Roger Hasdell, Mick Butler, and Lynda Payton (Friends of The Canal Museum) talk about the history and success of Stoke Bruerne at War… pictures by Dave Ikin
Over the last 10 years, the annual Village at War weekend staged at the canalside village of Stoke Bruerne has established itself as one of the most popular and successful World War Two re-enactment events in Britain. This year’s event in mid-September (9th-10th) added easily to this reputation.
Not only did scores of re-enactors from all over the country flock to Stoke Bruerne, but the public did too – in their thousands. Many visitors from overseas were also there in considerable numbers. The undoubted attraction is the waterways environment, with the Grand Union Canal running straight through the centre of the village – its main street, in other words – the focal point being the world-famous Canal Museum.
So why are 1940s events such as these so popular? Certainly those years were no fun. For those who lived through them they meant shortages, rationing, sometimes evacuation, fear of being bombed, losing your home, and of course for many, personal tragedy.
Nothing to celebrate surely, but it was a period when people rallied round to support each other, a time of make do and mend, a strong sense of community prevailed and folk were determined to make the most of it whatever the odds. Keep calm and carry on meant exactly what it said and “up yours” Hitler was the mantra of the day.
So maybe part of the appeal lies in re-connecting with that wartime spirit in view of today’s austerity and funding shortfalls. For the last ten years there has been an important wartime anniversary to commemorate and remember almost every year, this year Dunkirk of course, and these historic events feature on school curricula, which is possibly why reenactment events such as Village at War are so popular with families.
Indeed, the organisers of the event are the Friends of the Canal Museum. Founded in the mid 2000s when the museum faced a very uncertain future, the Friends rallied to its support and today all seems set fair for the its future under the aegis of the Canal and River Trust.
Most of the funds raised at the Village at War continue to support the ongoing success of the museum, with the present focus being on boosting the planned bid by the Canal and River Trust for a Heritage Lottery Fund grant which would enable a total overhaul of the museum. This would include the installation of a lift – at the moment the upper exhibition galleries cannot be accessed by wheelchair users – and a refurbishment of the schoolroom at the rear of the building.
Michael Butler, Chairman of the Friends as well as the Village at War organising committee, says: “It’s an exciting time for the museum. The money we have raised in recent years has been earmarked for Lottery Fund match-funding, which could amount to a significant sum. I am confident of a successful outcome.”
A feature of September’s event was the variety of entertainment and activity going on throughout the two days. This included the ever-popular glamorous Lola Lamour singing the songs of the 40s, and George Formby look-alike Paul Casper. They were supported by other entertainers presenting appropriate wartime performances. There were also traditional tea dances, with instruction how to do the Palais Glide and Lindy Hop, fashion shows in the parish church, while military vehicles were gathered in a nearby field together with stalls galore selling forties memorabilia.
On the canal, the trip boats were kept busy. And always roaming around the site was an impressive Winston Churchill double, cigar clamped firmly in mouth, ever ready to pronounce in Churchillian tones. Field- Marshal Montgomery was there, too, with other World War Two veterans of all ranks, not forgetting a Dad’s Army presence and spivs with their Black Market offerings.
Mick Butler adds: “It’s all great fun and especially educational for youngsters, and I like to think it is presented with appropriate respect for the traumatic period recalled. Already plans are being laid for the 2018 event next September. The re-enactors are rarin’ to go.”
For anyone wishing to be involved, please ring the Canal Museum on 01604 862229 or email email@example.com