Wargaming, it seems to me, can take you into some rather peculiar places, at least in terms of interest and trying to find stuff out. Wargamers, by and large and so far as I can tell, do not usually take part in expeditions to find the lost city of Machu Picchu (which was never lost, incidentally; the Inca knew perfectly well where it was, they just never bothered telling the Spanish), or trekking in the wastes of Siberia, but I find, at least, that I land up asking questions which only a few others have ever asked.
Take a recent incident as an example. The houses where I live are almost all tiled, as they are, I imagine, in most places in England. But it has not always been thus. I was brought up in the south and there thatch is still, in some of the more picturesque villages at least, quite frequent. As I am pondering a wargame based in the north, I wondered what people used to have a roofs in the past.
The Estimable Mrs P and I could think of a few examples of thatch in our local patch, but not many. Puzzled, I consulted my big book of northern history and looked up building materials. There, in a paragraph, was an explanation. Clay tiles came in during the seventeenth century, largely replacing thatch. I do not know exactly why tiles replaced thatch. Possibly the tiles are longer lasting, but a decent thatch lasts 20-30 years and, from painful experience, modern tiles at least do not seem to last much longer than that.
Now, we can also ask what the thatch was made of. In these parts there was a mix of straw and heather thatches. This was a minor lightbulb moment for me at least, as we had been a little puzzled by the relative absence of reed beds and the like to make the straw for thatching. After all, animals would have taken the priority for fodder and bedding over human comfort. Heather, at least in some parts, would have been plentiful, cheap and not much use for anything else.
This, of course, hits the next question: what colour was the thatch? Now here we hit a real problem, I think. I know that real thatch is grey or black. I have, as I mentioned above, seen a fair number of thatched cottages in my time. And yet my thatched cottages for the wargame table are distinctly yellow in colour. That is correct, they are the colour of straw, as you would expect, of course.
Now we land up in some obscure place in human psychology. More precisely, we land up pondering what ‘looks right’ on the table. A thatch with a black roof just would not, I think, look right. Even though I know that in real life thatch is not yellow, my table needs to look right.
Either that or I am, yet again, in a minority of one, and should be rightly regarded as barking by the rest of the world.
It does not stop there, of course. I do, I realise, many things wargame wise because thy look right. Armour is shiny, even though by the English Civil War it was being carefully blackened to avoid rust. Cannon barrels are black and carriages are wood coloured. For the matter of that, wood is brown, while really, when it has been weathered for a bit, it is more grey.
Of course, there are also problems of scale, which I have mentioned before. My houses are in scale with the troops, so they are much bigger than the ground scale. At present, this is being further complicated by the presence of smaller scale ships in the town harbour, and even smaller scale ships for the Armada. I have tried this out. Somehow, despite all the jumps in scale, it looks about right.
I have worked it out, in fact. From the 1:300th scale castle tower, looking out to sea, the Armada on the horizon is about a mile away, given that the Armada ships are 1:2400th scale. The assault ships which are to be used are, of course, in the correct figure scale, but then they will only become of major interest to the landlubbers when they are near the beach anyway.
There may, of course, be undetected problems. In my role as the Spanish commander, I might try to use some of the smaller ships to rush the harbour. Naturally, as the English counterpart, I have a battery of ships guns to place on the mole to protect the harbour from just such an eventuality. The ships are the small ones, the guns are the big ones and the ships in the harbour from which the guns came are somewhere in between. It might look right, but I can foresee madness looming when the shore batteries and Armada ships attempt to engage each other.
The human mind is a flexible and subtle thing, of course. I have a suspicion that all of this does not really matter. Firstly, of course, everything is an abstraction anyway. The Armada troops are not really going to be put ashore by half a dozen small rowing boats. The town, even Whitby after the Abbey closure and its subsequent decline in prosperity (wagaming as a portal to economic history. Who knew?) was still larger than the ten or so buildings I have for it. The ships in harbour are, in fact, seventeenth century – the French La Corunna and the English Speaker. They are also in full sail, which would be ludicrous when in harbour, and one of them, at least, does not have the room to turn to get out.
I know all this, and yet, somehow, it is probably the ‘nicest’ terrain I have ever set out for a wargame planning session. I might have to dig out the camera and treat you all to a photograph of it, so you can point out all the flaws to me.