How the Chalke Valley History Festival brings the past to life


Florence Robson

Chalke Valley History Festival

At the end of June, people will be flooding to South West England, camping gear in tow, buzzing to attend one of the most popular UK festivals of the year. No, not Glastonbury – we’re talking about the Chalke Valley History Festival.

The festival has a uniquely British origin. It began in 2011 as a fundraiser for the local cricket club, the brainchild of two James’: club stalwart and historian James Holland and founder and former CEO of Ottakar’s bookshops, and now historical novelist, James Heneage. Since those humble beginnings the festival has grown substantially in size and scope, while always staying true to its original purpose: to promote the understanding of history to all ages.

Taking place on a 70-acre farm in the village of Broad Chalke over a week in June, the festival welcomes around 25,000 people each year to enjoy literary talks, discussions and panels alongside immersive living history and historical performances and experiences stretching from the Iron Age to the Cold War.

There are more classic festival experiences too: live music from across the 20th Century, delicious local food and drink (including lunches and suppers provided by Sam Rosen-Nash and her team at Provenance), and camping and glamping for those wanting to spend a few days immersed in the past.

“If you’re a history fan, then this is the place to be” says Alex Hippisley-Cox, Head of PR for the festival. “It’s set in a beautiful part of the world, the site is surrounded by stunning chalk downland and it takes place mid-summer. It’s just the most perfect setting.”

Bringing history to 2023

This year, the festival’s programme is themed for the first time, with over 150 talks covering past, present and future issues across environment, conflict, politics, science & exploration, society & culture, and sport. Guest speakers and panelists include the likes of journalist Polly Toynbee, author Antonia Fraser, historian Peter Frankopan and gardener Alan Titchmarsh.

“What we try to do at the Chalke Valley History Festival is to show that learning about history can be fun – it’s not all about absorbing facts and figures – and that studying history can lead to a much better understanding of what’s happening in the world today”, says Alex. Accordingly, performances and interactive experiences are at the heart of the festival experience. If you wander around the Broad Chalke site, you’ll find everything from acrobats in aviation gear to old-school martial arts displays and even a Medieval cooking demonstration. Kids can take on secret agent training in the SOE Training Camp, explore a World War Two trench or watch a jousting match.

Heritage craftsmanship is another core theme of the festival this year. A team of wood workers, coppice workers, blacksmiths and a stonemason will be demonstrating and discussing the skills associated with each role, highlighting how some trades have remained broadly the same over the centuries while others are in danger of being lost forever.

“We need to do everything we can to encourage [children] to learn about events of the past so that they can understand what’s happening around them right now.”

Rewriting history lessons

In addition to the main festival, the Chalke Valley History Festival also hosts the History Festival for Schools, which is designed to promote the understanding of history to students. More than 15,000 children have attended this festival since its launch.

“It’s so important to engage young kids with history at an early age and in an accessible way, and to get them excited about the subject”, says Alex. “So many pupils give up history at the age of 14, and don’t even take it to GCSE level, and we don’t think that’s right. We need to do everything we can to encourage them to learn about events of the past so that they can understand what’s happening around them right now.”

The festival team practice what they preach: all proceeds are directed to the Chalke Valley History Trust, which promotes the understanding of history to all ages, but especially children.

Attendees to the festival return year after year, even from as far afield as the United States and Australia. What is it about the festival that keeps people coming back?

“The Chalke Valley History festival is unique. There’s nothing else like it”, says Alex. “There really is something for everyone, whatever age you are, and the festival offers a great opportunity to sample the sights, sounds and smells of the past first-hand.”

With the festival continuing to grow in popularity, it’s worth sticking next year’s dates in your diary now. See you at the jousting match?

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