So the final day of the festival is upon us, the tents are being dismantled, swords and lances packed away, the tanks are rumbling off site and the crowds are thinning out. It has been an amazing week for history lovers with some fantastic talks and wonderful performances.
The day started with a discussion about 'Conspiracy Theories: Why do people believe Mad Theories' from Sander van der Linder, Professor of Psychology of Society at Cambridge. He explained how some conspiracy theories are deliberate, some evolve organically, and that we are all susceptible to falling for them. In Finland, who have long shared a border with Russia, children are taught from a very young age how to recognise misinformation, and he believes that is the way forward for the rest of the world.
Speakers Corner was host to a really interesting talk by Zachary Peatling who looked at how British Martyrs of the Reformation could go towards their deaths without fear, despite all of the torture and misery they had been put through. This was followed by a talk from Zack White on his charity set up to commemorate the war dead of the Napoleonic wars, and he managed to speak with great clarity and passion, despite having to compete with live music from the bar nearby, tanks trundling past and full volume announcements over the tannoy.
The irrepressible Betty Webb, 100 year old veteran of Bletchley Park and the Pentagon during World War II, talked about her wartime experiences to a sold out crowd. With much humour and a no nonsense attitude, she was fascinating to listen to and even willing to pose for a full tent photo after the talk.
There was more jousting, manoeuvres from the Gurkhas, the kids activities were all packed out, the Acrochaps wandered around the site keeping people entertained and the living historians have all been surrounded by crowds of interested people.
It has been a busy and fascinating week and one which we would highly recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in history. For now, the marquees and tents will be packed away, the locals can breathe a sigh of relief that they can have their roads back and the green valley of Church Bottom can be returned to the cows and sheep.
To find out the dates of next year's Chalke Valley History Festival, go to their website and sign up to the mailing list.
Saturday is always the busiest day of the week for the history festival and today was no exception. The families and crowds arrived and fortunately they brought the sunshine with them. The living history, performances and kids activities stepped up a gear and yet more famous names arrived on site to give talks and share their expertise.
An absolute highlight of the shows today was serving Gurkhas, who are attending the festival for the first time. Not only have they set up tents showing how they live in the jungle, both past and present, and a Nepalese kitchen which has been serving traditional food to visitors, but today they re-enacted the assault on Hangman's Hill, part of the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944.
Using World War II uniform, guns and trucks, they used 21st century military tactics to ascend the hill at the end of the valley. The Gurkhas progressed up the hill at great speed, and we could all see the glint of their regimental knives, the Kukri as they reached the top. Their one casualty was hoisted on to a soldier's back who then ran effortlessly back down the hill. It was very impressive and afterwards I overheard a WW2 re-enactor say that it was the best and most adept military re-enactment that they had ever seen.
Later in the afternoon they performed the traditional Kukri dance, a form of martial art which trains Gurkhas in the moves they need to use the knife. It is something not often seen in public and was a real treat for the assembled crowds. There followed a question and answer session with lots of questions from kids, which the soldiers and their affable commander were happy to answer.
The jousting tournaments drew huge crowds today - it is the first time that they have had jousting at the festival and it is an authentic medieval version, rather than the sort often seen at country shows and fairs. Led by the talented horseman Dominic Sewell of Historic Equitation who was joined by Tobias Capwell, Curator of Arms and Armour at the Wallace Collection and an expert in medieval armoured combat, the knights battled it out and soon the splinters of broken lances were flying across the arena.
Talks today have seen big names such as Michael Morpurgo, Ian Hislop and Polly Toynbee on the main stages. Famed satirist Ian Hislop took part in several talks today, the highlight of which was in the Hiscox Tent when he was interviewed on his career as editor of Private Eye and panelist on Have I got News for You? We learnt about his first interview with Peter Cook, where he forgot to turn the tape recorder on, didn't take any notes and got too drunk to remember any of it, yet Peter was 'impressed with his professionalism' and he joined the staff of Private Eye.
We learnt about the court cases he has won and lost and the scandals and corruption he has exposed over his 37 years as editor. He also freely admitted to mistakes he has made, including the MNR scandal and the recent furore over how Paula Yates was treated when she appeared on HIGNFY.
