THE TOP 10 REASONS TO VISIT THE CHALKE VALLEY HISTORY FESTIVAL

As the sun sets on another glorious week of history in the Chalke Valley and stages are dismantled, tents are folded, swords and spears get loaded onto vans, re-enactors carefully pack away their togas or uniforms, and the tanks rumble off down the narrow country lanes, we at Slow Travel thought we would share our top ten reasons why we love the Chalke Valley History Festival quite as much as we do.


1. The variety of speakers

The festival books a wide range of speakers with a huge breadth and depth of knowledge in their field, be it military, political or economic history, art or culture.

Dan Snow tries his hand at fighting

Over the past few years we've listened to famous historians such as James Holland, Charles Spencer, Tom Holland, Tim Bouverie, MP's such as Sir Nicholas Soames, religious leaders like Rowan Williams, military leaders such as General Sir Robert Corbett and Major General Paddy Cordingley, famous archaeologists such as Phil Harding and Mary Anne Ochota, playwrights such as Tom Stoppard, academics like Max Hastings, Antony Beevor and Peter Frankopan, journalists like James Naughtie and Ben Macintyre, the ex Head of M15, an international human rights lawyer and many distinguished authors. We have also been privileged to hear some amazing veterans of World War II - from Dunkirk, the French Resistance, D-Day and Wren code breakers. At the other end of the scale, but making a huge contribution in their own inimitable way are some of the country's top comedians like Harry Enfield, Al Murray and Charlie Higson.

Every festival you can be guaranteed that there will be someone you never expected to have the chance to hear. What is even better is that you may get the opportunity to meet them, as many of them do book signings after their talks.


2. The assault on the senses

The festival is a fully immersive experience. It is not just the obvious sights you see such as the speakers, the living history displays and talks, there is so much more to it than that; the bright white tents decorated with pastel bunting, the eye-catching shirts of the staff - bright red, pink or blue, the colourful vases of flowers on the pale wooden tables, all set against the rolling green hills, the blue sky and most of the time, the golden touch of the sun.

The air is filled with so many sounds; the metallic ring of swords clashing, the crack of guns firing, the boom of cannons echoing through the valley, the sound of a bugle, the poignant lone piper or military drummer, a Roman priest shouting his thanks to Neptune for accepting their sacrifice, live bands playing jazz or 1940s classics, champagne corks popping, bottles being rammed into buckets filled with crushed ice, and everywhere, laughter.


The wood smoke drifts over the valley, winding through the tents or floating in a lazy column into the still air. The scent of herbs and spices lingers at the Tudor kitchen, cordite rises from the cannons and guns, the potent whiff of diesel surrounds the armoured vehicles, the soft touch of rosewater and perfumes comes off the herbal remedies, all mingling with the curry, coffee and chocolate from the food stalls.


3. The unmitigated enthusiasm

The enthusiasm and cheeriness of everyone there, from the litter picking crew to the speakers, is infectious. The living historians just seem to relish their double lives - they may be an office worker, a football referee, a full-time parent, but as soon as they put on their period costume they are so keen to impart their extensive knowledge of their chosen time period, to extol the virtues and vices of the time.


Their command of their subject matter is extraordinary and their enthusiasm is boundless. Reenactors are fascinating people with a variety of motivations behind what they do, but they all want to pass on what they know.

One person I met in the Tudor kitchen said he wanted to let people know about the great discoveries of the Elizabethan Age, to show people how Britain has become what it is from an influx of new ideas, people and objects, to try to help counteract a little-Englander mentality.


One young man who dresses as a Soviet soldier from World War II was keen to show people that while we all focus on the Western Front and the success of D-Day, at the same time the USSR suffered hugely on the Eastern Front in a much more brutal campaign and that neither side can dismiss the actions and important role of the other. His passion and knowledge of the battles was extensive and impressive.

The site staff are a mix of volunteers and paid employees, but all are highly efficient, friendly and helpful; many are young university students keen to help and do their bit.


I saw two site staff ‘battling‘ over who was going to pick up litter, they roamed the festival in their red T-shirt’s with litter pickers and black bags pouncing on every stray tissue or cup. One volunteer sat with an elderly lady the whole way through a talk, just to keep her company.


The visitors too are all like minded people with an interest in history, keen to talk to the living historians and ask questions, to show an interest and debate the finer details. People smile a lot here, laugh and make eye contact with strangers.


4. The sheer eccentricity of the place

This is my favourite thing of all about the festival. There is a gentle eccentricity about a few thousand people gathered daily in a valley of tents where Roman centurions will stop to admire a Russian tank, American GIs will be queuing for coffee behind the Duke of Buckingham's men, a wounded World War I soldier with a bloodied bandage wrapped around his head will chat to a gladiator about his trident.

