There are many things that could be said to be hallmarks of ‘Britishness’. A sense of fair play, a love of tea and queuing, drinking warm beer, pretending not to be bored by cricket…to name a few. But if there is one thing that is guaranteed to unite the hearts and minds of those of us lucky enough to have been born on Shakespeare’s ‘precious stone set in the silver sea’, it is surely a swell of pride and, dare I say it, patriotism, at the mention of The Second World War.
I think this is not only because it remains the most major conflict still just about within touching distance of living memories, if only through stories of sacrifices made by previous generations, but also because it is, almost uniquely in war, unambiguously ‘just’. The world faced its darkest existential threat from Nazi tyranny. It was good against evil. It was black and white. It is hardly surprising, then, that the years that gave us our Finest Hour, when we fought them on the beaches and never surrendered, would live on in infamy.
However, whilst mainly WWII orientated, the 1940s day in Harrogate was not just about war. It was about the coming together of a nation, a time of make do and mend, when Britain was still a power on the world stage and people knew the names of their neighbours. This sense of community played out again in the picturesque Valley Gardens in Harrogate, where battle re-enactors, historians and collectors mingled with families who had dressed up in period costumes for the occasion. Ladies in pretty vintage dresses walked with men in period military uniforms. Children were photographed with WWII weaponry and asked endless questions of the re-enactors who were only too happy to field them.
Elsewhere, couples enjoyed tea and cake (Victoria sponge, naturally) whilst listening to period music live from the band stand, some turning the grass in front into a makeshift dancefloor. The music provided some of the best moments of the day. A George Formby tribute act drew a big crowd and a particular highlight was Yorkshire-based vintage harmony group, The Seatones, whose interpretations of 40s classics were delivered with note-perfect precision and an energy that said they were having as much fun as the people in the crowd.
Also thrown into the mix were vintage clothes stalls, period vehicles – both military and domestic (one disappointment was I didn’t get to take home the vintage Jaguar!) – art exhibitions and a good mix of food and drink from traditional burgers and ice cream to Indian street food. All of which was topped off with a fly-over by a Dakota aircraft, complete with Normandy stripes. A fitting tribute in the year we remember D-Day, 75 years on.
The risk of events like this is that the nostalgia can become cloying and the pride jingoistic. This event did not suffer from such shortcomings. It was a place of joy of the kind that only happens when you put people with shared passions together. In the present uncertain political and social times perhaps we need a gentle reminder that whatever happens, Britain keeps calm and carries on. We have been through worse and we’re still here. It was a wonderful day out for all the family, grandparents to children, there was something for all. Catch this next year.