Saturday 24 August 2013

Wargames on your Doorstep

It has always been something of a mystery to me why many wargamers have developed a taste for the exotic. I suppose that as wargaming and communication technologies have developed, the opportunity to find something really off the wall has presented itself. Thus, we land up with, for example, 1920’s Chinese Warlord games, or skirmishes on the Thai frontier, or such like.

Now, I am not denigrating these sorts of wargames, although I confess that they are not for me. The thing that puzzles me slightly is that finding anything out about them is, even in the days of the Internet, really rather difficult. Part of me wants to wonder if that is not the reason why some wargamers choose to play in these eras; it makes the research so much easier if no-one actually knows.

A long time ago now, one of the wargames magazines ran an article on what to do if you feel a bit jaded with your wargaming, a bit out of sorts and out of ideas. Have a look around your local area, it suggested. You might be surprised as to what ideas lie out there.

This may well work a little better in the Old World than in the New, but it is, I think, an idea worth pursuing. History, like geography, is all around us, but often we manage to ignore it, or simply pass it by altogether. Part of being a history ‘buff’ or a wargamer is, surely, to try not to ignore the military activity on our doorstep.

On the face of it, I live in a pretty boring part of the country, militarily. Too far away from the continent to have any decent defences against invasion, probably too poor to be really interesting to anyone except other sheep farmers, and really rather out on a limb, geographically speaking. In fact, so far as I can tell, most wargamers only know where I live because the local market town is named (for reasons I cannot account for) on the Kingmaker map.

So, let me look a little closer.

In fact, my area is a wee bit more interesting that it appears at first glance. To start with, I can think of at least five medieval battles that were fought within a forty mile radius. Not all of them were the Scots against the English, either, although granted that does seem to have been a medieval hobby for the local gentry (and the Bishop of Durham). So that is something that may well take up a fair bit of a wargamer’s time.

Secondly, I live a bit south of one of the most northerly Roman villas in the UK. Oddly, there is a cluster of known villas in the sort of middle reaches of the River Tees.

Why, you might ask, were they there?

The answer, I think, is access to the sea. The river is fairly wide there, and is passable by small boats, so in terms of getting supplies in and out, for the Romans it was a simple business of loading up a few merchant ships and waiting for the right tide.

I suspect that as modern people, we forget (or at least I do) exactly how much easier sea transport was until at least the 18th Century. It was safer from bandits, for one thing, and quite a lot harder to get lost on (provided you stuck to the coastal routes). While, of course, ships were often lost at sea, they could also carry bulk cargoes more easily and cheaply than wagons, even if the wagons were on Roman built roads.

So the Tees-side Roman villas were, probably, commercial enterprises, although who exactly they were supplying is anyone’s guess. They could even have transported grain to Newcastle and the granaries there at the end of Hadrian’s Wall, but that is pure speculation on my part.

A little bit south of where I live are the ruins of a much smaller Roman villa. This was probably not a commercial enterprise, but simply supplied the local estate, maybe with a little left over for buying a few luxuries. Interestingly, the ruins are next to a modern Farm Shop, which performs a similar sort of function.

A little bit further away there are more Roman bits a pieces. There is a bridge, a town (site of another possible medieval battlefield) and a few small forts. Some of these have been investigated archaeologically, and one of the good things about the Internet is that it is possible to find the reports (although often you have to buy them). While these are frequently bogged down with detail about pots, they occasionally give interesting snippets for the wargamer’s imagination, such as destruction layers.

I have not even mentioned anything more ‘up to date’ so far, although there was certainly activity hereabouts during the English Civil War. The local history society believes that there was a firing range over the back of the village. I am, in all honesty, not sure I believe that; ECW outposts did not often have spare powder and shot to waste practicing, although I could believe pot shots at rabbits or similar game.

The point that I am trying to make is that, in parts of the world at least, there are rich layers of history just lying about, waiting for the wargamer to discover them. With a little bit of imagination an interesting back story could be created for most of them, and suddenly you have a wargame on your hands.

You do have, however, to stop, and look around, a bit more closely at some of the places which are in your local environment. As I said, often, we take these places for granted.

Also, I suspect that often we prefer the exotic to the local. If you feel that your local history has little to commend it, then consider this: If there were a large wargaming community in the Far East, they may well consider, say, the Hundred Years War as being really exotic.


  1. Intriguing post - one of your best.

    1. Why, thank you.

      And not a postmodernism in sight....

  2. You've hit the nail on the head, right enough. I've come to the conclusion that there is nowhere in the British Isles that hasn't had its moments of warfare.

    I used to think my area was a historical backwater - not much Roman stuff between the Pennines and Danum for instance, apart from a couple of roads that we've lost and a tiny outpost fort hidden under industry.

    But this has been a disputed borderland on several occasions in history. The Brigantes left their fair share of traces hereabouts and the Don Valley was a hostile environment in the 10th century when it separated Northumbria from Mercia.

    The place has more wargames campaign possibilities than you can shake a javelin at.

    1. And, of course, the ECW throws up another whole raft of possibilities.

      But we have to develop the eyes to see it, which is not always easy.

  3. I have to agree with previous comments, very inspirational post.

    I guess it's the same in most of Europe and many other places of the world. My hometown used to be Danish some 400 years ago. When enrolled at Uni I moved to the city which lies on what used to be the only strip of land that Sweden had on the Atlantic coast. Now I live in a town in the formerly Norwegian county of Bohuslän. If it sounds as if I've lived all over Scandinavia, think again. From north to south we're talking about a strip of the coastline not longer than 70 kilometers where the former borders of the kingdoms come together.

    1. I confess that when I was reading about the Baltic region in the 16th and 17th Centuries I got very confused by this; as I recall it was usually an initial target in any Danish-Swedish War.

      I think it would work pretty well in the Old World; I'd be interested in anyone from the New Word who can manage a similar thing, even outside my own 40 mile limit.

  4. Indeed. In fact at the end of the middle ages a bunch of landowners got so tired of the invading and counterinvading armies that they actually bought one of the regional fortresses. They paid two hundred (don't quote me on the exact number) oxen to the crown and proceeded to reduce it to rubble. All in the hope of removing the strategic importance and thus the military presence. Unfortunately the effort was largely in vain.

    As for the New World I wouldn't be surprised if much of at least the east of North America is rife with local tales of colonial wars, the Civil War and conflict with the indignenous people.

    1. Thank you for that; I suppose it shows that strategic importance is not directly linked to fortification. On the other hand, sieges could be devastating to the surrounding countryside, so they may still have finished up a little ahead.

      As for the New World, I guess some places are more heavily historied than others. I think the only historic site I've visited in the US was The Alamo in Texas. In Texas the towns are 75 miles apart, let alone the historic sites...

  5. That last just reminded me of a fascinating article I read recently about local place names. These can reveal a lot about where you live. There's a lot of -boroughs (fortified settlement), -greaves (ditch) and -warks (fortification) in the area. A story waiting to be told.

    Borough, burh, burg and burgh are pretty universal in Britain, Europe and Scandinavia.

  6. That's true. And of course -chester, caistor, cesta and probably -castra as well for Iron Age and roman places; not to mention -bury...

    As I said before, history is all around you.