Smoke curls from the log fire in the shadow of Leominster Priory as the church bell tolls mournfully. A troop of Cromwell's soldiers, resplendent in the colours of Thomas Pride's Regiment of Foote, lean on their muskets as they earnestly debate the republican cause. Nearby, a group of women camp-followers dressed in coarse linen and wool stew a malodorous meat pudding in an iron pan.
The authenticity of this 17th-century scene is rudely shattered when pikeman Dave Lord calls out to his wife, Anna: "Have you seen the car keys, love?" For this is Leominster's church fete, and the Lords are members of the Sealed Knot, Britain's largest battle re-enactment society. Together with a dozen fellow enthusiasts, they are mounting a display of a typical Civil War encampment.
While recreating the past and re-enacting battles is an amateur pursuit for most of the group, teaching living history is Dave Lord's full-time occupation. At the age of 50 he gave up his job in the exhibition graphics trade and, although not a qualified teacher, now earns a living in the classrooms of the West Midlands. "I enjoyed my previous work but I wanted something extra," he explains. "What could be more worthwhile than passing my love of history to the younger generation?" Dave's two-hour living history presentations, tailored to national curriculum requirements, cover the Tudors for key stage 1 and 2 pupils, and the Civil War for key stage 3. He also visits special needs schools, talking to pupils of mixed ages and abilities. Dave is freelance, but he works closely with local authority history co-ordinators.
So how did a father of three from Redditch become an educational aid? "I contacted the education authorities within 25 miles of my home, asked for their lists and sent mailshots to all their schools. Now it's largely word of mouth, and I'm very busy."
History is Dave's great passion. "I'd been fascinated by the English Civil War since my school days," he says. "My history master, Mr Jones, nurtured this interest, and the political and religious aspects of the war became almost an obsession."
Six years ago, Dave visited a local Sealed Knot event and became hooked. Today, society activities take up most of his weekends, while weekdays are spent in the classroom. In the summer, he also works at Warwick Castle where he assumes the role of Parliamentarian head-jailer and tells Civil War stories. Up to 2,000 schoolchildren visit every day, contact that often leads to Dave making follow-up visits to their schools.
In the classroom he explores what day-to-day life was like in the 1640s. "I try to help youngsters understand why ordinary citizens would take up arms against their neighbours, families and even their own brothers," he says.
Authenticity is Dave's watchword, and every artefact he uses is an accurate replica of pieces displayed in museums such as the Leeds Armoury and the Tower of London. "I come to the classroom in full rig-out: sword and dagger, breast-and-back armour, helmet - the lot," he says. "The children find it fascinating. The boys are keen on the more war-like aspects of the period, whereas the girls ask about the human interest side. The Baldrick usually gets a laugh, too, although the kids are often disappointed to find out it's the leather strap which supports the scabbard rather than Blackadder's sidekick."
Dave encourages the youngsters to ask questions, handle the weapons and try on the helmet and armour. "My aim is to make those distant days come alive," he says. To do this he assumes the role of an agricultural labourer who, for religious and political reasons, fights on the Parliamentarian side in many of the great battles of the Civil War such as Edge Hill, Marston Moor and Naseby.
Dave tells the youngsters about the wounds the soldiers suffered and the rudimentary medical attention they could expect. "The gory bits go down a treat, especially with the lads," he says. "In fact, the gorier the better." But even the modern re-enactments can be hazardous; Dave has sustained broken ribs, a dislocated collarbone and countless cuts and bruises: "Although there are strict safety rules and we pull our punches, the adrenaline gets pumping and you've got to make it authentic - that's what the crowd have come to see."
Qualified medics and an ambulance are always on standby, and a tetanus jab is also recommended, "for when you're rolling around in mud and cowpats".
Away from the battlefield and classroom, Dave's Cromwellian zeal evaporates. "The Sealed Knotters, Roundheads and Cavaliers all get along famously once the beer tent opens," he says. "In fact some of my best friends are Royalists." Nor is he averse to changing sides. He recently took part in a Channel 4 educational documentary in which he played the Earl of Strafford, Charles I's right-hand man. "It made a nice change to dress in the finery of a Royalist nobleman," he says.
When it's time to leave the Leominster Priory fete I walk to the car park with Dave, only to discover that this pillar of the Parliamentarian cause drives a Cavalier. But then, as he points out, Vauxhall Roundhead doesn't have quite the same ring about it.
Dave Lord can be contacted on 01527 853399
* The quest for authenticity
The Sealed Knot, Britain's largest re-enactment society, provides public displays ranging from small living history tableaux to full-scale battles, involving thousands of members. The major events take place between Easter and August. They attract large audiences and have raised well over pound;1 million for charity. In the winter, members repair kit, train, and attend lectures and banquets.
The Sealed Knot's activities have generated a wealth of research into the period, much of it published in the bi-monthly magazine 'Orders of the Daye'. Large re-enactments feature a merchants' row selling everything from shoes to swords, pottery to powder flasks, hats to harps.
There are over 100 re-enactment and military history societies, covering every period from the Romans to the Cold War. Many society members make their own uniforms, clothing and artefacts, but there is also a thriving commercial sector supplying historical regalia, weaponry and other equipment.
Most of the organisations listed below present living history and enact battles. Many also do film work and offer their services to schools.
* The Sealed Knot Ian Allen, tel: 01384 295939
* The Ermine Street Guard (Roman Britain)
Chris Haines, tel: 01452 862235
* Dark Ages Society Neil Bell, tel: 01825 769557
* Regia Anglorum (Late Saxonearly medieval) J.Siddorn, tel: 0117 964 6818
* The Vikings Paul Lydiate, tel: 01706 344 773
* Wars of the Roses Federation Rebecca Jaynes, tel: 01246 540454
* Kentwell Hall (Tudor) Clare Smith, tel: 01787 310207
* English Civil War Society J.Taylor, tel: 01430 430695
* Napoleonic Association Ed Parker, tel: 01280 815 844
* American Civil War Society Vivienne Corbishley, tel: 01832 734674
* World War Two Living History Association G.Walmsley, tel: 01621 782861