He agreed that the optics look bad and said he was sorry if he came across as clumsy or thuggish, but he still thinks the point he had been making was a valid one. He ended with the expected quips about Boris Johnson, who he called 'extraordinarily useless' and described as King Midas in reverse.
Bill Browder brought his fight for justice for Magnitsky to the Hiscox Tent once more. He briefly reminded the audience of his journey from fund manager to human rights activist following the arrest, torture and murder of Sergei Magnitsky who had uncovered a 230 million dollar tax rebate fraud in Moscow. He then recounted the search for the money - which further investigations revealed to be a trillion dollars, stolen from the Russian people over a 22 year period. Money that should have gone on hospitals, schools, public services. He recounted the extraordinary event of President Trump, “the most powerful man in the free world agreeing to hand me over to the dictator who wanted to murder me”.
His view of the war in Ukraine is that Putin was encouraged to invade by Western weakness, demonstrated by the failure to act after Syria’s use of chemical weapons and by the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Furthermore, the war is a distraction to stir up nationalist anger against a foreign enemy in order to prevent insurrection at home. He believes that Putin will never agree to negotiate for this reason alone, instead he will continue to send young male bodies to their deaths.
Bill Browder agreed that his audiences left his talks more depressed than when they arrived and acknowledged that his own life is at some risk as Putin continues to try to get him back to Russia. The audience rose to their feet to give him a standing ovation.
Foreign Field entertained a crowd to 'Corpse and Effect: How to snatch a body'. Body snatchers were a feature of the 17th and early 18th centuries, making money at 35 times the average worker’s wage, digging up the bodies of corpses less than 14 days old and selling them to medical students.
The background to the talk was a grave, being dug by two snatchers who appropriately dug out a corpse as graphic accompaniment to the explanation. The methods used by relatives to prevent such desecration were discussed (including, bizarrely a cemetery gun and a coffin torpedo). All such illegal activity was brought to an end by the Anatomy Act of 1832 which allowed unclaimed bodies from the workhouse to be given to the universities. It was a very enjoyable, humorous and enlightening half an hour.
There is just one day left of the festival and tickets are available on the door. There are more talks, loads of activities for kids and more performances including jousting and the Gurkhas, so the final day promises to be an excellent one.
Day 5 has seen our first day of drizzle at the festival, but rain never stops play in the Chalke Valley as the umbrellas come out and people just move from lounging on the grass to huddling under the marquees instead. More historians and displays are arriving on site and everything is set for a sunny and history packed weekend ahead.
The day got off to a flying start with author Sinclair McKay taking his audience on a tour of some of the 50 codes that changed the world, from Linear B which he described as a portal through time, Mary Queen of Scots being executed as a result of her encrypted messages being intercepted, through to the unique abilities of the rather eccentric codebreakers of Bletchley Park.
The morning in the Hiscox Tent began with revelation of one those small, relatively undocumented episodes in history with massively important consequences. Dan Snow and Lucy Ward discussed the unlikely relationship between Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia and an English Quaker physician, Thomas Dimsdale. An enlightened despot with an interest in science and philosophy, the Empress was determined to bring reform to Russia, and was painfully aware of the large numbers of her subjects, particularly children, dying every year from smallpox.
After a massive outbreak in 1768 in St Petersburg, knowing England to be a centre of excellence for inoculation, she secretly summoned the English doctor to inoculate both herself and her son in the Winter Palace: their survival led in turn to a massive reduction in deaths from the disease.
The story is one of personal courage and astute politics - Catherine could then present Russia to the world as a forward-looking enlightened nation. The speakers added an ironic note to this tale - partially as a consequence of this success, Russia was able to embark on the first Russo-Turkish War which led to the acquisition of the area now known as Ukraine.
Historical heavyweights Max Hasting and James Holland tackled some contentious subjects of the Second World War. An incredibly powerful talk to a sold out audience, it included Bomber Harris being described by Max Hastings as an 'unmitigated bastard', but still one that can't be accused of being a war criminal which seems to be the fashion these days. Not only does that minimise the actions of the true war criminals, such as the current Russians in Ukraine, but it shows a failure to be able to put historical events into the context of events at the time.
