June 2013. A baking hot Saturday – the last of the month – and in a small corner of south-west Wiltshire the throng of nearly 10,000 gaze upwards at the sound of a distant aero engine. Or is that more than one? It’s low, and deep and getting louder. Hands point, heads are craned, and then suddenly, from the west not one but two Spitfires and a Hurricane hurtle low – so low they’re below the ridge of chalk downs just to the south – and past the crowds before disappearing again behind the ridge to the east. Moments later, they reappear once more, signalling the start of their individual displays. These three, from Biggin Hill, are just one of a number of displays that afternoon that make up the inaugural air show at the Chalke Valley History Festival, and played out against an ancient backdrop of rolling chalk rich in history. Here, men have trod the droves and herepaths for millennia. It is where the heritage of the Anglo-Saxons meets the rural beauty of Hardy’s Wessex. It’s a stunning spot, and now made even more special by the sight of a Spitfire dancing and pirouetting in the burning blue sky above, it’s distinctive elliptical wings silhouetted against the blue as it climbs then rolls and turns. Moment later, the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine roaring, it dives, plunging low below the brow of the downs and thunders past once more.
On the ground, the fields that nestle beneath these ridges are awash with tents: a spread of encampments that represent a broad swathe of history, from Vikings through to the Second World War. There are large tents, too, not for the living historians and re-enactors, but where some of the most eminent and best-known historians, broadcasters and other men and women of note are giving talks, and taking part in discussions and debates. Standing by a Jeep is Ian Hislop; watching the air display from the air traffic control tent is Charlie Higson; pausing before heading to one of the largest event tents is Neil Oliver. Biggest draw of all that afternoon, however, is the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. With the air show over he will not only be taking part in an important historical debate, but will also gamely visit some of the encampments and have his photograph taken alongside the Bobbies of the Home Front police station. Elsewhere, a group of adults and children are about to enter The Trench, run by the 10th Essex, in which punters enter a scale trench scenario and witness orders arriving for the officer in charge to organise a rescue mission into no-man’s land. Not far away, another group of children are learning new skills at Sword School. Others mingle through the historic market or pause to grill the Plantaganets, or the Napoleonics. Moments later, a German Stug revs up its engine. Those at the big top bar, tucking into their pints of ‘Dambuster’ beer, turn their heads to see what the commotion is about.
This was only the third Chalke Valley History Festival, but it has grown rapidly and during that week in June attracted some 30,000 to its unique and somewhat eccentric mix of talks, events, and displays. Its setting in fields in a rather forgotten pocket of south-west England is extraordinarily beautiful and adds greatly to its charm and helps give the Festival a deeply intimate feeling. Here you can rub shoulders with Dan Snow one minute or share a pint with a redcoat the next; it is not unusual to have been watching Max Hastings and then to emerge from the canvas to see a group of French Imperial Guardsmen march past.
The Festival, I must confess, began with much more humble aspirations: twelve historical literary events to raise money for the local cricket club back in 2011. Such was the success of that initial festival, however, I and the small team that run it decided to aim a little higher the following year and to set of the Chalke Valley History Trust, the aims of which are to further the education of history in our schools. After all, how can new generations make sense of the present or prepare for the future, without an understanding of the past?
Key to the planned expansion was to be the living history element; as a historian and broadcaster, I was well placed to involve other historians, but I knew few in the re-enactment world. Fortunately, I had seen Dave Allan perform before and had been hugely impressed; fortunately, too, he was based locally and had established his own living history events company, PASTE. Going forward into 2012, Dave was going to be – and proved to be – key.
That second year I was also fortunate to be able to get Matt Jones to fly over the Boultbee Spitfire. The display added a touch of magic to an afternoon in which Battle of Britain ace, Wing Commander Tom Neil, also talked to 700 rapt people as he recounted his extraordinary wartime career. Tom received a standing ovation – an accolade that was also given to the legendary test pilot, Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, this year. Matt Jones’ display made us realise that adding an air show was a potentially very exciting next strep. True, with no airfield on site there could be no flight line, but is there an air show anywhere in England with a finer backdrop? I certainly couldn’t think of one and I’ve been to a fair few in my time. Following the 2012 Festival, I managed to bring in the brilliant Paul Beaver and John Davis, retired RAF pilot and widely recognised as one of the finest air display directors in the country. The subsequent air show attracted thousands that Saturday and with good reason: in the mix alongside the Biggin Boys was the Royal Navy’s Hawker Tempest, the Old Flying Machine Company’s Spitfire, as well as the Great War Display Team.
