Day Three of this wonderfully entertaining, educational and mildly eccentric History Festival in the beautiful Wiltshire countryside - after all, where else could you find Roman Legionaries joining American GI's on a 100 year old ferris wheel?
Day Three dawned damp and drizzly, but by mid-morning the blue sky was back and the sun was out. The day got off to a cracking start in the Hiscox tent where Max Hastings led his audience through Operation Pedestal – the fleet that battled to Malta.
In 1942, following a series of Allied disasters it appeared that the forces of evil would triumph. Malta, the last bastion in the Mediterranean, seemed likely to surrender. Churchill desperately need a victory and decided that Malta must be saved – at any cost. Fifty ships, fourteen of them merchant ships carrying fuel, food, ammunition, vital supplies set sail from Britain in August.
The speaker described the perilous journey, giving a detailed, dramatic and harrowing narrative of the convoy’s tortured progress, using contemporary footage and eyewitness accounts. The crews were subjected to U-boat attacks, strafing from the air, constant changes of direction to avert the threats and were regularly convinced that their last moments had come.
The story of the tanker, SS Ohio, an American ship with a British crew, was particularly nerve-wracking. She finally limped into Valetta harbour after another four merchant ships – the only five to make it out of the fourteen who had set out.
These ships lifted the siege for Malta – food saw the Maltese through the winter, the fuel meant that Spitfires could fly again, Italian shipping had to divert round the island – it was a strategic success. Churchill shed tears of “unspeakable joy” and the courage of those seamen who undertook the voyage must never be underestimated.
The afternoon saw Simon Robinson and Patricia Outram take to the stage to talk about The Codebreaking Sisters: Our Secret War. The story of these two sisters, Jean and Patricia, was quite remarkable. Patricia, now 98, remembered hearing Chamberlain’s broadcast that Britain was at war and at 16, resolved to play her part.
A strong German speaker, as a Wren she joined the Y branch of the Coastal Naval Intelligence Service, a chain of radio stations along the south-east coast. Her task was to find German naval frequencies - and send them to the Admiralty if in plain language, or to Bletchley Park if encoded.
Her sister Jean was a code cypher officer in Cairo – amazingly neither of them knew what the other had done until many years after the war, as both had signed the Official Secrets Act.
Patricia spoke with both humour and solemnity about her role. The audience particularly liked her decision to learn – unofficially – how to use a Sten gun. She reckoned she could still fire one in case of necessity. The audience was vociferous in its applause at the end.
The History Tellers continue to entertain and inform in equal measure. They tell their stories – the Red Baron, the Grand Prix Drivers who became spies, the raid on St Nazaire - through the expedient of props and sketches. They change hats, jackets, don goggles, to denote the various characters whose roles are vital in the described event and have the audience laughing throughout.
The histories are impeccably researched, and they never forget the seriousness of their topic – for example, after the story of St Nazaire, the audience is asked to dedicate their applause to the Commandos whose daring raid prevented the Tirpitz from using the port as her base for the rest of the war - yet died in that achievement.
The well known historical podcast, We Have Ways of Making You Talk, was broadcast live from the History Hit stage. James Holland and Al Murray stood behind a large firepit, clutching a microphone and a pint each, debating the blunders and successes of World War II. There followed a highly entertaining debate, frequently interrupted by the sounds of a bugle being played by the Royal Horse Artillery, a few tents over.
The audience chuckled every time at the constant interruption, especially when it culminated in the sound of three bugles playing together in their grand finale. Al Murray pointed out that he had been heckled many times in his career, but by a bugle was a first for him. I'm sure they were both very relived when the buglers finally stopped and the debate could return to their discussion of how "it was the Mediterranean really where it all went tits up".
There is much more going on at the festival than the talks and displays. I visited the Emporium, where independently owned retailers had small stalls. Amongst displays selling objects such as mugs, art and jewellery, there were some more eclectic options. One stall was of historical novels, written by author Derek Birks, who was there to chat to people about his books. His latest series, The Last of the Romans, is based on actual people with well researched historical details, and looks at the final days of the Romans in Britain.
An unusual stall was Treasured Sounds, a start-up run by a charming man who helps people make their own Desert Island Discs, where they can reminisce about their lives and the music that shaped them, recorded for posterity and future generations.
Also on offer is Classic Battlefield Tours who run a variety of tours and experiences, many of which are social distancing-friendly and which are sure to appeal to the legions of military historians on site. They also run a behind-the-scenes tour of the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace which sounds like an amazing experience and is just the sort of thing we at Slow Travel would like to do.
There are two local drinks producers selling their wares, and judging by the amount of people I saw wandering around with shopping bags from them, they are clearly doing a roaring trade. Explorers Gin from the nearby Downton Distillery is a delicious botanical gin from an environmentally friendly company who do gin refills so you can re-use their beautiful blue bottles and save yourself some money too.
Bluestone Vineyards produce English Sparkling wines from Wiltshire, which you can try at their stall. They do tours and tastings at their vineyard, as well as selling their wines direct and online. Both drinks producers took part in one of the talks, The Secrets of Champagne, by Paul Beaver who has spent 20 years researching the world's finest wines and talked about its role in significant historic events.
The work behind the scenes to make the festival run so smoothly makes the whole thing look effortless and everything is beautifully well organised. The cheerful Site Team in their red T-shirts are familiar figures around the site. Many of them undergraduates, they worked for a fortnight to set up the site – putting down the flooring, placing the chairs, setting up stalls, writing the signs – and now they empty the litter bins and keep the site clean and tidy every day.
Large number of volunteers assist with marshalling the queues and seating in the tents. Many are students, like Gemma at university in St Andrews, who has volunteered since she was 16, passionate about History and keen to expand her own knowledge while enabling others to do so too.
The evening ended with Histrionics, the annual quiz show which takes an irreverent look at history. Hosted by Charlie Higson and with contestants Dan Snow, Harry Enfield, Al Murray and Alex Richie it had the large audience laughing throughout.
It started with a round of applause for the late, great John Sessions who had taken part in the last Histrionics, and then moved on to highly intellectual rounds such as 'guess the historical event' from drawings done by kids, 'historical event charades', and a 'Price is Right' style round having to guess how many words were in significant historical speeches, with the audience shouting out 'higher' and 'lower' to help the participants. An exuberant Harry Enfield came up with such gems as referring to the suffragette Emily Davison as 'one of those lippy birds', and calling a Plague Doctor 'Chris Whitty from the 17th century'.
As the sun descended, the site filled up with more tents and living historians; what I overheard one re-enactor refer to as ‘the part-timers'. These new arrivals, fresh from their day jobs, drove up in their vans, and soon the site was filled with the sounds of tent pegs being hammered into the ground, the banging of pots and pans as food was cooked over open fires, the greetings of old friends over the canvas.
The site is filled with an air of anticipation, as tomorrow is the weekend and the families and crowds will arrive in their droves - Saturday is completely sold out. The atmosphere will change as the site fills up; this evening felt like the calm before the storm as the peaceful prelude ends: the site is heavy with the expectation of the fun ahead.
The music from an excellent 1940s band playing to those unwinding at the bar followed us out as we left, the setting sun bathing the site in a last burst of mellow sunshine as we looked down over the valley before heading homewards at the end of another fantastic day in the Wiltshire countryside.