WHO staged the first we’ll let contenders argue about. Probably it was the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, which has been holding its annual Wartime Weekend for at least a couple of decades. But these wartime fests are now ubiquitous. Barnard Castle’s comes up this weekend. Earlier this month Northallerton held its first. Its high street was crowded with vintage military vehicles and wartime “enactors” representing every figure from US colonels to a seeming battalion of headscarfed housewives who were dead ringers for Pike’s mum.

Leyburn is another local town that now annually turns back the clock to the darkest days of the war. But wartime weekends can now be experienced in Lancashire and down in the Cotswolds. Anyone so minded could probably spend every summer weekend in 1940. Here’s a thing, though. There are no wartime weekends in Scotland or Wales. They’re an English phenomenon. So what does their huge success tell us about ourselves? I would say it tells us, that, in John Major’s useful phrase, we are a nation “no longer at ease with ourselves”.

There’s a longing in them for something that has been lost. Unity, and a sense of purpose. As mirrored in events like the Jarrow March that certainly didn’t exist before the war. But J. B. Priestley, who chronicled the divided Britain of that time in his great book English Journey, said subsequently that the war did indeed bring our finest hour. The dangers were shared by all, social divisions narrowed if not disappeared, and nearly everyone pulled together. And it was out of a common feeling that the unjustness of pre-war society must not be allowed to return that the welfare state was born. People looked confidently to a brighter future.

But it seems we can now only look back. And yet real wartime, with the outcome of the war uncertain, would have nothing of the festive flavour of today’s recreations. While not begrudging the pleasure of those who enjoy them, I doubt we English will ever find ourselves again unless we can focus on some fresh vision that excites and inspires us. Remember, but for the overwhelming power of the USA, that wartime we fondly hark back to might have ended very differently.

ANOTHER wartime link. How sad that a memorial plaque to Spitfire pilot Peter Pease, killed in the Battle of Britain, has been denied a place in Middleton Tyas parish church or its churchyard, where he is buried. Instead, it occupies a corner of private land close by.

But wait. This banishment might turn out to the heroic airman’s advantage. In Bilsdale in 1902 the vicar objected to the headstone of a veteran foxhunter featuring hunting motifs. So hunt followers erected it at the Sun Inn, the local hunt’s HQ, where it has become one of Yorkshire’s best known curiosities. Out on the Morecambe Bay marshes is an even better of example of distinction won by a church-spurned memorial. There rests Sambo, a Negro slave, whose burial in consecrated ground was forbidden. Sixty years later sympathisers erected a headstone, which is now a place of popular pilgrimage, where people leave flowers and messages. Meanwhile the pompous tombs of the slave owners, nettle-bound behind rusty iron railings, are ignored. Flying Officer Peter Pease can take heart.