Chalke Valley History Festival 2023: Where History Never Repeats Itself
Get History loves Chalke Valley History Festival. It is one of the highlights of the year, with so much to do, so many people to see, great music to hear, and delicious food to eat. But the review of it is always a concern: there are only so many superlatives one can use, every year, without falling into the trap of repetition.
Luckily, although the writing might become stale, the festival never does. Every year there is something new. In 2023, for example, there has been a complete rehash of the ticketing system, with a slightly higher entrance price that is still considerably cheaper than any of the festival’s competitors, but much cheaper tickets for the tented talks – while keeping three of the five stages free. The festival really has, therefore, made history more accessible to everyone.
Another change is the structure of the programme, now helpfully divided into themes: politics, conflict, society and culture, environment, and science and exploration. No matter what a person’s tastes, there was something to suit – even for those thinking they don’t really like ‘History’. Packed-out talks ranged from explanations about how the oceans work to discussions on the impact of the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, and that was just on the first day. Across the week, there were former prime ministers, world-class cricketers, Second World WarA global war that lasted from 1939 until 1945. heroes, physicists, award-winning novelists, comedians, actors, musicians. The list is expansive and diverse. At any one time, audiences would be able to hear the likes of former Doctor Who star Paul McGann, Suede bassist Mat Osman, hard-hitting journalist Polly Toynbee, and editor and satirist – and at one point the most sued man in Britain – Ian Hislop. In 2023, Chalke Valley History Festival has proven that history is not just about the stereotypical Oxbridge professors in dusty suits, but that it is a living, breathing entity that is always changing and constantly relevant.
This is not to say there was nothing for the committed history geek. No matter what a visitor’s preferred period or field, there was an expert on hand to amaze and inspire. The international bestselling author and Professor of Global History at Oxford University, Peter Frankopan, was discussing his new book The Earth Transformed; former Professor of International History at Liverpool John Moores University, bestselling author and ‘talking head’ Frank McDonough was exploring the Weimar RepublicThe unofficial name for the German state between 1919 and 1933.; J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language at the University of Oxford Marion Turner was captivating audiences with her talk on Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. And all the while the Holland brothers – the classicist and all-round polymathA person of wide knowledge or learning. Tom, and Second World War expert James – were, seemingly, everywhere, in discussions with other fascinating speakers, recording podcasts, and delighting audiences with their own expert knowledge and gripping stories. It was a veritable feast for the mind.
But the talks were not even half the story. Firm festival favourites, like Kate Vigurs, Adam Schuch-des Forges, and Stephen ‘Abs’ Wisdom, were all back again, somehow keeping their voices as they told little-known stories from history to the backdrop of cannon fire and tank engines. But while some of their performances remained the same, their repertoires had expanded to include suffragettes and First World War soldiers hiding in cupboards; victims of Jack the Ripper and Thomas Blood’s daring attempt on the Crown Jewels. And they always entertained, earning massive laughs from huge crowds, weaving together accents and characters, history with comedy, enthralling everyone from experts to day-trippers to school children.
Because this, of course, is another strand that Chalke Valley History Festival does so well: it makes good-quality history not just accessible but interesting to children. Partly this is done through the Chalke Valley History Trust charity, which by its Festival for Schools programme – running on the Monday and Tuesday – promotes engagement with history for both primary and secondary students. Aligned with the curriculum, it inspires a deeper level of understanding and enjoyment by getting the top speakers – this year the likes of Hallie Rubenhold and Tracy Borman – to lead masterclasses for the children. What better way is there to bring history to life? But as well as this, there is so much for children to do throughout the week, with activities specially designed to appeal to younger audiences. The two Get History ‘lab-rats’, aged 10 and 13, found plenty to keep themselves occupied. As always, there was the recreation of the Second World War trench, but there was also Knight School – including archery, jousting and a trebuchetA machine used in medieval siege warfare for hurling large stones or other missiles. – and, apparently, ‘the best thing there’: SOESpecial Operations Executive was a secret British espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance unit working in occupied territory during the Second World War. training offering a crash-course in weapons and explosives, code-breaking, and hand-to-hand combat. All of these were ticketed, but there was plenty of free stuff for little hands and minds: a craft tent, worlds of living history, a testing treasure trail around the site, and – another first – thrilling, proper jousting, with broken lancesLong weapons with wooden shafts used by horsemen when charging their opponents. and unseated riders.
Every year, I fail to see how Chalke Valley History Festival can possibly improve on previous performances; every year I am astounded that it has managed to become yet more fascinating, more enriching, more accessible. If there is only one festival that is a must, for anyone rather than just lovers of history, then it is Chalke Valley. I can barely wait until the next instalment, and will always thoroughly recommend it. So keep the dates for next year – 24-30 June 2024 – free!
Cover image by Steve Chick.