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A Ray of Sunshine: Chalke Valley History Festival 2021

Let's not beat about the bush: the past 18 months have been pretty bleak, and the heritage, entertainment and hospitality industries have been hit particularly hard. From the early months of 2020 onwards, a raft of events - everything from the Olympics to Glastonbury, and any number of tours and shows - have been cancelled or postponed. Nestled within this long and depressing list was the highlight of the history calendar, the Chalke Valley History Festival, a casualty that was especially upsetting as 2020 should have been the festival's tenth anniversary.

Tom Stoppard and Hermione Lee
Tom Stoppard discusses his remarkable life with biographer Hermione Lee.

It was therefore with great delight, and a certain amount of trepidation, that we heard the festival planned to go ahead, in one form or another, between 23 and 27 June 2021. We knew, particularly after the announcement delaying the easing of restrictions, that it couldn't be the same. We knew that the festival was shortened, and that the excellent Festival for Schools would not go ahead in its usual hands-on format. We knew that tickets would be limited, that all the usual social distancing measures would be in place, that many people would not be able to make it either through travel restrictions or self-isolating or simply not feeling comfortable. What we didn't expect was that, in a surprising number of ways, Chalke Valley History Festival would actually seem better for it.

Blacksmiths at work
Blacksmiths at work creating a Victorian gate

And it really did. Some of this might have come from the feeling of freedom, of getting out and doing something different, of cabin fever lifting. Spirits were certainly high and there was a sense of optimismHopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something.Hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something.Hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something. in place. For many of us, it's been a while since we've been able mingle - at a safe distance - and to talk to like-minded folks about a range of fascinating subjects. Yet at Chalke Valley there were re-enactors galore, eager to explain their specialist period, giving displays on everything from weaponry to cookery. A huge number of interesting people from all walks of life - including Kate Mosse, Rowan Williams, Vince Cable, Tom Stoppard, Antonia Fraser, and Charles Spencer - all came to talk about their books and their lives. There was Speakers' Corner, a Victorian fairground, and the always-engaging History Tellers. There was sword school and, new to 2021, soldier school, teaching children to hit each other more effectively with sticks and Nerf bullets. Bangs from battle re-enactments and tank displays rattled the eardrums, and music at the bar soothed them. Most of these features have been at the festival in some form or another for years, but there was a freshness to them that came from a new appreciation of history, and of the festival itself.

We Have Ways talk
Al Murray and James Holland discuss Britain's best, and worst, decisions of the Second World WarA global war that lasted from 1939 until 1945..

More than this, though, elements of the Covid-secure festival actually worked better than before. The grounds were more spread out, allowing visitors to appreciate the full length of the valley and to see areas clearly defined by period. The need for additional seating meant there were more bars, and bigger bar areas. For the adventurous, there was even somewhere selling Tudor food. Best of all, two of the four stages - including the newly created History Hit stage - had been moved outdoors, enabling anyone with a very reasonably priced day ticket to access considerably more talks - at no extra charge. As such, audiences could watch best-selling historians like Michael Wood, Cat Jarman and James Holland discuss everything from climate change to the art of the spy; live recordings of the 'We Have Ways of Making You Talk!' and 'The Rest is History' podcasts; and comedy greats such as Harry Enfield, Al Murray and Charlie Higson battle it out in the annual Histrionics quiz show. Chalke Valley History Festival has always been about making history accessible and this year it really went the extra mile.

CVHF at night
The Chalke Valley History Festival shining brightly at night.

Without doubt, the organisers and the staff were fabulous. In difficult and uncertain circumstances, they made this huge and logistically complex event work. The festival-goers were all well-behaved, but it was still a Herculean task to manage the comings and goings of 4,000 visitors per day. Yet everything ran with a well-oiled efficiency that belied the fact that many of these arrangements were new. The regulations required separate and staggered entrances and exits, not just for the festival itself but for each talk. Staff, volunteer, press and speaker bubbles had to be maintained, while allowing the general public decent access to everything. Seating arrangements in the tented talks as well as in the dining and bar areas could have been a nightmare - and probably caused more than a few headaches for those in charge - but were so smoothly managed that no-one noticed the effort taken to make it seem effortless. And of course the organisers had had to plan for the ever-present threat of the English summer, something made more difficult by the fact that so much of the festival had to be conducted out of doors. Yet the gods of history were smiling down on Chalke Valley in more than one way. Out of the five days of promised torrential rain, there were only a few hours of drizzle. For most of the festival, a bright sun shone in an almost cloudless sky, and suncream rather than an umbrella was the order of the day. In more than one way, then, Chalke Valley History Festival gave us a much-needed ray of sunshine.

The Chalke Valley History Festival will return - all things being equal - on 20-26 June 2022.


Map drawn by Tanya March.

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).