Jane Pleydell-Bouverie on the Chalke Valley History Festival

Justin Doherty, security consultant and former army officer, chats with CVHF Director Jane Pleydell-Bouverie
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The Chalke Valley History Festival has been running since 2011.  How has the festival evolved over the years?

The festival began in June 2011 on a small scale and as a fundraiser for the local cricket club. I think the first year we had just 12 talks across one weekend. Since its first inception it has grown exponentially and now takes place on a 70-acre site, and over an entire week.  For 2023, we have over 200+ talks, live performances and interactive experiences, plus the Schools Festival on the first two days of the week.

Who attends the festival?  Is it true that CVHF attracts the highest concentration of billionaires and retired army top brass of any festival in the UK?

It’s true that we’ve had a number of speakers in the past who have been major figures in the Armed Forces – I’m thinking of General the Lord Dannatt, former Chief of General Staff, and Head of the Armed Forces General Sir Nick Carter – but we like to think that Chalke Valley is a festival that has something for everyone. Talks, living history displays and activities for the kids – it doesn’t matter whether you are 5 or 85, there’s always something to do. And our Schools Festival is open to anyone who wants to learn about history. Over the years we have helped to fund a number of state schools from inner city areas, helping them attend with financial support from the Chalke Valley History Trust. So, we are keen to point out that the festival is not for just one section of society – it’s for everyone and all visitors are welcome.

What can a festival goer expect to see and do on a visit to CVHF?

They can expect the most incredible line-up of the best historians in the land, appearing on five different stages across the site. We also have a really exciting programme of living history re-enactments and performances – including an opportunity to experience a WW2 trench and take part in an SOE training camp – and visitors will be spoilt for choice when it comes to the delicious locally-produced food and drink on offer. Plus, live music every day and the best bookshop in the South West. What more could a festival goer want?

What are the high points of this year’s festival?

We are incredibly lucky and honoured to have such an amazing number of well-known historians in our programme this year. It’s hard to pick out just a few. But, if pushed, I’m particularly looking forward to hearing Alan Titchmarsh, who will be talking about his stellar career in gardening; Tracy Chevalier, the bestselling author of Girl With A Pearl Earring will be making her debut appearance and talking to Dan Snow; we have Dan Jones with us to uncover the true story behind the Battle of Crécy; Katie Hickman will be telling the dramatic real-life story of women’s experiences in the American Wild West; and it’s always fabulous to have Michael Morpurgo as part of the programme. Plus, we’ve got a Medieval joust taking place – with soldiers battling it out on horseback – which should be spectacular, and an encampment showcasing heritage crafts (with blacksmiths, stone masons and wood workers) right in the heart of the festival site. That’s going to be quite a scene as visitors arrive.

Does society have a problem with history?  Is it being taught properly in school and at home?

I wouldn’t say that society has a problem with history as such, but I would definitely advocate that children should study the subject until at least GCSE level. At the moment, they have to make a really difficult choice at the age of 14 between History or Geography, and many give it up at this point. That’s not right. What we try to do at the Chalke Valley History Festival is to show that learning about history can be fun – it’s not all about absorbing facts and figures – and that studying history can lead to a much better understanding of what’s happening in the world today. Having an ability to look at things through an historical lens is so important right now.

What will children get from a day or two at the festival?

There are lots of activities for the kids to get involved with. They can attend SOE Training or Knight School and learn the skills and techniques of Medieval combat. This year children can even have fun building and testing their own mini trebuchets, so they can learn about history and the basics of engineering at the same time. They can also design their own T-shirts with an environmental theme in the activity tent or take part in Have-A-Go-Archery – that’s always a firm favourite!

So should I spring my children out of school for a day to attend this year’s CVHF?

I would never really support missing a day of school and, indeed, almost all of our kids’ activities are at the weekend because it’s not quite the end of term when our festival is on. But our Schools programme at the start of the week is really strong and over 15,000 pupils have attended since it was first launched. Monday is for primary schools and Tuesdays is for GCSE and A level students. The pupils always have a great time and learn heaps from the people they meet. A lot of schools come back year after year.

Is there a dress code?  Are red trousers and linen jacket required?

There is absolutely no dress code, no. People are encouraged to wear whatever they feel most comfortable in and, of course, it depends very much on what the weather is doing at the time. We are usually very lucky, with the festival taking place in mid-summer. At the weekend dressing up (in historical costume) is welcomed, but is not obligatory.

The festival attracts many re-enactors from different eras.  Who are the most entertaining and interesting re-enactors?

We try and get as wide a range of historical re-enactors each year as we can. From all eras and representing different communities. We find that our visitors particularly like those living historians who can demonstrate particular skills from days gone by, skills that in some cases have disappeared almost entirely. The crowds also like a good battle or fighting displays. This can be from any period – from the gladiators right the way through to WW2 combat. We find that demonstrations that are the most visual stay in people’s minds the longest.

Which speakers and which periods tend to attract the most interest?

That’s a difficult one to answer. Tom Holland talking about Classical or Medieval History always goes down well. And recently Al Murray has been a big draw discussing various aspects of The Second World War. This year we have lots of topical talks – not surprisingly quite a few on the War in Ukraine and the threat from Russia – but also a series on the environment and sustainability, including Peter Frankopan arguing that the natural environment is a crucial, if not the defining, factor in global history. We’ve also got Minette Batters on the future of farming. Any talks that the audience can immediately relate to seem to sell out fast.

Which speakers tend to sell out fastest?

We always try to mix up the speaker programme, so we have fresh faces and newcomers each year. The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen has been very popular this time, and this is his first appearance. Both Ben Macintyre and Ian Hislop always draw the crowds – we could all do with a laugh right now – and Tracy Borman is a great favourite too. Big political names also go down well. John Major’s event has been sold out for weeks.

What were your high points from last year’s festival?

We were really honoured that the then Duchess of Cornwall – now Queen Camilla, of course – came to the festival to record an episode of her Reading Room series. Her visit brought a real buzz to the opening day and it attracted a lot of media coverage, as you can imagine. Another high point was the standing ovation the bestselling author of Red Notice and Freezing Order Bill Browder received after his talk. That was very special. And it’s always a highlight of the week when we welcome back any of those who fought in The Second World War. Last year we invited SAS veteran Jack Mann and SOE veteran Joyce Wilding. It was truly inspiring listening to their stories.

The Chalke Valley History Festival runs from the 26th June and tickets are still available.