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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.

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Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday The Weekend


The Weekend

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


Day 5

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.