The thrill of re-enactment - Nantwich’s Holly Holy Day

If you want a vivid encounter with history, to experience "living history", there's nothing quite like a reenactment event. Watching costumed or uniformed re-enactors individually or en masse gives the closest feeling you can get to having a tardis and going back in time to taste the moment. If that’s what the public get out of this, it’s an even bigger vibe being one of the re-enactors.

© Tim Prevett - In front of St Mary's Church in Nantwich town centre

An encounter with history

Having been a Roman re-enactor with the XIIIIth Gemina and worked with Roman Tours Ltd and The Dewa Roman Experience in Chester, it’s something I’ve experienced myself.

Walking Roman laid-out streets as a costumed Roman tour guide. Chanting in Latin with a century or two of other Roman soldiers under Chester’s East Gate - the site of the city's and fortress's main entrance for two millennia. The public stop and their attention is seized. Something of that whiff of history connects the mind and feelings to a distant point. Suddenly it’s not so distant, for public and re-enactor alike. It becomes tangible.  For many re-enactors ‘doing’ the history where it happened gives the kind of buzz which provides the proverbial icing on the cake.

Keeping the memory alive

One place where re-enactors and the public will be having such a meaningful historical encounter will be Nantwich, South Cheshire. For this Saturday is The Battle of Nantwich - the commemoration of Holly Holy Day.

By Saturday lunchtime hundreds of re-enactors in their respective Civil War units will be marching along Welsh Row west of the town centre, where 368 years ago those fighting in the battle returned. The modern-day folk will be heading for a wreath laying ceremony and inspection by civic dignitaries. Then onto a re-staging of the battle just off the town centre. Others will have been throughout the town during the whole day showing off the full range of aspects of living history. If you thought members of the public enjoy the demonstration of music, clothing, skills, weapons, cuisine, culture and customs of the period, then being the one to demonstrate that is equally, if not more so delightful. Individually or as a larger unit you are a conduit for the meeting of history and people.

Brushing up your history

For the unfamiliar, the name of this day is “Holly Holy Day”, and it comes from sprigs of Holly worn in the hats of townsfolk following the battle, which actually happened on January 25th. The first English Civil War was playing out, and through December 1643 and January 1644 Nantwich had been besieged by Royalists. During the fourth week of the first month of the new year, Sir Thomas Fairfax was marching with 5,000 Parliamentarians to relieve the siege. Engaging the Royalists west of Nantwich at Acton, the siege was broken, and a decisive victory for the Parliamentarians was gained.

It is the 40th anniversary of the event this year, and as always a full day’s worth of activities can be had. In the morning there is a Battlefield Tour and talk at Acton Church - more online courtesy of the UK Battlefields Resource Centre from the Battlefields Trust . In Nantwich itself there will be tours by Nantwich Museum in the town centre, with a variety of other activities from groups. Ploughwitches will be interacting at many town centre hostelries; January saw ploughing start again. Festivities began, and these ploughwitches - with blackened faces and ribbons - would lead the celebrations. Throughout Saturday they will be lugging a decorated plough to varied and sundry ale-houses.

If you want to come along and experience the spine-tingling ambience of reenactors doing what they love to do, you must come to Nantwich for Holly Holy Day! Full details and a programme of the day are on the official Holly Holy Day website.  It’s an unforgettable day which for me is one of the highlights of the events calendar in Cheshire. Not to be missed.

There will be a ghost tour in the evening. It includes the tale of the execution of two Parliamentarians against St Mary’s church wall following the liberation of Nantwich. Booking online here.

If you’d like to hear more about the event, there are interviews with two of the event organisers, one from The Sealed Knot, on the History and Mystery show on Crewe-based RedShift Radio tonight (Thursday) 7 - 9pm GMT. You can listen online anywhere in the world here. There will also be chat with the landlady of one of Nantwich’s haunted pubs, with themed music and requests to do with Holly Holy Day.