The History Festival, the biggest in the world, has just finished in the Chalke Valley in Wiltshire. Attracting some of the biggest names in history, politics and the literary world as well as living historians from all eras, the festival is a fantastic and beautiful place to spend some time immersed in history.
Saturday always sees a massive influx of visitors, and this one was no exception. Cars were queing down the main road and filling up the car parks before the site opened, with the occasional torrential downpour not seeming to put anyone off. The living historians have doubled in number since yesterday, with whole new time periods and battalions pitched up in their white tents.
The queues were halfway across the festival site to hear Ian Hislop be interviewed by Charlie Higson on Spike Milligan’s War against Hitler, the BBC and Everyone Else. This sold out talk was based on research he has done for a play about Spike Milligan at the height of his fame with The Goons in the early 1950s. We heard about Spike’s conflict with Peter Sellers and how much he loved complaining about both the BBC and his life in the army, but the overall impression we were left with was just how funny he was, with Ian Hislop repeating some of his many witticisms which had the audience laughing repeatedly.
Ian Hislop was also given the chair at Speakers Corner and fielded questions put to him by the large audience assembled - on the few chairs, sitting on the grass, clinging to the tent poles and standing in groups. Inevitably his opinion on present day politicians was sought and, just as inevitably, he attacked them all with wit and humour. The existence of such a large crowd was testament to his ability to make stinging political points with self deprecation and pithy comments.
There were live firing displays in the Arena on both days with the Garrison Artillery Volunteers. These are mostly former servicemen with the Royal Artillery who are the only people in the world still training using British Army Second World War artillery drills. Large crowds dotted the hillside to watch as they manoeuvred a towed battery of 25-pounder field artillery guns into position, unhitched them, positioned them and then fired them, both individually and collectively. The commentator talked the audience through what was happening and had them count the gap between firing the gun and it hitting its target. The loud cracks echoed across the peaceful valley as the smoke enveloped the crowds and the rest of site.
Standing ovations at the History Festival are rare and usually reserved for veterans. On Saturday the audience delivered one for Bill Browder whose mission to get justice for the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky commanded great sympathy and respect. Bill Browder began his talk by explaining that he was no longer President Putin’s Enemy Number One, President Zelensky of Ukraine now had that dubious honour. The threat to him is real: at the Helsinki summit in 2018 President Trump seemed to express willingness to hand him over to Putin in exchange for 12 Russian intelligence operatives arrested for hacking the 2016 Presidential election.
He told the history of how his early successful career of investment in Russia, and his campaign against the oligarchs, turned to disaster. It all hinged on Putin’s decision to support the oligarchs (in return for a substantial share of their wealth). In 2008 Bill Browder hired a young lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, to investigate people who had fraudulently claimed a 230 million dollar tax rebate for companies they had stolen. Magnitsky duly acquired evidence and gave sworn testimony to prove it. He was arrested and tortured in the attempt to make him withdraw his testimony - which he constantly refused to do. He was held for almost a year in appalling conditions, became seriously ill, and died in custody in November 2009, aged just 37.
Bill Browder concluded by saying that although nothing could bring Magnitsky back, at least some comfort could be had in the fact that since his death, 34 countries have adopted their own versions of the Magnitsky Act, which has been used to sanction many individuals for human rights violations. It was a powerful speech in support of justice for one honest and innocent man.
Restoration horse racing is something new for the festival and what a wonderful addition it was. Running throughout the weekend, Charles II and his men arrived in the festival site on a magnificent horse back procession through the crowds before putting on a pageant and some racing with the beautiful valley as their backdrop. ‘Honest James’ had a tote board and was taking bets on the outcomes, with chocolate coins for the winners. Charles II was very regal and the whole event was highly entertaining.
Other equestrian adventures included the death of Richard III at Bosworth, a great visual aid to the intricacies of the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, which was explained to the audience with detail and much humour.