A walk through the valley will produce all of these characters, many of them ambling past you, others sitting outside their tents cooking on an open stove, playing a hurdy-gurdy, blowing a bugle, while you watch a World War II nurse walk up the side of the valley, mobile phone held aloft as she tries to get a signal.


As speaker Ben Macintyre said at the start of a talk, "This is the only festival where you can go to the urinal and have Rommel on one side and a Viking on the other".


5. The overheard conversations

This is another one of my favourite parts of the festival. Everywhere you go you hear snippets of conversations that are usually about history and vary from the sublime to the ridiculous. You may hear people walking along debating the finer points of German foreign policy, the positives of body snatching or the use of nets by Roman gladiators.

Or, you may hear comments such as "Imagine being shot by that!", "Ali wants to know why he won a coconut?", "I used to have a Citroen C1 but I couldn't fit my pike into it", "That sounded all a little bit William and Harry, didn't it?", "Liturgical Humanism? That's just too many syllables for me," and other gems which make you want to linger to hear the rest of the conversation.


6. The immaculate site

The site itself is pristine, well-ordered and has excellent facilities. The tents for the talks have good sound quality, comfortable seating and beautiful views of the hills outside, which is all you can ask for when listening to a talk.


The temporary pub, The Chalke Valley Tap, with its colourful circus style roof, is surrounded by wooden picnic benches all topped with a terracotta pot of flowers or a plant. There is bunting decorating many of the tents, and a white picket fence around the Green Room for the speakers. Attention has gone into the detail, which really makes a difference.

There are no signs shouting at you about where you can and can't go, they are all terribly polite. When you leave, there is someone to direct the traffic with a cheery wave, so there is no huge pile up in the car park which you can get at so many events when everyone tries to leave at the same time and tempers can fray.


Above all, it just feels so very civilised.


7. The beautiful valley

The valley takes on a presence of its own for the festival; the soft, rounded green hills providing a beautiful backdrop to your time spent there. The festival becomes a little microcosm of history, a miniature community shielded from the modern world outside by those rising green hills. Unless you clamber up the sides of the hills you can rarely get a phone signal, so you don't spend your time looking at it or being interrupted by calls and messages from outside. Your world shrinks to only what is happening in the valley and only the odd plane overhead reminds you of life outside, that there is a present not just a past.

You are very aware that you are surrounded by the natural world in the valley. With the outdoor stages you sit up the sides of a hill, resting on a grassy tussock or lying down amongst the buttercups and clover. Birds of prey circle high above you, probably wondering what on earth is going on below them.


At one talk I attended in a seated tent, I saw the rows in front of me all peering to look out the left side of the tent, some surreptitiously raising their phones to take photos. After a while, I could see what the fuss was; a baby rabbit hopping around in the grass, completely unconcerned about the scores of people just a few feet away. Smiles spread amongst the rows as we all looked at this little white tail bobbing up and down, its long ears peeking over the tall grass.


8. Supporting the independent

The festival has several retailers on site, nearly all of them small and independently owned. You can try locally made gin, sparkling wine, cider, buy from local artists and artisans or book tours and experiences through local tour providers and farmers.

The food stalls cover all tastes from curry to crepes and are also independently owned. There is a large Waterstones on site, but it is a very professional and comprehensive one with vases of fresh flowers on the tables, and is where the many book signings are hosted.


9. Child friendly and interactive

The festival has plenty on offer for children, even when they are not running the Schools Festival. As well as the opportunity to go on the oldest working ferris wheel, swing boats and try their hand at a coconut shy, there is sword school, soldier school and a host of other activities to get stuck into. The History Tellers put on several shows a day, acting out events from history that manage to be both informative and funny which draw huge crowds and have the kids laughing loudly.

Children also love visiting the living history stands, where people are always really keen to talk to them about what it was like to be a kid at the time and show them toys that they will have played with back then. There are plenty of child reenactors too in period dress, which really helps to bring the time period alive for the visiting kids.


For those who love engines, tanks, swords, guns and fighting, there is no shortage of opportunities to try them out or to watch them being fired and used in the field. They may even get the chance to participate in historical fights, as Dan Snow puts on "The Audience Reenacts" - battles such as Agincourt, Trafalgar and Waterloo.


10. The ethics behind the festival

The festival started in 2011 to raise money for the local cricket club, but soon became all about raising money for the Chalke Valley History Trust, a charity which promotes the understanding of history to all ages, especially children.


The Chalke Valley History Festival for Schools funds trips to the festival for under-privileged schools as well as to other history related sites and events, and provides grants to fund projects which fulfill the aims of the trust.


Knowing that all profits go to promoting the understanding, education and enjoyment of history for all ages makes this a very worthwhile festival for all history lovers to attend. A week of historical fun and it's all for a good cause!

 

The festival takes place in June in the Broadchalke Valley in Wiltshire. Visit the Chalke Valley History Festival website to sign up to their mailing list for advance notice of programmes and ticket sales.


Next Festival: 20th - 26th June 2022