Academics and students in universities today will look at actions and events in isolation and not see what was happening at the time, seemingly incapable of understanding that how we think now is not relevant to how they thought then. After six long years of war, the politicians had just wanted the war over and could not think of any other way to hasten it along. If they had stopped bombing the German cities, the people of the time would have thought that their leadership had gone mad. The end of the war may have been inevitable, but the Germans just would not surrender - the minute they did, the bombing of their cities stopped.
Also discussed was the use of letters and diaries as source material, James Holland saying that they give an immediacy you can not get elsewhere and that they are 'like putting flesh back on bones long since in the ground'.
Blaming Truman for the dropping of the atomic bomb was another issue under discussion. Roosevelt died in April in 1945 and only then was Truman made aware of its development, when it was already a juggernaut with its own momentum, with no doubt that it would be used the minute it was completed. By the time it was, the Germans had already surrendered, and saying that its use on the Japanese was an act of racism misses the point that it would have been used on the Germans if it had been developed earlier.
Another truly powerful talk today was a discussion between environmentalist Ben Goldsmith and author Keggie Carew about returning native species to their historical homes.
A former financier who has been in the news regularly in recent years due to the tragic death of his teenage daughter, he was talking about the modern concept of rewilding. He talked about how we grow away from nature as we grow older, how the 'colour is drained from our landscape'. For many years the focus has been on growing trees to repopulate nature, yet evidence is showing that open space is crucial to returning land to nature, that sunlight is what is necessary for the land to thrive, and the animals and insects who will come into that open space create a more authentically natural landscape.
Max Hastings held his audience stunned by the power of his intellect, the depth of his research and analysis, and his ability to recreate and relive dramatic historical events. Many of the listeners who had lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 as children or teenagers were able now to understand with greater clarity the enormity of what had occurred and to appreciate how much they owed to the courage of the cool head of Kennedy and - eventually - Khrushchev. We are all here today because they stepped back from the brink of Armageddon, as Max Hastings made abundantly and eloquently clear.
Tracy Chevalier spoke to Dan Snow about how she had crafted her novel, “Girl with a Pearl Earring”. Little is known about Vermeer, there are no writings, no letters and nothing is known about the sitter for the painting. It is the novelist’s task to create a world that the reader believes in, and she was greatly assisted by research into Vermeer’s will which gave a complete inventory of the contents of his house.
As far as possible she researched the facts, studied all Vermeer’s paintings to assist with the creation of his character then filled in the gaps sensibly and sensitively with her fictionalised interpretation. This sense of honesty and integrity comes across strongly in the novel and it is unsurprising that it has sold 2 million copies and contributed to the current interest in this spring’s Vermeer Exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The queue in Waterstones at her book signing was clearly going to add to this number!
The day ended with the ever popular historical game show Histrionics as the site gears up for the busy weekend ahead.
Day 4 has produced some unexpected sunshine and the site is filling up with new arrivals of living historians and military hardware, in preparation for the next few days which sees the families and crowds arrive for the always packed weekend.
The Hiscox Tent speakers focused on WWII in the morning, appropriately punctuated by the odd bang from outside or the sound of landing helicopters. Together with James Holland, Victoria Taylor discussed the problems for the Luftwaffe in defending the Reich as the Allied bombing increased. It was a humane and sympathetic approach towards the young, hastily trained and overstretched pilots asked by Hitler and Goring to do the impossible.
This was followed by the amazing Colin Bell, Mosquito pilot, now 102, sharp, modest, witty and with a fund of good stories about his bombing raids into Germany, 13 of which were into the perilous flak over Berlin. He well deserved the standing ovation that followed. After a live (and very loud) firing of a 3.7 heavy anti-aircraft gun in the field, and the manoeuvres of a tank watched by a large crowd, the discussion turned to mark the 80th anniversary of the Dams Raid, to explode some of the myths surrounding both the planning and execution of Operation Chastise and to assess its overall significance.
A highlight of the talks today was Dr. Peter Guest who hot footed it from Hinton St Mary, just 30 minutes away in Dorset, where he is leading excavations on the Romano British mosaic which was found there 60 years ago. The Stove Tent was packed out and he gave such a clear, coherent and fascinating talk that people turned and nodded to each other during the applause afterwards, and the first person to ask a question felt compelled to say that it was the best talk he had heard all week.