Kids took centre stage over the weekend, with a Warrior Academy joining the Soldier School, as well as archery lessons, and they were encouraged to participate in some of the events, such as the recreation of the battle of Mudeford Quay between 18th century smugglers and the Revenue, where they were put through their drill with foam swords. History Hit held a Family History Quiz, and many children enjoyed the vintage fairground attractions, with the oldest big wheel in the UK from 1922, 1930s dodgems and some yacht swing boats dating from 1915 which sounded rather terrifying judging from the screams coming from within.
The best aspect of the festival, and one which we never tire of, is the sheer eccentricity and quirkiness of the event. The juxtaposition of soldiers from the Battle of Waterloo watching the World War II guns firing, an 18th century general stepping into a portable loo, medieval children riding the dodgems or Edwardian ladies queuing at an ice cream van is always a visual treat, as are some of the snippets of conversation you hear as you stroll through the site.
“I don’t understand. How are the History Tellers going to bring in ships for the raid on St Nazaire”?
A WWII sergeant to a passing Cavalier “Do you use Pantene on that hair?”
Cavalier: “Yes. Because I’m worth it”.
The Royal Navy Commandos camp to the nearby Second World War encampment. “Artillery! Get your pop guns off my beach!”
A Civil War sutler at 7.00 pm. “Thank God I can get my corsets off”.
The whole week is a joyous celebration of all things historical, and one we can't recommend highly enough. Until next year Chalke Valley!
Chalke Valley History Festival: 26 June - 2nd July 2023
The overcast day 5 kicked off with the extraordinary true tale of the Ticket Collector of Belarus. Two childhood friends who had played together in their home town of Belarus, faced each other in the only war crimes trial which has even been held in the UK. One had joined the Waffen SS, the other was Jewish. Andrei Sawoniuk had lived a quiet life as a ticket collector at London Bridge Station for over 50 years, before his past crimes caught up with him. It is a fascinating story, recently published by Neil Hanson and Mike Anderson, who were both on the stage to tell the tale and answer questions from a fascinated audience.
Michael Cockerell is the BBC’s most prolific political documentary maker who has made films about 12 British Prime Ministers. The first was Harold Macmillan, Eton educated, who studied Classics at Balliol College, the latest being Boris Johnson, Eton educated, who studied Classics at Balliol. As he dryly observed, ‘how things change’.
On the outdoor History Hit stage, he showed us clips of Prime Ministers behind the scenes, including a secret TV test done by Winston Churchill, who had wanted to see what he looked like on camera. He had insisted that the footage was destroyed, but instead it was hidden under the film maker’s bed for 40 years until Michael was allowed access to it. Churchill’s voice rang across the valley, still as powerful now as it was then, despite all of the crackles from the old recording.
There were scenes of Margaret Thatcher, recorded secretly by Michael, preparing for an interview with a rather hostile Robin Day. She inquired what questions he would be asking her on camera. He said “I will be asking about you running on an obviously phony manifesto,” which raised nothing more than an eyebrow and a fleeting glance of annoyance on her face. It was an excellent and captivating talk which was well received by the audience spread across the hillside.
Academic and author Piers Brendon talked about Churchill in the Post-Truth Era, a look at how Churchill has been judged and assessed in these modern times.
There was much laughter at some of Churchill’s best witticisms, many of them apocryphal, as Piers described Churchill as, “someone who attracts tall tales as a statue attracts bird droppings”.
He looked at how Churchill has been exploited by later politicians comparing themselves to him, such as Tony Blair who described himself as Churchill when justifying the invasion of Iraq. He said there is some validity in accusing Churchill of racial prejudice, but his critics have got too carried away, not making any allowance for the exigencies of war to explain the actions he took.
Of course the history festival is not just about the talks and lectures, there are countless other things going on. The Living Historians are a main attraction here, and there is a wide range of time periods on offer. This year there is a strong presence of the English Civil War Society, a very committed and enthusiastic group of individuals whose mission is to inform and educate the public about the 17th century.
While some of their camp are there to demonstrate weapons and uniforms, a very significant angle is to show aspects of civilian life. Meet, for example, Sue and Dee, two sutlers, whose role is to sell provisions to soldiers in the field. They wear costumes of heavy linen dresses and uncomfortable bodices (opening at the front: only higher status women who can afford servants have back opening stays) and daily set up their stall. Their top selling items are ale, tobacco and gambling dice; if near ports they can offer luxury items like citrus fruits and raisins.
