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Chalke History Festival 2024

A Break with History: Chalke History Festival 2024

The deep state through time
Dan Jones, Charles Cumming and Guy Walters discuss the deep state through time.

‘We have no magic to control the weather’. That is what the organizers of this year’s Chalke History Festival stated, again and again. I disagree. With the elements, and current affairs, clouding the weeks either side, it appeared the omens were stacked against the festival in 2024. Predictions, however, can be wrong, and, boy, were they this year. Bright sunshine, blue skies, balmy temperatures, and a break from the dreary norm were the order of the week.

Al Murray Pub Landlord
The inimitable Al Murray, taking a break from his Pub Landlord tour, to make a special appearance in aid of the charity Finley’s Trust.

This year has, perhaps, represented more of a break than normal. Having parted ways from its headline sponsor of previous years, Chalke History Festival has shortened its name, it’s introduced new things, and it’s broadened its focus. This had caused a certain amount of trepidation in some quarters – change, after all, isn’t always as good as a rest. But all the things we’ve come to love about the festival were still there: the Second World WarA global war that lasted from 1939 until 1945. talks, particularly pertinent given the anniversary of D-Day; the splash of art history; experts speaking on everything from Alexander the Great to Victorian explorers. Festival favourites – the much-loved performers like History’s Maid, Adam Schuch-des Forges as Major Banger King, Wizzo’s Rip-Roaring History, and Foreign Field – talked themselves hoarse to huge, enraptured crowds.

Bar staff Chalke History Festival
The bar staff at the Chalke Valley Tap, ready to serve day or night, were just a few of the fantastic staff working at the festival.

But interwoven with the usual were some unexpected gems. For those not tired of contemporarySomeone or something living or occurring at the same time. politics, there was a range of discussions to educate and inform, covering everything from American elections to the war in Ukraine. Other panels considered parallels through time – on the role of corporations, on the deep state, on popularism. Yet there was plenty to provide a respite. James May, usually just a punter, delighted the audience with his thoughts on, and experiences with, the automobile. Sports fans were spoilt for choice: Jan Lammers, Emanuele Pirro and Greg Mills talked about the adrenalin rush of motorsport; Simon Hughes and David Gower discussed test cricket. The festival even kindly – or perhaps unkindly – showed the England football match on one screen. There was a panegyric to the countryside, with discussions on farming, the beauty of the local area, rambling, and the ecological value of chalk streams. And then there was the inimitable Al Murray, taking a break from his Pub Landlord tour, to make a special appearance in aid of the charity Finley’s Trust.

Spitfire Chalke History Festival
On Saturday the site came to a sudden, silent halt as the distinctive roar of a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine echoed around the valley.

Other things that have been sadly missed in recent years made a stunning return. The Victorian fairground once again made an appearance, the speedy Ferris wheel maybe providing too many thrills for those partaking in the ‘delights’ of day-drinking at the ever-present Chalke Valley Tap, but loved by those of a younger, stronger constitutionA body of fundamental principles and established precedents by which a state governs itself; or the composition of something..

The trench experience Chalke History Festival
The trench experience, taking the young and the young-at-heart back to the Second World War.

The star of the show, however, was the return of the flying demonstrations. On both Saturday and Sunday, the site came to a sudden, silent halt, necks craned upwards and eyes squinted against the blaze of the sun, as the distinctive roar of a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine echoed around the valley. It was as if the world had stopped spinning as the Spitfire and the Hurricane performed acrobatics in the sky overhead, swooping and looping, utterly captivating. Mouths agape and with tears in our eyes, it was as if we were magically transported back to the perilous days of the Battle of Britain, imaginations filling in the blanks.

Tank at Chalke History Festival
A stroll through the site was a walk through time, with tanks rolling past rows of tents.

More than simple weather magic, then, Chalke enchants in other ways. A stroll through the site was a walk through time. Aside from the beauty of the seemingly unchanging, undulating hills surrounding the valley that take the breath away, formed over millions of years as prehistoric seas washed over the area, the visitor is positively encouraged to slip into the more recent past. Amidst rows of tents, battles were fought, tournaments of jousting held, locomotives steamed, forgotten industries practised, and dishes of the past were cooked. Anyone curious to discover more could talk to any of the knowledgeable, enthusiastic living historians on site. Throughout the week, the young and the young-at-heart were invited to experience what it was like to live in particular ages, with ‘Wild West’ and SOESpecial Operations Executive was a secret British espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance unit working in occupied territory during the Second World War. training, as well as a trench experience on offer. On the Saturday evening, the glamour of the 1940s came to life as a D-Day dance was held, the site transformed as men wearing dress uniform or pin-striped suits accompanied their high-heeled, red-lipped ladies to the floor, dancing to jazz music that had the feet of even the most determined wallflower tapping.

Chalke History Festival by night
Chalke History Festival will return in June 2025

While in a few ways Chalke History Festival has broken from its past, then, it is still very much a perfect week’s break with history. It provides a pause; a breath of fresh air; a time to reflect, to ponder, to think, to be. It captivates people with the magic of history. At the risk of cursing future years, the Chalke History Festival seems always to be blessed.

Chalke History Festival will return in June 2025. For updates, visit their website, or follow them on X, Facebook, and Instagram.

Author Info

Debbie Kilroy

Having read history at the University of Birmingham as an undergraduate, where I won the Kenrick Prize, I worked as a trouble-shooter in the public sector until I took a career break in 2009. Thereafter, I was able to pursue my love of history and turn it into a career, founding Get History in 2014 with the aim of bringing accessible yet high quality history-telling and debate to a wide audience. Since then, I have completed a Masters in Historical Studies at the University of Oxford, from which I received a distinction and the Kellogg College Community Engagement and Impact Award. As well as continuing to write for and expand Get History, I am now a freelance writer and historian. I have worked with Histories of the Unexpected and Inside History, and my article for Parliaments, Estates and Representation won the ICHRPI Emile Lousse essay prize (2019).