Bill Howell gets close to history when he spends the dark hours at magnificent Kenilworth Castle.
What do you give the dad who has everything?
Ferrari? Nope, he’ll have three of those. Las Vegas trip? Been there, done that. Got a season ticket to the strip.
A night inside a castle?
Better still with a real knight... inside a castle whose gates are locked to the public.
That’s what a handful of winners of a recent English Heritage Father’s Day competition got their lucky mitts on – a night at Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire.
And talk about a knight’s tale! Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century creation couldn’t hold a candle to our host, a ‘knight’ in shining chain mail Kevin Hicks.
The 56-year-old former soldier and policeman has been making history come alive to children long before Horrible Histories came on the scene.
Kenilworth Castle is a thing of real beauty. That might sound peculiar when you see the ruins.
But as dusk started to fall and an orange sun weaved its magic around the Warwickshire countryside the castle came alive. It breathes history.
From Henry II to Henry VIII, bad King John, and Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, who created the Elizabethan Gardens.
The gardens were out of our reach. But the rest was ours. ‘Ours’ as in for myself, my wife Jennifer, the mother-in-law Joan (fixed to Jennifer for 42 years on a string of permanent elastic) and our three boys William, aged eight, George, aged five and Henry, aged three.
On this warm Saturday evening Kevin strode into view, resplendent in colourful garb that barked medieval.
“You can’t be a proper knight, you don’t have a sword,” proclaimed George, a confident five year-old.
Ah, but Kevin is half bowman.
There’s a twilight tour and hot chocolate to look forward to. And the bravest of the brave are going to stay the night in renovated stables in cosy sleeping bags.
But the stories will almost never end.
That’s because Kevin is quite a character. Part knight, part Robin Hood: “I actually work as Robin Hood shooting the warbow into the Major Oak,” he explains.
Having worked in both the military and civilian police, he incurred an injury in 1990 that forced a re-think in his career.
A chance conversation with a teacher revealed he was a member of the English Civil War Society and his History Squad was born.
“I’ve got the most incredible job,” he says.
“I’m a Brummie kid who joined the army and saw all kinds of action and adventures and left the army a decorated soldier.
“I ended up in London as a policeman and seven years down the line an attempted murder ended my career.
“But as a kid I was always going to be Robin Hood. It used to drive my old man mad. He wanted me to play for the Villa, but he’d got a real problem because I wasn’t interested in football.
“The reason being I was long-sighted and colour blind, but I could shoot the knackers off a gnat.
“At the age of 10 or 11 he bought me a real bow and arrow – and that was it. I carried one with me all the way through my army career, just used to go down to the woods in Germany or wherever until I lost it.
“When I was crippled in the police, I was quite badly knocked about, I was ill for about five years.
“Then a throwaway comment from a teacher led to me doing a favour for a school – a tour of Chepstow Castle dressed as a Welsh bowman. That was nearly 20 years ago.
“And I’ve been around the world twice as a bowman. I’ve shot at Sydney Boys Grammar School (Australia), at schools in America, Germany, Belgium and at Agincourt in France. Not bad for a kid born in Nechells.”
Sure enough the longbow takes centre stage as Jennifer, Joan and the boys all have a go.
Made from the wood of a yew tree, with linen string and cow horn on each end, it can shoot an arrow made of ash with goose feathers over 300 paces.
“Because I have been a soldier and I have seen action, as it were, I put on a totally different slant,” Kevin continues with real zest for his hobby/occupation.
“I took along a surprise – a full powered crossbow. Of course the little ones couldn’t hold it, but they held it with me and they actually pulled the trigger. And when it went whack! you could see the look on their faces. It was wonderful.”
Our evening moves on. The castle as intoxicating for Kevin as on his first visit. But one final story needs to be told as we sat on a wall that used to form part of the castle’s church.
“Normally it is magical enough as a castle, but I gave the story of Agincourt,” says Kevin of his first visit.
This was Henry V’s stunning victory over a bigger French army because of their expertise with the longbow. We all sit quietly as a tale of bravery and honour unravels. Because of what we had done already they were already spellbound, wound up in the magic of having the castle to ourselves.
But that story is real history, not fairy tales – and it was magic, real magic. The story of a soldier telling the people of his war, and they loved it.
“Agincourt is very special to me because there is someone with my family name from where my family originates actually at the battle. We like to think it is in our blood,” says Kevin.
Kevin and story telling go hand-in-hand. A sort of Brummie Hans Christian Andersen.
“I just switch on. I’m a story teller. I did a school the other day and one kid had to go out and calm down because he couldn’t stop laughing. He was learning at the same time all about Charles I,” he says.
As for his favourite period, well, there’s a story for that too.
“I’m torn between the medieval bowman and the First World War because my First World War soldier is based on my great grandfather who was killed on the Somme. He was a Nechells lad who died in his 20s.”
I’ll leave the last word though to my three-year-old, Henry.
“I liked my packed lunch. I liked my chocolate. I liked my torch. I liked the man with the sword.”
History really is that simple.