There’s Nathaniel Cope (aka David), Ensign to Colonel Nicholas Devereux of the Regiment of Foot, with his day tent table. A man of property and quality, his writing desk, glass, globe and cutlery are on display. Nathaniel Chapman (aka Douglas) will sell you pencils and all equipment for writing, should you be literate. There are frequent demonstrations by the “regular” soldiers of the firing of the matchlock and the flintlock. When asked what motivated him, one soldier confessed it was “the smell of black powder”.
During the day many of the soldiers and traders will truly live within their parts, they are actors on a stage, showing the passing public an earlier way of life as authentically as possible. In the evening they sit around their campfires, the past and present merging together, before retiring into their tents for the night. They clearly enjoy both the educational nature of their role as well as their friendship, banter and sense of community - both in the 17th century and the 21st.
One of the main attractions is the Trench Experience, a regular of the festival. This year the trench was from World War II, in the French town of Cassel. For three days in June 1940, British troops of the 2nd Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment and the 4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry held Cassel against the Germans to allow the evacuation of Dunkirk. They dug in defences and kept them at bay, knowing that the only consequence of defeat would be death or being taken as a prisoner of war, which many were, for 6 years until the end of the war.
A trench has been dug in the hillside behind the festival and as the small group gathers to wait (it is a ticketed and timed event), a soldier rushes out telling everyone to keep down, and lays out the scenario of the group being soldiers trying to get to Dunkirk. We are then taken through the trench through a variety of situations such as having to defuse a huge bomb which has landed in the trench, firing at the enemy and having to duck to avoid the gunfire headed our way. With some loud bangs and lots of smoke, we scurried through the trench to the end, where we sat down and had the reality of what we had just been through explained to us. It was a fun but sobering experience, and everyone walking away seemed to have found it well worth doing.
The most packed house of the Festival so far was to hear Chris Patten speak about his five years as Governor of Hong Kong before its transfer to China in 1997. The diaries he kept during those years had long been kept in the cellar (surrounded by wine) but were brought out and edited during lockdown. He acknowledged that Britain’s original tenure of Hong Kong had come about dishonourably, but said that Hong Kong since 1949 had become a place of refuge for those Chinese escaping Communism and an example of how many Asian people wanted to embrace democratic values.
Unlike other British-held territories, Hong Kong had to be prepared for handover, not independence. He described the difficulties and pitfalls of negotiating with a Communist power in the attempt to enable Hong Kong to retain local autonomy. He noted that from 1997 - 2013 there was in fact only minor interference from mainland China, but since the arrival of Xi Jinping as General Secretary of the Communist Party there has been a major crackdown on dissent, and the freedoms and liberties of the people are being slowly stripped away. He ended his talk by speaking of his own conviction that all abuses of human rights, by whatever nation, should always be “called out” if democracy and freedom is to survive.
Tomorrow is the start of the weekend, the two busiest days of the festival, and more living historians have been arriving throughout the day, setting up tents and transporting their goods across the site. The weather looks promising and it should be an action packed couple of days.
There are still some tickets available - book online here >>
Thursday dawned grey and overcast, which for a while was a welcome relief after the intense heat of the past three days. The site slowly stirred to life, the Naval Commandos raising the flag with their morning ceremony, the living historians collecting water and drinking steaming cups of tea next to their canvas tents before the crowds arrived.
Today was World War II day and included talks from two war veterans, former SOE FANY Joyce Wilding and former RAF navigator, Des Curtis. Both are rapidly approaching their 99th birthdays, yet have a remarkable level of astuteness and quick wit that puts many of us to shame.
Des was talking about his three years flying with the same pilot including as part of 618 Squadron, flying first in Beaufighters then Mosquitos, which he said was 'like going from a Morris Minor to a Rolls Royce'. They were in several skirmishes, one of which he described with typical British understatement as ‘an exhilarating ten minutes”, and they attacked several U boats. Asked if they were scared at any point he said, “to say we were scared has a little short word in front of it which I couldn’t say with ladies present.”
