermot, though, is that he once appeared on Time Team.

"I can remember the terror of my first clash," he laughs when I tell him about my debut. "I was just armed in a simple tunic, trousers, spear and shield and stood opposite these fully armoured men. I remember wondering what the hell I'd got myself into."

Ironically, ten minutes later I am thinking exactly the same thing in the nearby park. The afternoon's battle requires a full morning's training and I find myself dressed like an extra from an early Spandau Ballet video stood opposite heavily armoured men with dangerous beards. Before I'm actually ready, someone shouts something in Latin and both sides converge in a clash of spears, growls and groans. I last around 20 seconds before my shield swings into my face and someone takes the opportunity to skewer me in the stomach with a spear. My next go is even shorter, when I'm stabbed in the back while talking to Wulfrun (Neil) from Middleseaxe group, who has already died and is lying on the floor.

"Textbook error that," he says, as I stumble to the floor next to him. By noon I've died around 17 times and grazed an opponent in the ankle once. If I've learnt anything prior to this afternoon's main battle, then it is not to lose concentration and especially not to talk to anyone who's already dead. I also still need to do a lot of work on my dying, which thus far looks like an old person trying to sit down on a sofa.

Further up the street the police bring the line to a halt almost directly outside Debenhams and, for a moment, I begin to think how easy it would be for us to conquer their first floor menswear department if we really wanted to.

Following a not very Viking-like lunch - chips - the whole society of around 20 nuns, 15 flag-bearers and a couple of hundred Vikings line up in the park again for the sake of an even battle, the group is split into Vikings and Saxons and my Middleseaxe group somehow end up on the Saxon side. I figure this shouldn't really affect my performance, although I do worry that my Latin is a little rusty. On command, we break into two opposing lines and, flanked by some local police, begin our march towards York city centre and the battlefield.

"Down with the Saxon horde!" cries a Viking further up the line as we leave the park and head for the shops.

"Down with the Saxon horde!" reply his mates around him, banging their shields.

"Vivat Rex Anglorum!" screams a bloke just behind me in response.

"Viva Rex Harrison!" I murmur with the others, having not really heard the chant properly.

Regardless of the hundreds of startled shoppers surrounding us, we march past Foot Locker and Thorntons wih an authority I have personally never had before. Just past Burger King someone chants something derogatory about Saxons again, and the group take a left by Specsavers and comes face to face with a group of anti-Gulf war protesters, who are as surprised to see us as we are them. Further up the street the police bring the line to a halt almost directly outside Debenhams and, for a moment, I begin to think how easy it would be for us to conquer their first floor menswear department if we really wanted to.

"I like your tunic," says a voice behind me while we wait in line. I turn round to see a middle-aged couple smiling back at me.

"Really nice material," says the wife, beginning to feel my leather top. "Was it expensive?"

"Not really," I reply. "Bugger to get on though."

Before we can get on to where I got my boots from, someone behinds us shouts, "Death to the Vikings!" and we're off again. After a play-acting dispute between a couple of Vikings outside Fenwick's department store, we thankfully leave the shops behind us and find ourselves on the short road up to the battlefield. Hundreds of spectators, some wearing joke Viking helmets, have already surrounded the patch of grass where most of us are to die while in the corner, perched in a booth, sits our leader Kim.

"Tensions are running high in the Kingdom Of England..." booms his voice over the loudspeaker system, "as the armies of Scandinavia arrive." On the field, two characters called Thorfinn Spear-Splitter and Arne Gull-Eater, who had been arguing outside Fenwick's only minutes earlier, have still not managed to settle their dispute.

For five hours they will fight with all manner of weaponry - charging, defending and ultimately dying over and over again until they get it right. They will stop briefly for sausage rolls and biscuits

"Why are you back in this land when you were banished many years ago?" barks Thorfinn to his enemy.

"To avenge the death of my father..." replies Arne, pausing either for effect or, more likely, to remember the rest of his lines. "And," he continues, "for all the sheep of mine you killed." Thorfinn steps forward at this point, sensing that they may well be there all night if he doesn't.

With this outburst, both the Viking and Saxon armies line up opposite each other with their weapons at the ready. I'm not sure at this point whether I'm supposed to be supporting Thorfinn or Arne, but come the conclusion that perhaps it doesn't really matter. With my heart rate at an all time high, I make some final adjustments to my shield strapping (which is already beginning to chafe) and hold my spear tight.

On command, both armies slowly move towards each other until we are a matter of feet apart, and then I feel the first thud of a spear hitting my shield. Tightly packed into my line, I struggle to poke my spear back, and feel another crushing blow to the shield. Fortunately, the line pulls back temporarily before moving forwards again, and then this time I'm able to land my first blows on an opponent's shield. Then, in a classic military manoeuvre, someone on our side shouts "Run!" and the whole Saxon force scarpers back to the edge of the field, giving perhaps a small indication why the English didn't do so well in 1066.

Just when I begin to hope we could run some more, a bloke dressed as a chaplain appears between both armies and begins to bless all of us. "This is the sign," says the chap next to me. "Their hits are for real now... kills count." Up to this point I had naturally assumed we had already been fighting for real, when in fact this had been merely a noisy show for the spectators. The Saxons eitehr side of me start banging their shields while the Vikings opposite begin shouting something about Odin. Slowly the two armies trudge towards each other for one final time until we are practically a spear's length apart. I look at the Viking directly opposite me and make the snap judgement that I mayjust have a chance because a) he doesn't have a beard, and b) he isn't wearing chain mail. I thrust my spear at his shield and in return he does exactly the same back. I return another blow and he again does the same, this time adding a growl. After about a minute of this I summise that the pair of us are as dangerous as a couple of Shetland ponies, and it is only when another Viking appears and stabs me in the belly with his spear thatmy part in the battle comes to an end.

My fall to the ground is thankfully impressive (similar to Willem Defoe's in Platoon), although I land in such a way that I can't see the rest of the battle. Nevertheless, I snuggle down into the grass and take advantage of what advantages death offers while the wails and groans continue behind me. Eventually, the voice of Kim over the loudspeaker system confirms that the Vikings have won, which to be honest doesn't really surprise me.

"We have to line up again," says Raedwine (Janet), hurriedly appearing by my side. "We now do the traditional charge towards the audience to give them a taste of a Viking attack." Back from the dead and called into action one more time, I wait for the signal and run screaming at a section of crowd directly in front of me. I stop just a few feet short of a family of four, sending their young daughter into an uncontrollable fit of bawling and screaming. I give my best happy face to the toddler, but, dressed in leather and carrying a seven-foot spear, this only seems to make matters worse. And the father looks pretty annoyed with me too.

Disconsolate and sore, I trudge back to the centre of the battlefield and consider my position. I am dressed in ill-fitting garments from ten centuries ago and have managed to harm no-one but a small girl. Next year, I think to myself, I'm going to be a cowboy instead.

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