April. The Easter weekend. Not necessarily known, historically, for sterling weather. Our first camping event of the year (the Battle of Nantwich was our first event, but even we're sane enough to book a Premier Inn in January!). And of course, where better to spend it than deepest, darkest, Welshest of Welsh, Pembroke Castle.
There has, almost, always been an Easter muster put on somewhere by a regiment of the Sealed Knot. Very often this has been at Basing House, though the last few years some other events have been booked in. The weather conditions at Basing have become something of a legend and a badge of honour amongst long-standing members of the regiment. Do you remember 'Hot Basing', where everyone got a sunburn in late March? Do you remember 'Frozen Basing', where ice formed on the tent zips and trapped everyone inside until 10am? Do you remember 'Muddy Basing', where they stopped people coming onto the campsite because the cars were getting stuck in the quagmire? None of them ideal camping conditions.
But the strange fact is, people keep coming back for more. Why is that?, I wondered to myself as term wound down and the Easter holidays approached - maybe we're gluttons for punishment?
Car packed (by my wife, master of Tetris), trailer hitched, smallest child slotted into car seat (eldest child with a shift at Sainsburys, earning her a much treasured Weekend Home Alone) and we were off. Sounds simple enough when boiled down into a run-on sentence, but this conveniently ignores the prep time spent filling the cool box, lugging kit bags around and searching in the strangest parts of the house for essential, but inconveniently stored, items (such as the back and breast armour plates that were at the bottom of the shed).
This year, we were very kindly invited along to an event at Pembroke Castle by Lord Seye and Sele's Regiment (https://www.sayeandseleregiment.org/) who get on closely with one of our local Rupert members. We pointed our car in the wrong direction of the M4 (we're West Country way, so almost always going East and/or North) and set off.
It was due to take us 3 hours (2 hours 30 with a couple of toilet breaks for the gremlin).
It took us closer to 6.
There was a point during the drive down where I wondered if it might just make more sense to turn back. This was during a stop at a particular roundabout where we waited about 20 minutes to come up to it, 20 minutes to circle round it and 20 minutes to come off again. This was also the point where my daughter who is (normally) quite good-natured screamed like she'd been stung by a bee and announced "I want to get out now!". My wife and I weren't far off following her.
And then we got there. And the set-up was quick (because we've practised it quite a lot). And the skies were clear (because this was the nicest weather we've had over Easter weekend for years). And the drinks were ready (because whilst our coolbox is an absolute monster, it keeps everything very chill). And our friends were there and we talked rubbish for hours and had fish and chips and went to bed when it got too cold.
Sleeping in a tent in April is cold, there's no denying it. But it's very manageable. A decent airbed to get a bit of distance between you and the cold ground (or a camp bed is even better for this). A good sleeping bag on top, or a duvet. A couple of spare blankets for good measure. Decent clothes to sleep in - thermal layers, good hoodies and fleeces. Simple.
My sleeping bag is known as the Beast (because that's the brand name and it has that written on the top!). In the past, I've suffered from being too warm in the sleeping bag so, I thought, I wouldn't try with the base layer or the hoodie. Rookie error. I've only been camping for the last 20 years. When my wife stepped over my shivering wreck during the night, she took pity on me and threw the spare sleeping bag over me (which had been taken along for my daughter in case she got too cold).
Then we were up, driving from the campsite to Pembroke Castle car park (the free one, that our local guide and interpreter had hounded out for us). As I dragged a load of wicker baskets (I don't know why we have so many wicker baskets, but I'm told it's very authentic) up a steep, winding hill, I was again wondering why I had bothered to come this far out for my Easter weekend. And then I saw it.
Pembroke Castle is beautiful. If you've never been, I'd thoroughly recommend a visit. A huge part of the walls and towers are very well-maintained and many of our group spent the weekend touring the castle grounds. There's a fantastic map in the middle of the courtyard that showed the castles of Wales and the benches around the edge gave the history of Wales and the Marcher Lords (an area of history that I am woefully lacking in). There's also a cracking café that does a brilliant sausage roll.
Our daughter, accompanied by her aunt and nanny, roamed through the castles inner reaches and eventually into the gigantic cavern below the castle (where she assured me that there hadn't been any dragons, though her auntie told me she hadn't been so confident when she was down there). She loved every minute of it, even enjoying wearing her 17th century dress (though the hat might have been thrown off a few times).
Meanwhile, the adults entertained themselves with talking the public through the history of the era, through playing (practising!) with swords and having sword fights on the ramparts, firing off the muskets in the displays and skirmishes, and generally chatting and catching up with each other.
It gave me the answer to that question - why do we? The answer is because it's brilliant fun in beautiful places with great people. It's a break away from the 'real world' - I didn't think about my emails once, because I was too busy doing other things.
Re-enacting is one of those proper adventures, that can feel very rare in life these days. That opportunity to break out of a rut and do something different, just for the weekend.
And this was just the first place we've been to this season. We're heading to Monmouth in early May, Stanway House in late May and Margam Castle during the August Bank Holiday weekend. All places that I've never been to before that will need exploring and discovering with friends and family.