How one teacher lives her dream by donning breeches and taking up arms with The Budgies. Biddy Passmore reports from the front line
Even when the sun shines, Rachael Hall spends a good part of her summer clad in a floor-length woollen skirt, stirring pottage over a fire basket and sleeping in a canvas tent with hessian on the floor. It's all surprisingly waterproof, which is fortunate this year. "We got rather sodden at Shugborough (Hall) and I was glad to be in 17th-century garb a warm cloak with a hood," she says.
But what she really loves is donning breeches, hose and a wide-brimmed hat and being a musketeer. Nothing gives her more pleasure than charging around a battlefield, uttering blood-curdling cries and firing at the enemy. The noise and smoke are real, even if the only missiles flying through the air are a few charred shreds of toilet paper.
Rachael, a teacher at Newbridge Preparatory School in Wolverhampton, is a member of the Sealed Knot, a re-enactment society that promotes public understanding of the English Civil War. Its main events are re-enactments of battles, called "musters", where regiments of Royalists and Parliamentarians charge at each other. (The society frowns on the terms Cavalier and Roundhead.) It is also involved in education, giving school talks and displays.
Rachael, 36, has been hooked on the Civil War since she studied history at university in Chichester. And she has been hooked on historical re-enactment since, soon after graduation, a friend invited her and husband Steve to attend one of the Sealed Knot's banquets in Wolverhampton. It was a sumptuous feast, she recalls, where diners wore 17th-century costume, ate traditional food and watched swordplay for afters.
This, she decided, was the period for her. And, when it came to joining a regiment, there was no doubt in her mind which side she was on. "I'm a strong supporter of the monarchy," she says. "Although I don't agree with the extreme views of Charles I, who believed he ruled by divine right and could do without Parliament. But the flamboyant way of life encouraged by the 17th-century monarchs is much more fun than the staid demands of Cromwell."
She joined Sir Charles Gerard's Regiment of Foot, which was named after a prominent Royalist but often nicknamed "The Budgies" since the regimental colours are navy and bright yellow. Twelve years after joining, she is now an adjutant.
So, while others jet off to the Mediterranean, Rachael and Steve, Dominic, their son, and Callie, the family's black Newfoundland dog, are to be found piling themselves and their kit into an estate car and trailer and heading off for the grounds of period houses all over the country.
Rachael began her re-enactment career as a pikeman. But she soon decided it would be more fun to become a musketeer, undergoing the required training over a year of musters so she could fire her muzzle-loading musket to the satisfaction of the regiment's safety officers.
"There's no lead musket ball but you're using real gunpowder," she says, "so health and safety is paramount." The charge is tamped down with toilet paper and fired by a slow-burning cord like a firework. She holds both a full shotgun certificate and a licence for the gunpowder.
Her most exciting moment? "We're sometimes able to fight on an original Civil War battlefield," she says. "At Langport in Somerset we were gathered at the bottom of the hill and couldn't see the Parliamentarians. Then they suddenly appeared, and it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck."
Such thrills are temporarily in abeyance, however. Rachael has had to forswear the fighting to look after five-year-old Dominic, who is too young to be allowed on a battlefield (but who was born re-enacting he attended his first muster in a Moses basket). She must now wear long-skirted civvies and look on enviously as husband Steve has all the fun.
Civilians in the living history camp that accompanies each muster cook authentic food, demonstrate crafts such as weaving willow to make fences and show the use of herbs for medicine. This brings Rachael's teacherly side to the fore. She loves talking to people about the Civil War but has had less chance to do so in school since she switched from teaching history to Year 5 ("I'd get them out on the school field doing musket drill") to becoming a dyslexia specialist and special needs co-ordinator.
So she chats to the public about musketry, of course, and demonstrates games such as madelinette, which is played on a board made out of a sliced tree trunk, using counters cut from a hazel branch some burnt black and some not. Dominic, meanwhile, clad in breeches, linen shirt, jacket and cap, plays and shows off his authentic, rope-tensioned drum.
Membership of the Sealed Knot also provides Rachael with a network of friends. The society may have a slightly beery, male image (its online forum is called The Beer Tent) but she has found a range of ages, types and interests among the 180 people in her regiment, from Civil War obsessives to families seeking a wholesome, collective activity. Surprisingly, she only knows of two other teachers who are members.
And her regiment rallied round when she had surgery for breast cancer a couple of years ago. They held a cake sale and raised pound;100 for Breast Cancer Research. They also bought her a cuddly toy and a series of silly hats to see her through the chemotherapy. "The whole regiment surrounded me and kept in touch throughout my illness," she says. "On a personal level, I wouldn't want to be without them."
There is a large muster at Nantwich over the August Bank Holiday, followed by a couple more after the start of the autumn term, then activities die down until Easter.
But there is little rest for Rachael. The friend who introduced her to the Sealed Knot is getting married this autumn and has demanded that guests wear full 17th-century fig, so she must get cracking on an elaborate silk bodice and skirt
BIRTH OF THE KNOT
The Sealed Knot society was founded by Brigadier Peter Young, a distinguished soldier and military authority on the Civil War, and a group of friends
after a party in Cavalier costume during the summer of 1968.
The idea of forming an "army" of the period gained popularity with such speed that the membership had topped 1,000 within two years and a second Parliamentarian army was formed.
The society is named after a group which plotted for the restoration of the monarchy during Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate, but it has no political stance or ambition. It aims to promote the study of and public interest in the English Civil War (strictly speaking, British Civil Wars, since there were three), chiefly by performing battle re-enactments called "musters", on actual Civil War battlefields where possible. It is also heavily involved with education, giving school talks and displays.
Members pay an annual fee of pound;44 for families, pound;29 for single adults and pound;24 for young people of 16 or 17, who may go on the battlefield with their parents' permission.
With some 4,500 members, the Sealed Knot is both the oldest and largest of more than 400 societies in the UK, which recreate history from Palaeolithic times up to the Gulf War. Between them, they involve about 30,000 people. The 30 or so biggest belong to the National Association of Re-enactment Societies, which sets standards for safety and professionalism.