Other highlights in the talks include Tom Holland giving an impression of a drunk Cyclops in his race through Homer's Odyssey and James Holland impressing everyone with his incredible head for statistics and figures of World War II - all without notes. His talk in the new Stove Tent was so full that people were crowding around the outside to try to hear him. Actress Lucy Fleming, daughter of actress Celia Johnson and niece of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, and her husband, actor Simon Williams, gave a wonderful reading of letters between Celia and her husband Peter. Often humorous and touching in equal measure, it was wonderful to hear them read out by such distinguished actors.
There is far more to the festival than the talks and performances. Tucked away amongst the larger tents are areas such as Museum Corner, Heritage Crafts, Wartime Farming and a host of other eclectic stands and activities. New ones have been arriving throughout the day, including the Gurkhas who have been assembling a host of interesting looking tents.
The festival is also a haven for foodies. As well as the expected coffee and ice cream vans dotted amongst the tents, a tented NAAFI for tea and cakes and a posh tea marquee, there is a whole food court of local traders with names such as Sausage Shack and Greek Gringos, and a large area of picnic tables to enjoy your food.
If you want a proper sit down meal, Trethowans Dining Tent hosts several sittings a day of fine dining provided by Provenance: Field to Fork Food who are based in the nearby village of Tisbury and who use local produce. As an example, the delicious sounding dinner menu tomorrow is:
Provenance Fish Pie with French Leaf Spinach & Broad Chalke Watercress served with Garlic Dressed Fine Green Beans.
Salted Chocolate Delice with a Crushed Raspberry & Rosemary Coulis
The village is home to watercress beds which were started in 1880 and are less than half a mile away from the festival site; if you are visiting the festival you can pick some up on your way home, just leave your payment in the farm's honesty box.
There are also various stalls - one has two authors of historical novels selling their books, local distillery Downton Gin are handing out free samples of their delectable drinks, there is honey from Cranbourne Chase AONB which is just a few miles away, freshwater pearl jewellery from Love Your Rocks and one stall doing a roaring trade in straw and panama hats for the many visitors who believed the weather forecast and have been caught out by just how sunny and bright it is.
There is also an area at the top of the valley for camping - either in bell tents or people bring their own. With some beautiful views over the site, it is like another world up there, filled with birdsong and just the odd snippet of noise from the festival, phrases such as "the state of the nation" or "the landscape of the Renaissance" drifting up from the stages below.
The day ended with Peter Caddick-Adams leading Phillips Payton O’Brien and Lawrence Freedman in a discussion about the current state of the war in Ukraine. He made it clear that Western commentators do not have the whole picture but, with that caveat, the speakers gave us their best interpretations. They believed that the “Wagner mutiny” had shown Putin’s weaknesses and that nuclear proliferation was unlikely, largely because of Chinese pressure.
They found it difficult to speculate on events should Putin fall because there is - apparently- no provision for a successor. They believed that Ukraine had the will to keep fighting but could not be certain about Western resilience in support.
Should Trump be re -elected American support might waver, but for Russia’s neighbours the fear would always be there that Russia would attack them as they had done to Ukraine in February 2022.
These are uncertain times: this may be a “history” festival but it also serves to remind us of our present dangers.
Day 3 started with a chilly, misty morning, the valley filled with smoke from the charcoal burner which drifted over the short queue for the coffee stand. Both the heat and the crowds soon arrived, and the talks and performances got underway for another full day in the country's biggest history festival.
Photograph © Graham Smith
The day started with a Cold War Morning with talks on the Korean War, V-Bombers and life in Britain under the nuclear threat while in the Evelyn Tent, Kate Vigurs and Rob Lyman tackled the collapse of the Prosper Circuit of the SOE in Occupied France in 1943 to a capacity audience.
Military historian Rob Lyman reminded the audience of the purpose and function of the SOE while Kate Vigurs introduced the human characters, working under Francis Suttill, who undertook these dangerous missions as leaders, couriers and wireless operators.
The Prosper network was inevitably jeopardised as more members were recruited and the Gestapo and Abwehr became more adept at infiltrating spy and resistance groups. The speakers concluded that the network ultimately fell because of these factors and a series of sad and unfortunate events, not through any conspiracy or deception plan masterminded by British intelligence. Their final comments made for hard listening - a roll call of the agents involved and their deaths in concentration camps, mostly through execution. It was sobering to be reminded of the huge sacrifices made by these heroic individuals who operated in France in this vicious period of 20th century history.
