In an age of self-driving cars and Netflix, why does a young Cardiffian bother to bring the past back to life?
Wednesday evening, the 27-year-old re-enactor is sitting in his small ground-floor room near Cathays cemetery, in the north of Cardiff. This place is where past and present meet, where medieval helmets, armour, and shields are displayed on tidy shelves next to a television, a PC, and a bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup.
Sam Steele, who is sporting two perfectly sculpted Guy Martin sideburns, has just returned from work and is still wearing his black National Roman Legion Museum polo shirt. He is thinking about the wretched daily bus ride from Caerleon, where the museum is located.
“People call me a time-bandit,” he says, “and one person has called me a time-whore because I will collect and do all sorts of time periods.” He goes around the room – now dressed in a beige medieval padded coat – and brings out a Roman sword, as well as two medieval ones, and a Danish Viking axe. Then Sam retrieves some plastic transparent storage boxes from under his bed (finally! The miniature museum’s secret archive) containing greased-up silver gauntlets, steel greaves, shining breastplates, and chainmail hoods made from hundreds of small metal rings. The ‘time-bandit’ is now ready for combat.
In 2006, Sam, then 16, found himself in one of the three carbon-fibre ships, each carrying up to 40 battle-ready re-enactors, that rammed up the Isle of Man’s shores, Scotland, to attack an enemy force. Upon seeing all those men with swords drawn and charging at him, he would tell himself, Ow shit, here they come! Later that year he fought in the Battle of Hastings – or rather its 940th Anniversary. Only, this re-enactment was different.
This time there were close to 1500 people on the battlefield, including 300 archers and 90 mounted cavalry troops. When the young re-enactor was stuck on the frontlines and saw 90 grinning horsemen charging at him he would tell himself, Heck, it’s gonna hit me hard if I’m not careful! “But it was an experience I still remember fondly though. If you’re an adrenaline junkie and you want combat … it’s brilliant for that sort of stuff,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
But Sam’s passion for history emerged long before that day. At the age of seven, he used to drag his mom to local museums and re-enactments around Devon, where he grew up. “I got obsessed with all the armour, the weapons, and films like Bedknobs and Broomsticks.”
When four years later he attended a playscheme for disabled children – Sam had speech problems – he met a man he would not soon forget. Gregg, an Australian “go-with-the-flow” type of re-enactor, who with his long hair and full beard looked like a stereotypical Viking, came to show his weapons, shields, swords, and axes to the children. “He turned out to be a neighbour of mine … The next thing I noticed I was in a training session with him,” Sam says. “He’s still there when I go to see my mum in Devon. I’m still close buddies with him.”
But behind these thick layers of heavy armour, Sam thinks of his friends and family. “I get homesick. We’re not a big family, but they’ll always be pretty close whether we have arguments or not,” he says. “We’re still blood at the end of the day and that’s not gonna change.” But Sam considers himself lucky to also have found a second family in re-enactment. “When we have troubles in our own lives a lot of the time the people that you make friends with in re-enactments will support you … trying to help you along the way.”
This camaraderie, this forging of lifelong friendships is a big part of re-enactment. That is why many ex-servicemen join their ranks: to be part of a tight-knit community. “You end up drinking together, eating together, fighting together, and technically dying together on the battlefield,” Sam says. “It’s something a lot of people don’t get to have.” But re-enactment is not limited to events in the UK, it is a global phenomenon. Sam has travelled to Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, Germany, America, and Australia – each time making new friends.
Still in his room, Sam is now thinking about the time he starred in Sky 1’s comedy-drama Stella. On set, he and his fellows were having to do combat in full plate armour during the year’s hottest weekend. “One day they tried to give us just six litres of water between 40 combatants, which wasn’t going to happen.” Indeed, it didn’t. One of the actors, which he recalls was “built like a gorilla,” laid his big hand on the producer’s shoulder and said: “Get them water, NOW!” A few moments later, every shop for a five-mile radius was stripped of water. Sam and his men drank the freshly supplied 100 litres of water faster than it takes Usain Bolt to sprint 100 meters. “We drank every drop of it because we needed it. It was just a blessing in disguise that one.”
For Sam ‘the time-bandit’ re-enactment is more than a hobby or an attempt to revive the past, it is a chance to get away from the complexities of modern life – if only for a while. “I’m just sick and tired of the crap of modern day really, I just want to get away from it.” Like many of us, Sam feels he has to let go once in a while and for him, that means having “a good scrap with friends” and enjoying “time around the campfire in the evening looking up at the stars.”