One of the challenges has been to try and integrate these different elements of the festival. This last year, we held a ‘Bosworth and Bones Triple Bill’, for example. First up was a talk by the two archaeologists who discovered Richard III’s bones. Then came a discussion about Bosworth, and then finally, out on the battle arena, the outstanding Rupert Hammerton-Fraser demonstrated in full kit how he thought it likely that Richard III met his end. Next year, a similar ‘Mary Triple Bill’ of talks is planned, with further living history demonstrations from the team at Portsmouth. We are also preparing a new, and possibly permanent, Anglo-Saxon centre. Alex Langlands, from the BBC’s Historic Farms series, and Luke Winter of the Ancient Technology Centre in Cranborne, (and fresh from his work at Stonehenge), will be leading the construction of two grubenhaus, which will be the focus for showcasing traditional rural crafts, as well as the scene of a retelling of the Sword in the Stone myth and sword forging, and also Beowulf story-telling.
Next year, too, we are, with Dave Allan, planning a better and more comprehensive living history element. For the past two years, it has been during the weekend of the festival that the living history encampments have arrived; the weekdays have been a literary festival only. This last year, however, we began a new History Festival for Schools during two of the weekdays, which was a great success. In 2014, there will be three days devoted to the Schools Festival – one for Year 12s, one for Year 10s and third day for Year 6s. Each of these days, and especially the Year 6 day, will include a large living history element. Although the living history aspect of the Festival is always diverse, last year we focussed on the Napoleonic era and including a re-enactment of the Battle of Vitoria. Next year, the focus will be Normandy 1944, and to help with that we not only have a World War II field hospital all week, but also the men and machines from the Red Ball Express. The Anglo Saxons are also expected to be there throughout the week and into the weekend as well as other key living historians. We would, however, love to see anyone planning to take part come not only for the weekend, but through the week too if they can at all manage it. Integrating the literary side of the Festival with its living history element is crucial.
Planned for next year are a range of displays and demonstrations reflecting the fighting in Normandy seventy years ago. Co-ordinating this is Dave Spelling of the Das Reich group and not only are tanks and pyrotechnics promised, but also, for the first time, we are linking the air show into what is happening on the ground. Instead of holding the air show in a single hour-long section of the afternoon, historic aircraft will be flying at intervals throughout the weekend. Paratroop-dropping Dakotas and tank-busting Mustangs will be flying as part of the ground shows. The BBMF’s Lancaster is also due to display on the Sunday. Meanwhile, in the event tents, Antony Beevor will be talking about D-Day, I and two leading historians will be discussing the wider Normandy campaign, and Damian Lewis is pencilled in to discuss his part in the internationally-acclaimed series Band of Brothers.
The 10th Essex’s Trench will be returning, as will a range of living historians. We are excited about welcoming Destrier’s Medieval Joust for the first time, as well as welcoming an number of friends who have been before.
This year promises to be the best Chalke Valley History Festival we have yet put on and for those of us lucky enough to be involved in the planning, excitement levels are rapidly mounting. Damian Lewis will be coming to talk about Band of Brothers, Jeremy Paxman has signed up, so has Pub Landlord, Al Murray, alongside Dan Snow, Ian Hislop, John Sessions, Max Hastings, and a host of other eminent historians. We also have Normandy veterans coming, Holocaust survivor Freddie Knolller, and Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot, Geoffrey Wellum.
My hope is that what we have created is a wonderful and intimate celebration of history – one that is informative, exciting and inspiring and for old and young and for all the family. There is also a vast choice of food and drink, a large array of stalls, and next year there will even be an exhibition of First World War recruitment posters, many of which most people will never, ever have seen before. And while there are other history festivals, there is a unique and rather special flavour to the Chalke Valley. I hope to see many of you there in June.