Salute to the Forties describes itself as ‘spiffingly nostalgic’, two words that sum up the kind of stiff-upper-lip nostalgia we British specialise in. Whereas a lot of the UK’s vintage events focus on Americana (nothing wrong with that, of course, some of my favourite festivals etc. etc…), for one weekend in September the Historic Dockyard at Chatham drapes itself in union flags, blackout curtains and Blitz Spirit to conjure the 1940s our grandparents and great grandparents would have known.
Land girls and Air Raid Patrol wardens rub shoulders with good old-fashioned bobbies on the beat, sandbags and sandwiches are piled high (in Chatham-Land rationing is a thing of fantasy…) and you’re more likely to see George Formby than George Raft. Spivs, squaddies, pearly kings, Red Cross nurses – even King George VI and his lovely consort Queen Elizabeth – this could not have happened anywhere else other than Britain.
Chatham dockyard in Kent is a big enough place to look round anyway. You need at least a day to see its vast collection of ships, buildings and memorabilia so it’s a good job the festival lasts the whole weekend.
It’s essentially a ‘taster’ event for pretty much any aspect of the 1940s you might be interested in, where re-enactors channelling alter-egos from the period, both military and civilian, invite visitors to experience exactly what it is that draws them to the era.
The time, money and above all, love that has gone into researching, costuming and displaying their particular specialty is obvious, and visitors are encouraged to chat with them – these are not costumed actors, but people who actually know what they’re talking about.
There are specific ‘things to do’, from a Make Do and Mend fashion show and jitterbug lessons through to the Coming Home vehicle parade, but in many ways the best way to get the most from the day is to wander round talking to as many people as possible holed up in everything from mock-ups of a bombed-out house and a Dig for Victory garden to a military camp or field hospital.
Wartime sounds, good and bad, are everywhere. Piercing air raid sirens might have sent us all running for the shelters seventy-odd years ago; now they are just reminders of the kind of terror people lived with then. More welcoming are the sounds of steam trains, vintage vehicles, wartime broadcasts, hundreds of re-enactors living out different aspects of wartime Britain – and what many consider to be the sound of the 1940s: a Spitfire roaring overhead.
Unlike many retro events these days, visitors aren’t expected to come in costume to Salute to the Forties; a shame in some ways, as it’s hard to feel completely immersed in the period with people walking around in jeans and t-shirts.
It’s a family event, particularly good for children and it’s true that the more you enter into the spirit, the more you get out of it.
This year’s event takes place on 17th and 18th September.