The 'Holland Historians' dominated the talks, with both brothers doing two talks apiece today. Tom Holland took to the stage to talk about how reading mythology from an early age led to his passion for history. He always has a wonderful turn of phrase, describing Greek mythology as a 'gateway drug to history'.
He told the audience how years ago he persuaded his young family to spend 6 months in Greece so that he could research all of the ancient battlefields (well at least that's what he told the taxman) and how he had to spin the story of Gorgo, one of the few female protagonists, from a minor role to a major one to keep his daughter's interest as they stared at piles of rocks in the intense heat of the midday sun.
He followed this with a talk on the later stages of the Roman Empire, producing gems such as describing Roman Naples as 'a cross between Monte Carlo and Padstow' and the entertainment in the Coliseum as a mix of 'Cirque du Soleil and a snuff movie'.
One of the themes of this year's festival is the environment, and there could not be a better spot to focus on the natural world. The beautiful valley of Church Bottom is the unmentioned star of the festival, the surroundings of birdsong, butterflies flitting through the tents and the white fluffy dots of sheep in the distance make it a unique and wonderful venue to learn more about the world around us. There have been several talks with an environmental theme, as well as several displays.
One such display was put on by the falconer to Lord Montague in nearby Beaulieu, who gave a flying display with an accompanying unsentimental talk that dispelled any notion of a “relationship between human handler and bird".
Instead it’s all about trust and survival strategies. The large group of adults and children on the hillside were treated to a brief history of the link between monarchy and hawking over the ages, including the lesser known fact that falconry was common among all classes.
In fact falconry is woven into our art, literature, culture and language, with falconry terms and imagery regularly used by Shakespeare as being familiar to his audience. Terms such as “fed up”, "cadging a lift” and “larking about”, in common use today, are all derived from falconry.
One of the birds - Bonnie - was a little spooked by the crowd and would not fly to order, thus proving the point that these birds are wild and cannot be commanded. However, Belle gave the audience a good demonstration of her powerful flying ability and swooped over the heads of the fascinated crowd.
A talk on the re-introduction of the endangered Great Bustard to Salisbury Plain was given in Speaker's Corner by David Waters MBE, the man who has dedicated his recent years to doing just that.
The audience spilled out of the edges to hear his fascinating talk on this unique bird which is the heaviest flying bird in the world. He described the difficulties involved, from convincing reluctant conservation groups to get involved to the mountains of red tape just to get it underway, as well as the efforts they make in ensuring the chicks don't imprint on humans. This includes wearing special 'dehumanisation suits' which sees the wearer have masks and different colours front and back, to take the chicks for walks. He said they have a 99.9% success rate - the only bird which is attached to humans is the one who often pops up at Stonehenge and who has been named 'Gertrude' by the staff of the visitor centre.
Tomorrow sees World War II morning with veteran Mosquito pilot Colin Bell, new perspectives on Old Sarum, Tom Holland talking about the Odyssey and the insightful military historian, Peter Caddick-Adams, talking about the war in Ukraine. It's going to be another fascinating day, albeit one that may need waterproofs.
Day 2 may have seen some downcast weather, but the talks and the performances have continued unabated. Renaissance Man Alan Titchmarsh talked about his life, the Trench Experience saw a further 1600 children go through and the day ended with a packed out panel discussion on Putin's Russia, which included the widow of Alexander Litvinenko.
The Trench Experience features every year in the history festival and this time it is in the Oosterbeek Perimeter, where the British 1st Airborne held out with diminishing supplies during the Battle for Arnhem in September 1944. A hand written wooden board at the entrance sets the scene, ending with the words, ‘Get yourself dug in and shoot to kill’ and once assembled you are swept away into the journey back through time.
Allied troops had retreated to the village of Oosterbeek, forming a perimeter of a horseshoe shaped defense around it, close to the river Rhine. There was heavy fighting and due to intense supply difficulties, the soldiers faced a severe deficiency in food, supplies and ammunition. Lots of soldiers were wounded and killed and by the end of September the supplies had run out entirely. The remaining troops had to retreat across the river, leaving the wounded and medical staff behind. Nearly 2000 men died and over 6500 British and Polish troops were captured and taken as prisoners of war.