Joyce Wilding related her role as a FANY in the years from 1941 to 1945. At 98 she was in amazing form both physically and mentally; on occasions correcting her interviewer, Tessa Dunlop, the historian and writer, and making it clear what aspects of her wartime career she thought demanded most attention.
She was conscripted at 18 into the elite organisation known as the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry where only young women of a certain social standing were accepted, largely because the authorities of the age were convinced that their background would guarantee complete secrecy about their wartime work. Initially, she was trained as a Transmitter Hut Attendant as part of the Special Operations Executive, a rather dull name for her role in the reception of the radio messages from SOE agents in France. She recalled the sadness in the atmosphere at Thame Park when an individual, many of whom had had some training at Thame, would stop transmitting. “But no one ever talked about it”, she said.
In January 1945 she became a driver, transporting Top Secret brown envelopes and packages to London. She recalled how humbled and guilty she felt driving through the East End, seeing wretched young women of her own age bombed out of their homes while she was glorying in being at the wheel of a large American estate car. At the end of her lively and informative talk, the audience expressed their great appreciation of the part she had played and her willingness to share it with us.
Dr. Matthew Green was talking on one of the outdoor stages about his latest book, Shadowlands, a look at the ghost towns and hidden places of Britain.
Without using any notes and with a wonderful turn of phrase, he talked us through some of the places he has visited in his 3 year search for the unseen, explaining that these were places ‘once filled with peoples dreams, now just spectral echoes’.
His intention was to give ‘a sense of the transience and fragility of the present’, starting with the famous Skara Brae in Scotland, a small commune built around 3200 BC when people were just starting to build permanent homes for the living rather than the dead.
As he was telling us about Old Winchelsea in Sussex, once a city of 5 - 10 thousand people which vanished after several cataclysmic storms, the heavens opened on the outdoor stage and umbrellas were swiftly put up by those sensible enough to have them with them. For less well prepared people like me, I coped with it as long as I could until I just had to make a run for a drier location.
Dr. Kate Vigers, who has just released a book about the 39 female Secret Agents of the SOE, has been holding regular talks at the SOE stand. Wearing a 1940s siren suit, she kept the crowd gathered around her fascinated as she talked them through the training involved in becoming a Secret Agent - which included ‘blowing things up and shooting things down’ as well as all sorts of physical drills and tests, such as how quickly they could climb a ladder. One of the SOE trainees said that she had already fought with the resistance and escaped from the Nazis and not once had any of them timed her climbing up a ladder.
They had to learn how to field strip a Sten gun in under 30 seconds - Kate did this in front of her admiring audience and you get the impression she is not just an academic writing a book, she is someone who has a great deal of respect and admiration for the formidable women she wrote about. Operatives were taught silent killing and how to use their bodies as weapons - “sorry chaps nearly everything ends with a kick to the cods”, Kate said.
The Finishing School at Beaulieu, which is just down the road from the festival, taught them further subjects such as what to wear and how to wear it, as every detail was thought of, even the style of the seams of their clothing and having to have their fillings removed and replaced with French fillings. After a sample interrogation from the Gestapo in the dead of night which only just stopped short of physical violence, the training ended with a final meal out and the handing over of a cyanide pill, before heading off to places such as RAF Tangmere and then being dropped overnight into France. The average life expectancy was just 6 weeks.
Despite the rain, she had a large crowd hanging on her every word. Joyce Wilding was a member of the audience, sitting upright under her bright red umbrella and interjecting when appropriate. After the talk, I saw several people nervously approaching Joyce, desperate to tell her how impressed they were with her.
The latest book from military historian heavyweight Peter Caddick-Adams was discussed by James Holland and Stephen Price, as Peter has been unavoidably detained in France. Victory in the West looks at the final year of World War II and was described as a very important book which takes the narrative of the last few months of the war to a new level.
Discussion focused on some of the lesser known generals, many of who have been neglected in the years since the war, with all of the attention unfairly on Patten.
