Mark becomes a warrior for the weekend when he dons suit of armour
On weekdays, Mark Annable sells swords, shields and armour. But on his weekends, he dons the gear and charges over battlefields in brutal combat. Chris Jones reports.
THROUGH the letterbox slit in the front of the helmet, I can just about make out the glint of the long steel sword, raised ready to smash down upon my skull.
"Are you ready?" says Mark Annable, a wry smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. His fingers flex around the weapon's hilt.
"Yeah. Hit me in the face. Do it."
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He lunges and swings the sword down in one quick strike – CLANK – and it suddenly feels like my head has been cleaved in two.
While I take off the heavy helmet, together with the thick fabric underlay, and gingerly prod at my head, Mark keeps demonstrating.
"So when it comes to fighting with armour and swords, the key is to pin the opponent down, then it's game over. You can get your dagger and just drive it through the eye slit and gouge around."
I blanche slightly. Although a tiny, carefully staged experience, the impact has given me a clear indication of the sheer, immediate and brutal horror of medieval warfare.
The shattering impacts; the lack of vision; the scything blades; the screaming and the vicious, vicious stabbing: it's almost too much. Yet Mark, and thousands of other people like him, do it week in, week out for fun. Why?
"Well, it's two things, really," he says. "The first, when it comes to the combat, is the adrenaline. You get out on the battlefield and you are facing down hundreds of other men, all in armour, all armed. The thrill never fades. But there is also the satisfaction of getting things historically accurate."
It is known as re-enactment; passionate history buffs painstakingly replicating clothes, armour and weapons from different periods in history and meeting up near or on famous battlefields and recreating fights which once played out on them.
For Mark, 42, his hobby has become his life, as he owns and runs Ravencrest, a shop in Station Street, Burton, from which he sells, swords, shields, armour, herbs, trinkets and ornaments, all with a link to history.
Mark, of Allenton, sources armour from all over the world. He said: "We are starting to get some good armourers in the UK but a lot comes from India and you can get good swords across Europe."
Having been interested in history from a young age, Mark worked for years in IT – "boring work" – and discovered the re-enactment scene just over a decade ago.
"At first, a lot of people think it is really hard to get into the actual combat, that there is all this training. So I started out going along to meetings and then started selling a few things at markets. But that took off and I used my savings to start the shop.
"It wasn't until I did that, that I tried the fighting, and found that, while there was a lot to learn, it was quite easy to get into."
Mark explained that there were re-enactors all over the world and that, broadly, they arranged themselves into groups based on date.
He said: "I was always interested in the Wars of the Roses, the kind of period between 1380 and 1550. I have always loved the passion and the confusion of it all. So I am a member of the Wars of the Roses Federation."
The groups get together to re-enact battles from its period. For Mark's society, that includes the Battle of Bosworth and the Battle of Tewkesbury.
He said: "We try to stage the events as close as we can to where the actual battle was fought, though, with developments, that's not always possible. From the moment the gates open at the site to allow the public in, we are in character."
This means no mobile phones, cooking fresh meat on an open fire of chopped wood, no potatoes, (they hadn't been discovered yet), no gadgets, precise clothing (if you've come as a knight, you need lavish evening clothes) and, occasionally, a bit of olde English.
Although no one is actually trying to kill each other during the battles, blows are hard and fast, combat is over quickly and most fighters will pick up some kind of injury.
Weapons look the part but are finished with curved points and blades as thick as pound coins, to avoid hideous bloodshed.
Mark said: "There are three ways to 'die'. The first is if you are exhausted, you can just tell your opponent to finish you off and you leave the battlefield.
"The second is if you take a fair hit and you know that would have finished you off; you admit that. And the third is if, historically, it was your time. Then you can really put on a show for the crowds."
There is also a re-enactment sport, called Battle of the Nations. This is worldwide and focuses more heavily on the fighting.
But, crucially, it follows no historical template. All periods are welcome and battles are fought to be won, not to reflect the textbooks.
The world championships takes place in May, in France, and Mark is on the UK team.
He said: "It's full contact. I'm excited and terrified."