Stuart and Wendy Findlay are the driving force behind an Anglo-Saxon re-enactment society that stages its latest display this weekend. PETER BARRON talks to them about their unusual way of life

THE flames of romance first flickered for Stuart and Wendy Findlay on a weekend when they were travelling back in time – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Having met round a campfire during an American Civil War re-enactment event, they’ve been married for 23 years – a love story that's stood the test of time if ever there was one – and just about every day has been devoted to bringing the past to life.

In fact, these days, they’ve gone back further in time because their passion for the American Civil War has been replaced by an obsession with all things Anglo-Saxon.

For Stuart and Wendy – or Sur and Wendreda, to give them their Ango-Saxon names – it’s a way of life. They’re never happier than when they’re creating a living history with fellow members of Acle Early Medieval Re-enactment Society, the community living history group they founded in 2009.

“We just love it,” says Stuart. “Everything we do is based around what life would have been like in Anglo-Saxon times – it’s just become a massive part of our lives.”

The name of the group is a nod to the heritage of the local area. Acle is the old Saxon name for Aycliffe, and means “clearing in the oaks”. School Aycliffe, meanwhile, takes its name from a fearsome Viking overlord, called Scula.

This weekend, Acle members will be starring at The Big Weekend – a range of activities, organised by Discover Brightwater, a £3.3m landscape partnership based around the River Skerne, and supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The Big Weekend, taking place across a range of venues, is designed to showcase the beauty and heritage of the places to be found along the route of the river, which flows from near the Trimdons through to Darlington.

The Acle re-enactors will be on Bishop Middleham Playing Fields on Saturday and Sunday, with an itinerary that includes sword battles, archery, campfire cooking, bread-making, ale-making, and weaving. Saxon embroidery is a group speciality and there’ll be a workshop in Bishop Middleham Village Hall for those who book a place.

It’s another weekend, another chance to go back in time for Stuart and Wendy, whose diary is jam-packed with Anglo-Saxon events, such is the demand for the colourful atmosphere and eccentricity their friendly group brings to a wide variety of occasions.

They seldom sleep at home at weekends, because the likelihood is that they’ll be camping out in an Anglo-Saxon tent, ready to stage yet another demonstration in some corner of the North-East.

“We used to sleep on the floor but we’re getting a bit too old for that now, so it’s wooden Anglo-Saxon beds these days,” laughs Stuart, whose time-travelling adventures began as a 16-year-old when he took part in a re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo, in Belgium.

He went on to meet Wendy 25 years ago at that fateful American Civil War re-enactment event in Staffordshire. They were in groups from different parts of the country – Stuart having grown up in Shildon and Wendy being from Southampton – but they connected as kindred spirits and have been together ever since.

They have a 22-year-old son, Dylan, who was part of the group as a child, and a daughter, Scarlet, who remains very involved at the age of 21.

When the family settled in Aycliffe, they wanted to move into an area of re-enactment more reflective of where the lived, and the world of the Anglo-Saxons was the best fit.

“We wanted to launch a group that was more inclusive, and it’s become an extended family,” says Stuart, who's completed a history degree with The Open University.

“We wanted to capture local history and make it sociable for people of all ages,” adds Wendy. “We don’t go as far as living like Ango-Saxons when we’re at home, but not a day goes by when we’re not doing something to prepare for coming away on a camp.”

Acle now has around 40 members, aged from eight to 73, with some coming from Manchester, Carlisle and Newcastle. All the proceeds from event bookings go back into the group, to buy equipment, and cover costs.

Training for the combat demonstrations takes place at Middridge Village Hall on the first Thursday of every month, while Wendy also runs a “Stitch and Bitch” sewing group.

“We sit around, do some sewing, drink lots of tea, and generally put the world to rights!” she laughs.

Acle members even include Stuart and Wendy’s beloved Plummer Terrier, Alfie, who relishes his weekends away, when he’s known by his more formal title of Alfred The Great.

And the group is going from strength to strength, boosted by the Covid-19 pandemic, with people looking for something healthy to do out in the fresh air after the years of lockdown.

“It’s a great way to de-stress from work and positive for mental health in all kinds of ways,” says Stuart, who recently retired from managing a supported living unit for adults with learning difficulties and challenging behaviour.   

“We’ll carry on, there’s no doubt about that, because it’s just what we do – it’s in our blood.”

Indeed, the newest member of Acle hasn’t even been born yet. Stuart and Wendy are looking forward to their first grandchild being born in early November, and he or she is already booked in for their first event – a medieval banquet at Seahouses, on the Northumberland coast, on December 8.

Time marches on. Here’s to the future…