Overlooked generals include US General Devers who led the 6th Army Group in France, or General Bill Simpson whom James Holland described as a ‘forgotten hero who was in fact a true legend - a team player, able to get on with Monty, which few could achieve, and tactically astute’.
There was also mention of some of the German generals, including the ‘beastly’ General Kesselring, and General Model who was described as ‘your archetypal Nazi’ on whom every Nazi in every 60s war film has been modelled.
The rain didn’t seem to stop people for long, with the living historians just carrying on, welcoming people to their tents and taking through what they were doing or demonstrating ancient skills. I noticed that the next talk scheduled for the outdoor stage had been turned around, with the audience all packed under the picnic gazebo, the screen and speaker just turned round to face them. No-one seemed to mind, everyone just carried on, listening quietly to the talk as they watched the rain drip off the plastic roof.
Lord David Owen, a former Foreign Secretary, returned to the festival after a sold out talk in 2019. He started with a ‘Ten Questions’ session in the Speakers Corner to a small group. Always a good speaker, he handled some probing questions with candour and a great sense of humour, covering everything from Brexit, referendums, Bosnia and how he feels about Boris Johnson.
He followed this with a packed out talk with Cambridge Professor David Reynolds where they discussed Russia, a conversation which inevitably turned towards the current crisis. Asked if he would be trying to negotiate with Putin, he said if he had been made to sit at the other end of a long table as Macron had, he would have got up and moved his chair closer, which generated much laughter from the audience. Lord Owen is a fascinating man, the sort you would really like to have a late night brandy with while putting the world to rights.
As the band warmed up their instruments for the night's entertainment, corks popped and wine chillers were placed on the picnic tables waiting for the guests leaving the final talks of the evening. Meanwhile the living historians removed their swords, corsets and stays with much relief before tucking into their meals cooked around a fire, then turning into the shelter of their canvas tents for a night of rest. Tomorrow is the last of the peaceful days before the weekend, when the families arrive and the site will be filled with happy shrieks from the fairground rides, the much anticipated Restoration horse racing will take place and the living historians will be inundated with crowds and questions from inquisitive young minds.
It was another sizzling day in the Chalke Valley, with people headed for the shade, sitting under trees and packing out the covered NAAFI and tea room. Straw hats, parasols and floaty dresses were the order of the day for visitors while the reenactors in their armour, woollen clothing and hats could be seen mopping brows and devouring water.
The day started with 96 year old Jack Mann, veteran of the SAS and SBS who served in North Africa and Greece, in conversation with acclaimed historian Paul Beaver. He talked about his time training for his wings, which seemed to have involved jumping from ladders and the back of fast moving trucks as well as from planes, the former method probably far more hazardous. You can read more about his talk here >>
Max Hastings is always a crowd puller at the Festival and his marquee was packed with an audience keen to hear his talk on the hugely diverse topic of Soldiers: Great Stories of War and Peace. He has accumulated nearly 350 stories to illustrate what it is like to fight in wars, to live and die as a warrior from Greek and Roman times through to recent conflicts.
He selected from the enormous wealth of material available, vastly increased from the mid 19th century as the poor became literate and were able to record their own version of events, free from the posturing and justification shown by many of their superior officers.
He discussed the changing nature and expectations of the soldier in warfare, particularly in Western societies. Once required to stand upright in line to face rifle fire without complaint, by the ending of the two world wars there was a consensus that the state could no longer make such terrible demands upon its citizen soldiers, and modern regular soldiers do not make the assumption that death is automatically their fate. The standards of safety and of care and the recognition of PTSD reflect a different approach to that of bygone years.
Various anecdotes illustrated his talk, some humorous, some practical, some emotionally disturbing. Afterwards, a lengthy queue formed to buy the book that detailed some of “the good, the bad and the ugly who served their country when there was trouble in the wind”.
