Last week we headed down to the sunny Wiltshire to attend the Chalke Valley History Festival. Nestled in the heart of the beautiful Wessex countryside a few miles west of Salisbury it is the scene of the largest history celebration in the UK. Back after an enforced Covid break of two years the CVHF delivered as it always does. Adapted to a post lockdown world the numbers were slightly reduced to 4,000 instead of the usual 8,000, but by no means did this limit the fun to be had.
The weather held for the majority of the event which was a blessing because most talks and demonstrations had been moved to outdoor areas to allow for social distancing. The stunning scenery and valley in which the festival is held allows one to become fully immersed in the experience. Where else can you listen to Sir Max Hastings discussing Maltese convoys (from his new book Operation Pedestal), followed by a chat with a Roman solider (in full regalia) demonstrating the benefits of a marching camp, surrounded by a turf wall that he has just erected? Some of our highlights included celebrity historian Dan Snow who brought the battlefield of Agincourt to life on the History Hit stage, using the audience as actors. The question of whether the French really did outnumber the English continued to be discussed long into the night.
CVHF is the brainchild of James Holland, when, in 2012, it was set up to raise money for the local cricket team. It was soon picked up by other local history enthusiasts as well as gaining sponsorship from the Daily Mail. The festival has now become a not to be missed social event in the diary of thousands of history buffs. Not only can you take part in live demonstrations and debates, you can mix it in with dinner cooked by Victoria Blashford-Snell. History is brought to life by reenactors who cover everything from the stone age to the recent conflict in Afghanistan. Not only is there plenty to see but you can sit on a bench near the wonderful Beckford Arms bar and play military High Command Top Trumps. We spotted General Sir Nick Carter, as well as General Sir Mike Jackson having a chat with non-other than Al Murray, Pub Landlord and co-host (with James Holland) of the We Have Ways of Making You Talk podcast.
During our visit we witnessed a variety of live demonstrations including the Royal Horse Artillery, Riflemen from the Napoleonic period and WW1 troops who had sadly been denied their trench because of blasted covid. The passion and engagement by these living historians enables the festival to become part of the educational curriculum for nearby schools. Gnarly veterans happily drill primary school children on the use of bayonets and even force some to do push ups for breaches of discipline (quite right too!). Our young ones loved the Sword School and the display by the Royal Navy Commandos who made sure everyone knew they are a separate unit from the Royal Marines. We even learnt about the recent Novichok attack on nearby Salisbury, from Chemical Weapons expert Hamish De Bretton-Gordon in an interview with Guy Walters.
Top authors roam the site, from Charles Spencer (author of The White Ship) chatting with Giles Milton (Checkmate in Berlin), the aforementioned Hastings, espionage historian Helen Fry (MI9), playwright Tom Stoppard (Hermione Lee’s Tom Stoppard: A Life), Private Eye’s Ian Hislop, the legendary Lady Antonia Fraser (latest book, The Case of the Married Woman), fiction author Ben Kane (Lionheart) and Holbein biographer Franny Moyle (The King’s Painter).
The aim is to excite, enthral and entertain about the past. All proceeds from the festival have, since 2012, been directed to the Chalke Valley History Trust, which promotes the understanding of history for all ages, but especially children. We loved our time there and wish the festival a bright future. If they can deliver so expertly in such difficult circumstances, the CVHF has given us reason to believe that next year’s event will be even better.
Images: Chris Jelf