Britain’s biggest history festival returns next week, in the idyllic Chalke Valley, near Salisbury. Besides a roll call of distinguished historians such as Tracy Borman and Peter Frankopan, speakers include Second World War Mosquito pilot Colin Bell DFC (aged 102), novelist Tracy Chevalier, and veteran journalist John Sweeney — who reported from the Battle of Kyiv — on Putin’s Russia.
But the festival isn’t all talk. As well as clashing in a medieval joust, reenactors will put their muscles to work at bare-knuckle boxing, blacksmithing, butter churning and more. History First spoke to Laura Bailey, its outdoor programme manager and a medieval historian, about this year’s lineup.
How did you get involved?
“I’ve been working with Chalke Valley for over ten years. I first came when I was at school after a teacher recommended a talk on the Civil War. I saw that there were volunteers and thought, ‘I’d love to do that’. So I volunteered over the years and became responsible for some of the programme. Now I look after the outdoor programme, which consists of everything outside the tents. That’s the living history, the music, museum stands — everything with no roof, really.”
What time periods are you dealing with?
“There’s history from the Iron Age right up until the Cold War, touching on the present. And it’s based on very practical, tangible aspects of life. It is being thrust into the trenches at Arnhem, hearing the sounds and smelling the smoke. Or learning about how people cooked, created tools they needed or dyed their textiles. All these very physical, multi-sensory aspects of life that transport you back into the period and give that sense of the human in history.”
How has the festival changed?
“When I first became involved, it was a lot smaller and more focused on talks, with living history on the side. We’ve been really working to integrate the talks and the living history — but also bringing elements of performance, shows and music and making the festival as a whole more dynamic. So we have activities for children and the whole family. People like Adam Schuch-des-Forges, our adventurer, vagabond and poet who absolutely charms everyone. And History’s Maid, Kate Vigurs, showcasing women’s stories. Or Foreign Field, with performances including bare-knuckle fighting and duelling.
“Speakers Corner is a fairly new addition, which worked really well last year. It’s a smaller, open-sided tent where we showcase our living historians giving short talks, also quick-fire Q&As with some of our historians and speakers. It’s a chance for the audience to get up close and personal with them, find out what history means to them, what makes them tick. Actor Paul McGann [best-known for his role in Withnail and I] will be doing a Q&A, which should be great fun.”
What are some other highlights of the outdoor programme?
“We have a medieval joust, which, of course, I’m hugely looking forward to. There is Knight School, with four activities for kids and parents. That’s warrior training, archery, junior trebuchet, and a rolling horse — a version of jousting for children. And our heritage crafts encampment will be right at the forefront of the festival. The crew will demonstrate crafts like woodworking, stonemasonry, blacksmithing and recreate an arrow production line. These are crafts that have been hugely important and are endangered now.
“Of course, there will be food too, and chances to taste things. We have Jane’s Historical Kitchen doing an 1800s kitchen, with butter churning and all sorts. They will even be cooking a full regimental dinner for a living history group. They did it last year, which was an amazing sight in the evening. Unfortunately, I wasn’t invited to join them as I didn’t have the uniform!”
Tell me a bit about the talks programme?
“It’s a real range of top historians, journalists, politicians, actors and authors. This year we have more talks lining up with themes like society and culture and the environment. So it’s moving away from purely military history talks or the kinds of talks that might be expected from a festival like this. A couple of talks I’m really looking forward to are Danièle Cybulskie on how to live like a medieval monk — that should be a really fun and fascinating — and David Hepworth on Abbey Road [the music studio].”
How do you see the role of the festival?
“We’re in a period when there has been so much turmoil in politics and world events that history has never been more important. I think that, with the rise of podcasts and TikTok historians and so on, more people realise this and are becoming more interested in history and its relevance. They’re digging into the skills history teaches in terms of analytical ability and weighing up interpretations. As the country’s largest history festival, we have a responsibility to promote the understanding of history, promote its importance, and make it as accessible as possible for the broadest range of people.”
How important is the countryside location?
“One of the things I absolutely love is going down to the valley. It’s the most beautiful setting. And in the evening people are strolling out of talks to the sound of 1940s vintage music, or they’re sat by the bar, and the atmosphere is incredible. It’s that real festival feel, but in this incredibly friendly atmosphere.”
Are there any misconceptions you’d like to challenge?
“That it is a purely Wiltshire red trouser brigade event. We’re trying our best to be to make it as inclusive, open and as accessible to everyone as possible. No matter if you’re interested in sport, music, military history, or tattoos, there are talks for everyone and also hands-on experiences.”
What does your own research focus on?
“Outside of the festival, I’m in the final three months of my PhD at Cambridge. That looks at 12th and 13th-century Old French literature. I am essentially looking at representations of landscape and geography in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. I’m trying to think about how we can use literature as a window into how people experienced the world around them, how they physically and imaginatively thought about landscapes. Where is that crossover between literature and history?”
The Chalke Valley History Festival runs from June 26 to July 2 2023 at Broad Chalke in Wiltshire. For details of the full programme and tickets, see cvhf.org.uk. The photograph at the top of the page shows the outdoor stage and is by Martin Cook.