The Chalke Valley History Festival (CVHF) kicks off next week on a site of over 70 acres at Broad Chalke near Salisbury. Historian James Holland, one of the founders of the festival, which started small in 2011 and is now the UK’s largest festival dedicated entirely to history, gives a rundown of what to expect, from Iron Age smells and periwigs to talks from star historians and celebrity encounters at the bar.
Give us a sense of what the festival’s about
“It’s a real mixture. It’s everything you’d expect from a summer festival in England in the countryside, so you’ve got camping, food and drink, live music every day, but you’ve also got some of the best and most popular historians from the UK and further afield coming to give talks and take part in discussions. There are tents, there are outdoor stages, there’s Dan Snow, there’s lots of living history, lots of what you could call fringe discussions and talks. There’s family stuff and there’s serious highbrow stuff.”
What are some of the highlights to expect this year?
“This year we’ve built an Iron Age roundhouse. And there will be a couple of people living there and doing what Iron Age people do, and there will be an Iron Age blacksmith. You’ll get the smell of it and the feel of it, and that tactile link to the past I think is very, very instructive. It’s the first thing you’ll see as you come through the entrance tent, there it is right in front of you. And you’ll be able to walk through the hut and see how they lived, you’ll be able to smell the wattle and daub and the wood smoke.
“Our Restoration Pageant will be great too, with Restoration-era horse racing. I’m agog to see it. The Restoration period, when Charles II came back to the throne, was when Newmarket became a place. It’s very easy to fill your living history with Vikings and Napoleonic war soldiers. But what I love about this is that I’ve never seen anything like it. It will vibrant and different and there will be lots of periwigs.
“We’ve also got a reenactment of the death of Richard III. We know from his skeleton what wounds he suffered, but how did he experience those wounds and in what order, and how was he actually killed? We can now reconstruct that. So we’ve got Richard III on a horse in armour, and we’ve got the soldiers that surrounded him, and we can talk through piece by piece what happened to him and it’s very, very exhilarating.”
Won’t you have a trench?
Yes, it’s a small trench. You know, we’ve [previously] built an amazing First World War trench but unfortunately the Health and Safety Executive got the better of us on that one. So we’ve got a shallow trench which is more like a Second World War one. We’re doing a scenario from Cassel in Northern France in 1940. But again, it’s immersive, and you get sound and noise and smell and all that stuff. So it’s a taste.”
Which talks stand out in the lineup?
“I think Niall Ferguson is always worth seeing. I’m excited about him. Bill Browder, who’s No. 1 enemy to Putin, I think will be be fascinating. I’m also really looking forward to Jessie Childs who’s done a book called The Siege of Loyalty House, about Basing House in the Civil War. I think that’s going to be fantastic. But there’s too much good stuff to pick them out. I mean, looking at the list of people, it’s always great having Michael Wood there, it’s always great having Dan Snow. So many.”
Will visitors get to meet their favourite historians?
“Absolutely. I mean we’re very open. Our speakers and contributors all have to walk from A to B. You get a chance to meet them and get books signed and talk to them informally and listen to what they’ve got to say.”
What can people expect from the social side?
“It’s a wonderful thing. On Friday evening you could be at the big top — we’ve got this sort of big top as our main bar, it’s got open sides and looks like a circus tent — you’re standing at the bar and on one side you could have a Second World War Tommy and a Viking. And on the other side you might find Harry Enfield and Ian Hislop.”
Have there been any crazy moments over the years?
“Yes, well . . . Alice Roberts, she once stayed overnight and had a few beers with the First World War boys and they broke into the Waterstones tent and created Bookhenge.”
How many people attend?
“Pre-Covid, we were getting about 28,000 people a week. A lot of people come and camp, they take off the whole week and come for a holiday. But there are others that just come for the day or the weekend. It builds to a crescendo at the weekend, there’s no question about it.”
Tell me about the Chalke Valley
“It’s gorgeous. We’re very lucky. There are five villages, and they’re sandwiched between two ridges of chalk downland with all their various combes that run off them. And you’ve got no major road going through it. It’s just the winding valley road. The A-roads are the other side of each of those ridges of chalk. So it’s a little Eden to be perfectly honest. The history festival is down one of these little sub valleys within the larger valley.”
Do you have any favourite festival memories?
“Last year, at the outdoor stage, I was sitting on a grassy bank of wild clover and flowers listening to Michael Wood doing a storytelling session, with a two-metre wide fire pit. I was sitting there drinking a pint and the valley had never looked more beautiful. He’s a very lyrical speaker and it was just fantastic. It was The Lady of the Fountain [a Welsh romance] — just magic.”
The Chalke Valley History Festival runs from Monday June 20 to Sunday June 26. Details of the schedule and ticket arrangements are online at cvhf.org.uk.