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  • Sarah


The UKs largest history festival got off to a fantastic start today in the Wiltshire countryside, with festival goers delighted to be back after two years absence. The sun is out, the bunting is up and the Panama hats have been dusted off for five days of talks and living history in the beautiful Chalke Valley.

Watching Dan Snow and the audience re-enact the Battle of Trafalgar

The Chalke Valley History Festival opened today with its customary aplomb and verve. Despite the reduced capacity of the audiences and the need for social distancing and masks, the enthusiasm of the speakers, volunteers and audiences remained undimmed and undaunted. Five of the six main lectures were sold out – and this on the first day – indicating that there is massive appreciation of this immersion in history over a few glorious days.

There are only two indoor tents this year, with socially distanced seating which has the added benefit of giving people plenty of room and much more comfort when listening to the talks. There is something so wonderful about sitting in a tented marquee, listening to a fascinating talk while looking at the blue skies and rolling hills outside, with the odd butterfly flapping past you.

The comfortable seated tents

To kick off the festival, Julian Orbach gave us a talk about his revision of the classic Pevsner's Wiltshire, recently released after seven years of writing.

Pevsner's books were the most extraordinary publishing projects of the 20th century; he was one of the fastest writers of any academic of the time, producing four books on different counties every year, spending his days visiting buildings and his evenings writing.

Orbach is one of the last remaining people who actually worked with Pevsner, when he was fresh out of university and Pevsner was an 'elderly and very sweet man'. He told us how Pevsner had the gift of bringing out the unusual features of a building or a monument, with a well worded sentence that went beyond the descriptive. I warmed to Pevsner when hearing that he would often dismiss a place saying how 'it need not detain us long', a phrase every travel writer would love to borrow from time to time.

Niall Ferguson on Zoom thanks to quarantine restrictions

The other opening lecture reflected Our Times as Niall Ferguson, speaking appropriately on Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, was stuck in Wales under quarantine rules, having only just flown in the from the USA.

There was a collective sigh from the audience who had longed for a real live person after all these months of speakers on Zoom, but they quickly forgot their disappointment as he is such an entertaining speaker.

His aim was to put the pandemic into its historical perspective. The Black Death caused far more deaths proportionally than any modern pandemic and in the modern age cancer and heart disease kill more people than Covid. In the 20th century in Britain 1918, 1940 and 1951 were far more deadly years than 2020. Modern technology has allowed the state to continue to function through third of the workforce being able to work from home and has reduced the number of potential deaths, but the long term effects on physical and mental health and the fiscal and monetary impact is yet to be revealed. It may well be that the death of George Floyd turns out to be a far more significant milestone than the pandemic.

Charles Spencer in his sold out talk

Also attracting a huge crowd was Charles Spencer, talking about the White Ship that went down off Barfleur in 1120, taking the heir to Henry I and many of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy with him.

Not a particularly well known topic, he had only persuaded the publishers into print by telling them “It’s Game of Thrones meets Titanic”.

He summarised the background to the tragedy and detailed all that is known about The White Ship’s last journey. It is possible that the ship still lies on the seabed and marine archaeologists are in the process of searching for her.

There is a much more extensive outdoor programme this year to comply with distancing measures, and it works really well in the valley. People sit on the wildflower covered slopes looking down at the stage, meaning there are no heads in the way and everyone can see everything.

The Battle of Trafalgar in the English countryside

We sat back in the buttercups and clover watching TV historian Dan Snow direct audience members to act out the Battle of Trafalgar, a very funny yet informative performance which saw the audience 'sailing' towards each other and shouting 'bang' as they shot their canons, ending with a dramatic re-telling of Nelson's death scene. The kids loved it as they were hoisted on shoulders or sunk at sea.

There were plenty of pop-up talks at various locations around the valley; James Holland, the historian who started the History Festival standing next to a Russian tank giving a talk about the T34 and Sherman tanks to an audience of military history buffs, a guided walk of Tudor Herbal Cures, a talk about the Tudor kitchen, blacksmiths in action, the First World War.

Living history is everywhere at the festival, and one of the things I love most about it is seeing the re-enactors all mixing as they wander around the site - a World War I officer chatting to a Native American, a Napoleonic soldier inspecting a tank, Roman legionnaires marching in front of the British Navy from World War II.

There is plenty on offer for kids this year. As well as Sword School and all sorts of historical activities, there is a colourful ferris wheel and swing boats to keep them amused. The History Tellers are very funny and perfect for kids and adults alike, with a highly entertaining way of presenting the past in short and snappy plays that keep the audience laughing.

As well as all of this there are independently owned shops and stalls along with a large Waterstones, a wide variety of food stalls, cafes, bars, picnic areas, live music and more.

Tomorrow starts with a World War II morning before a full day of talks, living history and more. I'm particularly looking forward to the audience re-enacting the Battle of Agincourt as well as a talk about the Mitford sisters. There is still time to get yourselves down to Wiltshire for this wonderful event which runs until Sunday.


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