The experience starts through the narrow woodland which lines the top of one side of the valley, and a living historian guides you through the wood setting the scene, before you emerge into a trench complete with bloodied bandages, ammo boxes, mess tins and sandbags. Smoke wafts through the wood and across the trench, the crack of rifles fills the air, you have to crouch down to avoid being hit, duck under tarp and get to watch a soldier making a break for the crest of the hill; it is a fascinating journey back through time and is well worth doing.
Where else outside a University lecture theatre or a Sixth Form Conference would you get the chance to hear eminent speakers on little known topics? The History Festival allows ordinary members of the public to step away from the mainstream, hugely popular talks in the big marquees and absorb less well known themes or events, delivered by academics - or indeed anyone in full command of their subject matter - in more informal surroundings.
Professor Mark Stoyle was one such speaker, and the newly arrived Stove Tent, accommodating about 70 people, made an appropriate setting for his description and analysis of the Western (Prayer Book) Rebellion of 1549. This struggle by men from Devon and Cornwall against the imposition of religious change by Edward VI’s government was one of the bloodiest rebellions of Tudor times, crushed with brutal severity. Professor Stoyle, steeped in the primary sources, had clear sympathy for the rebels, and conveyed his audience back to the drama and religious convictions of the 16th century with great success.
Johnathan Healey gave a talk on his book, The Blazing World, which is a history of revolutionary England. Another of these amazing speakers who can talk knowledgably without any notes, he put together a new argument about the period which moves away from it being about lower classes challenging power and instead he tried to show that the bourgeoise were on both sides of the debate.
He talked about the development of 'tumults' - petitions, gatherings outside parliaments, the writing of pamphlets, all common place today but which started in the 17th century, with the whole situation made worse by the involvement of the press, wryly asking, 'Has the press ever made things better politically?', before remembering that the festival is sponsored by a major national newspaper and moving swiftly on. He related his favourite literary spat of the time between John Taylor and Henry Walker. Taylor was a waterman, much like a modern day black cabbie, who was full of political opinions, and he and Taylor descended to printing puerile pamphlets depicting each other as devils.
Alan Titchmarsh was in conversation with Tania Compton, talking about his life and how he got started in gardening before moving on to journalism, novel writing, sailing, presenting and a host of other skills, which have seen him become a weekly presence on British TV screens since 1980.
Particularly interesting was when he talked about his famous time on Ground Force, when he was given four days to design a garden for Nelson Mandela in South Africa. The experience has clearly stayed with him; he can still remember the softness of the touch of his hand, using the actual key to visit Mandela's cell in Robben Island and Mandela talking about how gardening was the only thing he felt he had any control over during his incarceration, caring for 2 tomato plants in the prison yard. When one of them died, he buried it in the corner of the yard and grieved its loss.
He received a round of applause mid speech when he talked about the benefits of gardening. When the media forces us to worry about the state of the whole planet, not just our local area, it overwhelms our natural compassion and causes an undue amount of stress. Gardening, he said, is stable and grounding, an escape to reality as the trees and shrubs remain constants, they are more real than the misery which the media tries to sell us and which leaves us drained. "Gardens keep us sane."
His talk ended with a discussion of the controversy over slugs. The RHS, of which he is Vice President, has recently announced that slugs should now be considered as friend rather than foe, yet Alan said that whenever he meets his fellow keen gardener friend King Charles, they both dismiss that as nonsense. Could this be the start of a war of words between the opposing sides?
Performances today included the excellent Kate Vigors as a Suffragette, standing high on a soapbox and giving a very powerful performance. She talked about the early days of the Suffragist movement led by Millicent Fawcett (who knew nearby Salisbury well as her husband was born here). Fawcett tried unsuccessfully to use logic to appeal to the men in parliament, and the performance moved on to the attempts of the Suffragettes who used violence and destruction to get their message across, and suffered heavily for it. She held up a feeding tube which graphically depicted the horrors the women had to suffer through to achieve the vote.
About 30 people clustered round the History Rage performers to hear the story of how the British SOE team and Greek resistance fighters under Patrick Leigh Fermor conducted an audacious ambush, capture and removal of General Kreipe from under the noses of the Germans on Crete in 1944. A very low tech presentation (the laminated sheets acting as “slides” regularly fell off the music stand) but it made no difference, as the story was told with panache and enthusiasm and was much appreciated by its small audience.