In the afternoon the IGPL Stage featured Alexandra Lloyd and two of her Oxford students who had recently collaborated on a project to translate all of the White Rose pamphlets published between June 1942 and February 1943 into English. These pamphlets attempted to encourage the German people to rise up against the tyranny of the Third Reich and the war that it had engendered. The talk gave the brief story of the five students and one academic from Munich University - Hans and Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf and Professor Kurt Huber - all of whom were executed by the Nazis in 1943.
The pamphlets themselves are angry, impassioned and uncompromising, designed to stir their readers into action. Their distribution was amazingly courageous, coming at the same time as Goebbels was calling for Total War after the battle of Stalingrad. The Chalke Valley audience was left in no doubt that the professor and the five youngsters were extraordinarily brave: their courage resonating through their written words which called for defiance, for freedom, for action by ordinary German people. We were conscious as the talk ended that this appeal to ordinary citizens to rise up from the bounds of oppression and complicity to bring down a totalitarian regime can still have relevance today.
On the popular History Hit stage, the wonderful Major General Patrick Cordingley joined in conversation with author Joanna Grochowicz on the subject of the Lost Virtue of Manliness, using their shared love of the Antarctic explorers as examples. Although in disagreement with each other on several occasions, they both seemed to ultimately agree on the chief aspects of manliness - duty, self-sacrifice, understatement after hardship amongst other qualities.
General Sir Richard Shirreff took to the stage as the shadows grew over the outdoor auditorium. His message was powerful and sombre and matched the slowly fading sunlight. He has warned for many years now about President Putin’s ambition to recreate the Empire of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Stalin and he reaffirmed his belief that, if Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, then he will next aim for the Baltic States.
He decried the cutback of so many of the West’s armed forces and the failure of Western politicians to act decisively after Georgia in 2008 and the Crimea in 2014. The talk was Churchillian in nature – he compared the situation today with that of our fathers and grandfathers in 1938 when appeasement contributed significantly to the outbreak of war in 1939. His audience as it slowly departed was subdued and thoughtful – as he had certainly intended us to be.
The second day of the Chalke Valley History Festival has been another day of clear skies and blistering sunshine, with the secondary schools in attendance for a day of GCSE and A-Level curriculum based talks, before the public arrived for an evening of talks, live music and good food.
The first two days of the festival are aimed at schools - primary schools on Day 1, secondary schools on Day 2. It is good to see enthusiastic youngsters on Day 1, hands waving in the air to answer questions, crowding round the speakers with eager questions of their own. On Day 2 the demeanour of the students is rather more muted (GCSE and A-Level are serious, after all) but there is an appreciation of both the talks - which are generally geared towards the various history Examination Boards - and the chance to take part in the many activities.
The CVHF website has many compliments from Heads of History, such as Trafalgar School in Downton comments on the “fantastic and unique opportunity to engage with world class historians in a way we could never achieve in school”. Over 12,709 children have attended since the launch of the Festival, which is a remarkable record, and amply demonstrates the aims of the Trust to educate youngsters and promote a long lasting love of history.
Today the talks included subjects you would expect such as the American Civil War and both World Wars, but also more diverse subjects for today's socially aware youngsters such as An Alternative History of Identity and the British Empire and the Slave Trade. Groups of teenagers strolled around the site, stopping to talk to the Living Historians, to defuse a bomb in the Dunkirk trenches or to learn the skills of the Samurai.
As the day drew on and the groups of colourful teenagers left via the exit, in through the entrance came the next visitors sporting variations of red trousers, linen blazers and panama hats. Those who had booked to listen to Tracy Borman may well have felt disappointed when she cancelled due to illness, but were probably delighted to instead hear the Holland brothers talking about the British monarchy. Both Tom and James Holland are famous historians with a veritable library of books to their names, both highly entertaining and clever men, who are both from the village of Broadchalke itself, where the festival is held.
2022 is the 100th anniversary year of Ernest Shackleton’s death and Joanna Grochowicz entitled her talk “Shackleton’s Endurance: An Antarctic Survival Story. He died on board ship on 5th January age only 47, and was buried in South Georgia on 5 March 1922. With wonderful timing, the discovery of the wreck of the Endurance was announced on 5th March 2022, rekindling interest in Shackleton’s doomed expedition of 1914 - 1916.