Wuffa: keeping the Vikings alive in Norfolk

Sheringham Viking Festival boat-burning on the beach (photo: Karen Bethell)

Sheringham Viking Festival boat-burning on the beach (photo: Karen Bethell) - Credit: Archant

Vikings vanished centuries ago, but there are people out there dedicated to bringing our history to life

Photo: James Bass Photography

Photo: James Bass Photography - Credit: JAMES BASS PHOTOGRAPHY

As claims to fame go, Dave Bracey’s is one of the more unusual ones. “I was a dead body at the feet of Russell Crowe in the opening scenes of Gladiator,” he says proudly.

So how did a Great Yarmouth Borough Council worker end up playing a dead Germanic warrior in a sword and sandals epic?

“I’ve always liked history,” he says. “So I joined a re-enactment group, Britannia, at Chelmsford, about 25 years ago.” With Britannia he learned the skills and immersed himself in the history of the period – the Romano-British era – and found himself performing in front of as many as 25,000 people in some of the group’s events.

“Lots of filmmakers, like Ridley Scott [Gladiator director] ask for local re-enactors when they’re filming. I went for a screen test in Farnham with other re-enactors and loads of squaddies as they were close to Aldershot. If you were tall you were German, if you were short you were Roman! I was a German.”

The Wuffa get stuck in to their combat training (photo: James Bass)

The Wuffa get stuck in to their combat training (photo: James Bass) - Credit: JAMES BASS PHOTOGRAPHY

Dave has also appeared in a recent version of the Transformers series of films, along with three others from his present group, Gorleston-based Wuffa.

Wuffa – pronounced ‘oo...v v...ah’ – was formed about five years ago by Dave’s son Gareth. The pair, plus a couple of other members, started off by putting on a combat show in Gorleston High Street and went from strength to strength. The warband is now around 25-30 strong and performs at shows and events all around the county; one of the biggest they have been involved in recently is the Viking Scira festival at Sheringham.

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Think of Viking or Saxon re-enactment and you’ll probably first think of fighting, of big beardy fellows (and some unbeardy women) knocking 10 bells out of each other with a selection of swords, axes, spears and other implements. But there is another important side to it all, says Dave.

“We do a lot of living history,” he says. “We have a leather worker, wood worker, herbalist, a metal worker, weaver, a Viking witch and even a monk. We are going to set up our camp like a street, with these workers, so the public can see life as it was. There is so much we can show.”

Wuffa - Saxon and Viking Reenactment Society at their training session held in Gorleston (photo: Jam

Wuffa - Saxon and Viking Reenactment Society at their training session held in Gorleston (photo: James Bass) - Credit: JAMES BASS PHOTOGRAPHY

Those roles are popular with members who like the history but don’t feel the need to wield an axe – Dave himself plays a trader, Aldehelm. “They were traders – they went to north Africa, Asia, and brought spices back.”

They were not at war all the time, says Dave, and in fact the term ‘Viking’ refers to their raids. They were also farmers. “They saw how green it was here compared to back home and thought ‘this is great’ and they stayed,” he says.

They were canny political operators too, marrying into local families to form alliances and integrate themselves.

It is this more rounded picture of the Norsemen that Wuffa seeks to portray. “We try and be as authentic as we can; we’re not pretending to be historians but to give a snapshot of life at the time. We portray a story with a little bit of humour, try not to be too po-faced about it all.

“We are a more of an entertainment than historical group,” says Dave. It is not a universally popular approach in the re-enactment movement.

“There are a lot of people we call ‘stitch counters’ – they come up at shows and say ‘they wouldn’t have had that stitching’... you get lot of that in re-enactment,” he says, a little ruefully.

Wuffa is very much a family affair; Dave reckons that he is the oldest member at 64; the youngest is baby Loki, who, when photographer James and I visited, was just five weeks old and sleeping undisturbed while around him the clang of swords and battle cries raged as mum Elra, real name Joanne Burrill, practised her fighting skills.

The Poole family are also passionate about Wuffa. “I’m a huge history geek, so are the kids,” says mum Jerrie, the group’s witch, or volva – woman with staff. They got into Wuffa after a friend of a friend told her about them.

The Viking witch was a powerful woman, says Jerrie. “She’s a seer, a protector, she would wander around unprotected but have no worries. If she walked into a high house the lord and lady would get out of their seats and defer to her. She was a link to gods and would give blessings for crops, or battles, weapons or ships.”

Jerrie, a high school teacher, is also is the narrator at Wuffa’s shows. Her husband Bear is an axe-thrower and archery instructor and children Ezekiel and Lunaria love the life, she says.

Wrestler Darren Hogg (Drangulf the Hill Man) is one of the group’s formidable huscarls, or warriors, and he brings a bit of showmanship to the group, encouraging the quieter members to channel their inner Viking. “I bring a little theatre,” he says.

Guy Middleton (Wido the Forge Master) is the Wuffa metalworker. “I joined this lot and though I’d make it,” he says, proffering a five-foot long axe for inspection. He now makes many of the group’s weapons and plans to make a forge to take to shows to do some live metal working. (He, Darren and Gareth Bracey were also in the Transformers film; you’d need to see it for yourself to understand how ancient warriors fit into a movie about giant robots – I’m sure it all makes sense.)

They may not strive for historical perfection but it is clear that Wuffa give a real flavour of what life was like 1,400-odd years ago, and they seem to have a lot of fun doing it.

Who was Wuffa?

Wuffa, born 520, was king of the East Angles from 571 until his death in around 578. He was the father of King Tytila and grandfather of King Raewald of the Sutton Hoo ship burial fame. His name, a diminutive of the Old English word for wolf, is the dynastic eponym for the kings of East Anglia, the Wuffings. Wuffa was pagan, but his grandson Raewald was the first Christian king.

If you are interested in joining Wuffa, the group runs weekly training sessions on Thursdays from 7.00 to 9.30pm at Cliff Park Junior School, Orde Avenue, Gorleston NR32 6SZ. New members are welcome; no experience or kit is needed.

You can also hire the Wuffarians for your event; all details are at wuffa.weebly.com

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