There are Chelsea Pensioners on site for the first time, and one of them gave an interesting talk about the foundation of the Royal Hospital, which they call home. Resplendent in their bright red uniforms and rows of medals, we learnt about how the hospital was formed by Charles II in 1692 and every year they still celebrate their Founders Day on 29th May, also known as Oak Apple Day after Charles II hid in an oak tree. Once a national holiday, Oak Apple Day is now only celebrated in a handful of places across England, the nearby village of Great Wishford being one of them.
The Royal Hospital was started as a home for former soldiers and covers 66 acres in Chelsea, with each soldier given a small berth as well as food and medical care. Parts of the hospital are open to the public where you can see the Wren chapel, some of the original 6 x 6ft berths, an impressive gold statue of Charles II and a small museum. It is free to visit and gives an interesting insight into this very British institution.
The Hiscox Tent was packed to capacity in the evening for the talk on Putin’s Russia with Samuel Ramani, John Sweeney and Marina Litvinenko, widow of Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned in 2006. Inevitably the discussion centred on topical events - the war in Ukraine and the recent failed attempt by Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group to “march on Moscow”.
The three speakers were very much in agreement - that Putin’s regime has become increasingly tyrannical and brutal, that the West has severally and collectively failed to stand up to Putin because of the lack of political will and the need for Russia’s oil. Putin has very largely convinced his own people that he is the man of power and strength that Russia needs, the only one who can ensure the survival, re-creation and expansion of the territory of Tsarist and Imperial Russia. The future for the Russian people themselves seems bleak, and the audience filed homewards in sombre mood.
Some 2,500 thousand school children have passed through the festival in the previous two days. Tomorrow it is the turn of the general public, starting with the Cold War morning, a talk on Darwin as well as two talks by the truly entertaining speaker, Tom Holland.
The festival opened today in the beautiful green valley of Church Bottom, Broadchalke with a major coup - its first ever former Prime Minister. Not only that, there are several exciting new additions to the site as well as the favourites we all look forward to. The sun is shining, the forecast looks good for the week ahead and although a few of the talks have sold out, there is still time to get tickets for what promises to be a fantastic week of history in the Wiltshire countryside.
As always, the week long festival starts with two days of schools festival, when excited crowds of children in their colourful tops visit the assorted displays, performances and talks, as well as take part in activities such as Soldier School, Royal Signals activities and the Trench Experience, which alone had 1200 children through today and are expecting another 1600 tomorrow.
The public arrive in the early afternoon; striped blazers, floaty sun dresses and panama hats making their way down the hill to the pristine white tents. The festival site is as welcome as a return to a favourite holiday destination; all the old favourites are there, but interspersed amongst them are some novel new additions such as the Stove Tent, a huge fire pit, and plenty of large guns and vehicles.
Talks are a major part of the festival and the batting for this year’s was opened by the cheerful and knowledgeable trio of Mike Brearley, Gideon Haigh and Simon Hughes discussing “Ashes Heroes” in the Hiscox tent. The audience were clearly devotees of the game, quick to understand and appreciate the jokes and subtleties of this “family feud” which holds so many in thrall.
Author Michael Scott talked about his new book X Marks the Spot, a look at the changes in archaeology over the years and how and why certain discoveries were made. The book looks at eight major finds from the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 to an excavation which is still under way today in the Aegean. He talked about how, much as they think they do, archaeologists don’t own the past or what they uncover, their finds ‘go out into the world like teenagers who leave home’ to become part of the global story.
Daniel Finkelstein, in conversation with Tim Bouverie, related the extraordinary story of how his parents survived the cataclysmic upheavals of the 1930s and 1940s. His grandfather, Alfred Wiener, who had fought for Germany in the Great War, was amazingly prescient in his view that the newly formed National Socialist German Workers were bent on forcing the Jews out of Germany. As early as 1919 he began to record the words and actions of Hitler and the Nazis - material which was later used in the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials.
He took his family, including his young daughter, later Finkelstein’s mother, to Holland believing that it was a safe country, likely to remain neutral in the coming conflict. Events proved him to be wrong, and many family members died in the death camps.
