At lunchtime on Saturday 23rd March, I made my farewells to the friendly crowd at the Come and have A Go if You Think You’re Lard Enough event in Southampton (read my part 1 report here), fired up the Battlebus and headed north towards Basingstoke, where I was to meet up with the Don Featherstone Tribute Weekend crowd.
When I reached the hotel (organiser Mark Freeth reserves rooms in the Holiday Inn on the outskirts of town), I checked in and had every intention of whizzing out again to the Wargames Holiday Centre itself which is near Kingsclere, a few miles outside Basingstoke. However, my ridiculous work schedule of the last week meant that I had only had about 6 hours sleep in the previous 72 hours, and having just intended to grab a cuppa and five minutes rest, the next thing I knew it was nearly 6 o’clock and it was time to get ready for dinner!
The normal schedule is that the players meet up at the WHC on the Friday night and are given the initial situation report and allocated to one side or another. Dinner and refreshments are taken either in the hotel, which has a perfectly decent restaurant, or in Basingstoke, which is just a short walk or cab ride into town, where there are eateries aplenty.
The following (Saturday) morning, the game kicks off and runs through until about 4 or 5 pm, when the players head back to Basingstoke and smarten themselves up for the formal dinner, which is followed by an auction of wargame-related stuff in favour of Combat Stress.
The game this year was a British/Egyptian force tackling hosts of Mahdists in an effort to relieve a town situated at the far end of the 24 feet by 6 feet table. There was infantry, cavalry, camelry and guns of various kinds, as well as a couple of marvellous paddle steamers and a gunboat. However, the British couldn’t simply head off to take the town: they were also tasked with having to protect their own encampment and a sizeable baggage train as well. It was like a Charles Grant Table Top Teaser on steroids, with fourteen players! Apparently, a train made an appearance at one point too, but I missed that.
Here’s the entire game shown in time-lapse animation in the space of 60 seconds. Thanks to Ben Selwyn, who was the second player I’d met that day who had never played a wargame before, for creating this fascinating visual overview using. To cap it all, it was his birthday over the weekend as well!
The rules—Will Victoria Be Amused?—were penned by Steve Thompson, who also provided pretty much everything else for the game too, an incredible effort for no reward other than the love of the hobby. The rules are very much of the ‘fun’ type, and included the various British officers having their own, secret objectives that would not be revealed until the end of the game. With either white feathers or Victoria crosses to be won by the players, according to the success of their officer characters, it was a game of high stakes! The Mahdists were generated randomly, in a fashion not unlike that delineated in my own Zulu! Battlegames special, and chance cards played a large role in the game, rather than dice. I gather there was a risk of crocodiles in and around the Nile, which ran down one side of the table, but it seems they had already been well fed, much to the relief of the players!
So, awake in time for dinner (which was very good indeed), I joined the fourteen other attendees, plus Mark Freeth and his wife Karen in the reserved dining area in the hotel, where the meal passed with the hum of polite conversation and several louder bursts of hilarity as a certain amount of joshing was exchanged: clearly, the day’s game had proceeded with no little amusement and a fair amount of friendly rivalry.
Short speeches were given by Mark Freeth, who told the story of how the Wargames Holiday Centre ended up in his hands, having passed from the late Peter Gilder, to the late Mike Ingham, and then to himself. this was followed by Steve Thompson describing the extraordinary efforts he put in over the last year or more to make this year’s event possible, including painting more than 2,000 miniatures. Bravo Steve!
Then it was my turn to speak, and traditionally, as one of the people responsible for getting the event off the ground, make a point of focusing on the contribution made by Donald Featherstone to our hobby, though I also mentioned my chance encounter with Don’s old friend Neville Dickinson earlier that day. I talked about Don’s remarkable series War Games Through the Ages (4 volumes, 1972-1976) which was, in its day, the very first ‘one-stop shop’ source material for every period then gamed up to the end of WWII. Nowadays, we’re so used to sets of wargames rules coming packed with historical background material and ‘fluff’ that we forget how hard it was to obtain even scant details about many periods, unless we had access to a university library. Don’s books provided a huge amount of useful data, including advice about tactics, and the leadership qualities of various generals—the beginning, indeed, of what that decade witnessed as an interest in representing ‘national characteristics’.
That duty done, I took of my jacket and rolled up my sleeves to prepare myself for my most arduous task: acting as auctioneer for the auction of wargames-y ‘stuff’ to raise money for my Battlegames Combat Stress Appeal. We had brought along books, plastic kits, metal miniatures, bits of scenery and so on, all donated with the charity at heart.
There were a lot of lots! Some things had less appeal and only went for a pound or two; but other items were hotly contested and I think the most expensive lots went for around £50. After a pretty exhausting and exciting hour, however, we had managed to raise around £650, which I think is a record for the auction. Then add to this the £25 a ticket that Mark donates to the cause, and the weekend total is going to top £1,000, which is just amazing. (The final total is still being calculated as some payments are still coming in.)
After the auction, team photos were taken before some of us stayed up late into the night enjoying a suitable beverage. I confess I only lasted until about 1am, whereas at least three of those attending had more stamina!
On Sunday morning, after a hearty breakfast, everyone returned to the Wargames Holiday Centre to complete the game, and at around 1pm a pause was called to award feathers and medals. The Most Gentlemanly Gamer award went, quite rightly, to Paul “Whiskers” Wisken, which means his name will be engraved on the glass Featherstone Trophy and he was presented with a 28mm colonial vignette as a permanent prize. The “White Feathers” award went to poor Melvyn Jenkins-Welch, who had had a torrid time of it, whilst the Victoria Cross (an actual replica of the medal, including ribbon), went to American visitor and overall hero David Hill.
Even though I was not there for the entire weekend, I could tell the atmosphere was convivial and warm as ever, and the participants came with precisely the right attitude as they always do. I know that in some circles, the entire notion of ‘old school’ is scoffed at, but there’s a great deal to be said for groups of wargamers gathering together purely for the fun of the thing, rather than for any kind of competitive purposes. Battlegames carries the strapline “The spirit of wargaming” and events like this—and, indeed, the Lardy event I attended on Saturday—exemplify the reasons why I got involved in wargaming with others, and why I still do.
Congratulations to Mark for organising yet another (the sixth) Featherstone weekend so successfully, and my thanks to all the participants for being so welcoming to me, even though I parachuted in late and dived out early. In particular, I’m grateful for their generous support of the event and the charity auction for Combat Stress, which means a great deal to me and to the veterans whose lives they have helped to improve. That, my friends, is priceless.