Oh! what a lovely war!

Across Britain thousands of men, women and children are stepping out of the present and into the past to eat, sleep and breathe history. But what makes an entire family want to play soldiers?

Monday, 3rd September 2007, 12:30 pm
Updated Wednesday, 19th September 2007, 11:15 am

LIKE most young women Zoe Stead eagerly anticipated Valentine’s Day hoping for flowers or even chocolates from her fiance Matt.

But Zoe’s hopes for a traditional token of love were shot down when he proudly gave her a Colt .45 Navy Pistol and a box of blank firing caps.

Zoe was elated. Forget the chocolates ... as a fully paid up member of the American Civil War Society, it was just what she needed to complement her 19th century battle look.

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Ever since Zoe, 24, attended her first re-enactment camp with fiance Matt Davis, she’s been hooked.

“I’d been seeing Matt for about two months when he first asked me if I wanted to come along,” recalled Zoe, by week a pre press operative at The Star and by weekend an American soldier’s wife.

“He thought I’d say no but I went along and I wanted to get involved. I borrowed some clothes from the women there, one gave me a brooch and another a hat. There wasn’t a nasty person and I’ve loved it ever since.”

Zoe’s fiance Matt, a lecturer at Longley Park College, has been delving into history since he was knee high to a musket.

He’s grown up playing soldiers most weekends with his mum Marion and dad Martin, an Independent councillor on Sheffield City Council.

Re-enactment is definitely in the family’s blood but why give up your home comforts for a bale of straw or your Saturday take away for couldron-brewed broth?

“It’s great family fun,” says Zoe, an English Literature graduate and fantasy novelist who met Matt at university.

“Yes, sometimes the toilets aren’t any better than Glastonbury but I’m not prissy,”

“There are weekend when I stay at home and just want to relax. I’m not as hardcore as some of the blokes who won’t wash for days or starve themselves for three days before a re-enactment to look gaunt. For some people it’s an experience but for us it’s more about having fun and portraying something for the public.”

Zoe, like her future mother-in-law loves the social side of re-enactment whilst, perhaps predictably, the men in her life like firing guns.

“In the evenings its all about being sociable and showing off and having fun.

‘We stay around the fire to socialise or go to the beer tent’

Zoe Stead

“When we're at the camp we stay in costume after the public have gone as there's sometimes traditional entertainments.

“We either stay around the fire and socialise or go to the beer tent. Some guys have 'drinking costumes' - specific costumes usually from periods they don't re-enact but whose designs they like.

“We play horseshoes and baseball and sing some very amusing songs round the campfire - like grown up guides or scouts and a lot more fun.”

Zoe has just started re-enacting the Crimean War period but has long since put the finishing touches to her American Civil War act. Matt designs and stitches her clothes and she picks up shawls from charity shops.

“I tend just to walk around as a lady, sometimes I draw or look after the kids, or sit at the telegraph station. I'm mainly Matt's wife as some women did follow the troops.

“We even got married in a cameo once.

“That was fun, until he was called off to war when the enemy attacked the 'town' and was shot in front of me.

“Apparently my acting was so convincing, I made the guy who was my 'father-in-law' cry as I threw myself over Matt in front of the public.

“It's good fun - and reminds them of what really happened. It's not all heroics with guns. There's a really important message to put across to stop this kind of thing happening again.”