Astonishingly his mother was able to acquire a Paraguayan passport, making her eligible for an exchange. She was one of only 136 people to survive in this way. His father, then a young boy a Polish Jew from Lvov, was taken when the Russians occupied Poland as part of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and was sent to hard labour in a Siberian gulag. Released as part of an amnesty, his survival from the horrors of Stalin’s Russia, also was miraculous. It was an sobering tale for Day 1, reminding the audience of the ugly, horrifically dark side of the 20th century.
It was then something of a relief to pass the Cold War tent. One of the school children (3000 are due to visit the Festival this week) was clearly somewhat confused in his response to the question “What do we know about the Cold War?" “Yes”, the Exhibitor was explaining patiently, “it is true that we used to have very cold winters”………. He clearly was going to have his work cut out for him to fulfil the stated aim of the CVHF to “promote the understanding, education and enjoyment of history”.
The site had filled up by the time John Major arrived for his sold out talk. The first ex- Prime Minister to talk at the festival, he was surprisingly erudite, funny and entertaining as he talked to Tim Bouverie about his time in office and provided insight to famous politicians of the 1990s.
Boris Yeltsin was one of his favourites and he described a time he was with Yeltsin in Moscow and asked him, “In one word, what is the state of Russia at the moment?” Yeltsin replied, “Good”. Major, being somewhat surprised by this, asked him to use two words. “Not good” was the response. We learned more about how Major got noticed by Margaret Thatcher after having a furious row with her and thinking his career was at end. Denis Thatcher clapped him on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, she’ll have enjoyed that.” Five weeks later she brought him into her government.
Speakers Corner hosted an excellent talk on the recovery and identification of the missing of WWI. In essence, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission do much the same work today as was begun by Fabian Ware and his teams on the battlefields over 100 years ago. As new roads are constructed, new buildings erected, wind farms established, the ground yields up artefacts and bones for the archaeologists and anthropologists to examine. The process is thorough and painstaking and there must be an accumulation of convincing evidence to establish the identity of each body.
This is no easy task as so much has downgraded in the soil over the intervening years. If a body, or part of one, can be found then items that assist the researchers are metal parts of gas masks, helmets, button sticks, spoons, regimental badges and shoulder titles. The significance of any such find must be corroborated with what is already known about the movements of various units across the ground, on what dates, with what results. Only when the evidence is compelling will contact be attempted with living relatives to compare DNA. This in itself is no easy task - young soldiers were almost exclusively without children so more remote individuals must be found.
Finally, when there is an extremely high degree of certainty, the body can be named and laid to rest in a military cemetery, buried with military honours by today’s soldiers from his or her home country. The work that is done by the GWGC is meticulous, and all the countries involved owe a huge debt of gratitude to Fabian Ware, and to those who continue to carry out the vital work that he began. (You can find out more about their work with a visit to the CWGC Experience in Arras.)
The new additions to the site bode well for the days ahead. The Stove Tent, a completely new enclosed space with a stove inside to keep the crowds warm for late night story telling which will come later in the week, has already been packed out during talks, with people having to peer in through the windows.
Author Kate Vigors who enthralled crowds at last years event with her tales of women in the SOE is back in a more prominent position and with plenty of space for the crowds she seems to gather. There is a new falconry display with some impressive looking birds who were historically flown by Kings, their owner keeping a close eye on them and reminding people that these are wild birds, not those who have been brought up by people and imprinted at a young age.
An area has been pegged off for authentic medieval jousting which will take place at the weekend, another new addition for the festival. There is plenty of space saved for the living historians who will gradually arrive as the week passes; soon this valley will be filled with rows of white tents, Napoleonic red jackets will mingle with Naval Beach Commandos and medieval peasants. Already the smell of wood smoke is permeating the area, soon it will be wreathing through the valley mingling with cordite and medieval cooking. The crack of rifles from the World War II trench ring through the valley, soon to be joined by the noise from the big guns which are on display, sitting quietly until their time comes.
The day ended with live music from Ned Holland as the shadows lengthened and the sun set over the valley. The dining tent and food court filled up with the sounds of visitors unwinding after a packed day of history, with much anticipation of the week ahead.
The Daily Mail Chalke Valley History Festival takes place at Church Bottom,
Broad Chalke, Salisbury, Wiltshire, SP5 5DP.
For more details about the Festival and to book your tickets, please visit the website at www.cvhf.org.uk