5 February 1999

When a history lesson,

heritage site or event needs

a bit of life breathed into it,

who can you call? A peasant

or two of course, as

Tessa Gates found out when

she met a couple for hire

RENTAPEASANT

&BEHOLD THEPASTDRYSHUSH

PEASANTS are a bit thin on the ground nowadays, but it is probably true to say that Louisa Gidney and Paul Stokes are the most educated peasants anyone is ever likely to come across. These two graduates are archaeologists specialising in animals, who are increasingly living the history they have studied, with an enterprise they run called Rent a Peasant. Through it they show the everyday life of times past.

"Everyone laughs at it but they remember the name," says Paul who met Louisa when he was reading archaeology at Durham University as a mature student. The couple, who keep Dexter cattle, Manx Loghtan and Hebridean sheep on a smallholding at Tow Law, near Bishop Auckland, County Durham, set up Rent A Peasant as a hedge against dwindling excavation work opportunities.

"By the end of this year our work with Durham University will run out so we hope we shall be able to make a living as peasants," says Louisa, adding that even in good times archaeologists are not highly paid.

The couple fulfilled a range of engagements last year at heritage sites, shows and schools and they assume the personae of Roman, Saxon, Medieval or Tudor peasants according to the booking requirements. With their thorough research and hand-made authentic costumes they fill the roles very convincingly and are both educational and entertaining. Their animals too, often have a part to play. Louisa will be clipping sheep with hand shears at Corbridge Roman Fort this July, then spinning wool with a drop spindle. Even the couples costumes are made with wool from fleece from their own flocks.

"We usually take a couple of wethers along with us to a show and we are really staggering lambing this year so that we have something young and cute to take out and dont have to keep taking the same animal," says Louisa, adding that their animals have also been used as extras by film and television companies.

Two of the Dexter cattle will work yoked together and when the Dexters arent wearing it, the yoke makes a great attention grabber on school visits. "We go into schools as farmers and ask the children to guess what we do and what animals we might keep. We always take the yoke with us and get the two most mischievous kids to wear it, they all love it," says Paul. The lessons are kept flexible to take into account childrens ages and attention spans and are very interactive. At one school a pupil who was a farmers son helped bridge the gap between the centuries by helping the couple compare produce prices past and present.

The children only see them in costume and really enjoy stepping back in time with Louisa and Paul. "If we are being Tudors then we make rush lights. The children love peeling the rushes and it is an "official" messy activity so they enjoy it even more. We also show them how to make quill pens from goose feathers and how to use a drop spindle," says Louisa.

"One thing I find it hard to get my head around, is that most children dont wear wool or leather – their clothes and trainers are synthetic. We hand round pieces of wool and linen – even some of the teachers cant work out where linen comes from – and we explain how animals were kept for more than meat. We show them how fat was used for lighting, how everything including hide, horn and bone was useful. We explain that people had to be self-sufficient and we use meat from our own animals in our demos, and say how people needed fat for energy."

"A low-fat yoghurt still doesnt compare to stew and dumplings when you have been working out in the cold," says Paul. Food is his forte. Before studying archaeology, he was a lecturer in professional cookery. The idea for Rent a Peasant grew from his cooking authentic meals for historical re-enactment groups. He still occasionally provides period buffets and recently put on a spread of Roman food for a 50th wedding anniversary celebration.

"Another thing we do, with groups of undergraduates, is to cut up a carcass with flints and cook it afterwards," says Paul.

The pair really seem to enjoy peasant life, particularly wearing the costumes the styles of which they have thoroughly researched. "It is only when you are wearing them that you find out why the styles are so practical," says Louisa. "A long-tailed hood also acts as a scarf and long wide sleeves are wonderful for picking up hot pots with. The nice thing is when we are working in an unheated castle and people ask if we are cold. We can say no because we are wearing the right things for a castle – made from wool."

Spend any time with Louisa and Paul and you come away with the feeling that they would happily step back in time permanently given the opportunity and they eschew many of the trappings of modern life at home.

"We must admit that the difference between what we do at a show and what we do at home is getting more and more blurred," says Louisa.

Inquiries: Tel/fax: 01388-731848.