We’re not out of the Covid woods, with a third wave brewing and the prospect of further variants, but after both doses of vaccine we’re confident in getting back to events with suitable precautions in place – like the Chalke Valley History Festival. 2020 would’ve been the tenth festival, but obviously Covid put the kibosh on that; this year’s festival would’ve been after the lifting of restrictions, after that was delayed it was still able to proceed with reduced capacity (being mostly outdoors), with open-sided marquees for the talks. Tickets sold out quickly for a lot of the talks, so I branched out (slightly) from the Second World War – no bad thing.
First up was A Marvel to Behold: Gold and Silver at the Court of Henry VIII with Timothy Schroder, Prime Warden of the Goldsmiths’ Company. Though few of the actual objects remain, the majority of Henry’s collection being melted and remodelled numerous times during and after his lifetime, archive records give a vivid picture of the role of precious metals; gifts for wives (when in favour) and the court, a means of impressing, then in later life as he became more vindictive a way of exercising power, exemplified by the destruction of the shrine of Thomas Becket with a large ruby from it turned into a ring.
Next was The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves with biographer Andrew Lownie. Archive material was a vital element again, in revealing the less edifying predilections of Louis Mountbatten, though Lownie is still battling for the full archives to be opened in the face of Cabinet Office opposition. Quite the astonishing cast across decades and continents, from Charlie Chaplin to Jawaharlal Nehru, and mysterious circumstances in both of their deaths – seems like there might be further revelations to come.
Finishing up the formal talks was Codebreaking Sisters: Our Secret War, the story of Pat and Jean Owtram. Unfortunately Jean was unable to make it, but Pat’s conversation with Simon Robinson was wonderful. Growing up their family employed Austrian Jews as housekeeper and cook, a lifeline after Kristallnacht, so Pat and Jean learned German from them (with a Viennese accent, still identifiable 75 years later in an interview with German radio). After taking a secretarial course in London at the height of the Blitz, Pat rejected the advice of a relative who suggested joining the Foreign Office whose secretaries were a “jolly bunch of girls”; Pat’s preference was for “a jolly bunch of sailors” so enlisted in the WRNS, where her knowledge of German was invaluable for the “Y” Service who collected signals intelligence from German transmissions. Post-war Pat moved into media, producing University Challenge and The Sky at Night as well as developing Ask The Family. The rest of the family had an equally eventful war; Jean joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and worked with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the Middle East and Italy, while their father was captured at Singapore and became Camp Commandant at Chungkai, a prison camp on the river Kwai. It’s always a privilege to hear first hand accounts from the ever-dwindling number of veterans.
Around the site there’s living history from the Iron Age to the Cold War with constant talks and demonstrations at the forges, kitchens and camps. Particularly good were the Time Traveller’s Kitchen and the Romans of Leg II Avg (who also recently assisted Phil Wang with his invasion of Britain).
Finishing off the day were a couple of events at the open stages. James Holland and Al Murray’s Second World War podcast We Have Ways Of Making You Talk started shortly before the 2019 festival, and has grown into quite the Patreon-supported behemoth; a live recording attracted a large crowd for a whistle-stop run through Britain’s worst blunders and greatest triumphs of the war (lubricated with a few pints). Murray was then on the panel for Histrionics, a panel show chaired by Charlie Higson, teaming up with Alexandra Richie against Harry Enfield and Dan Snow in a raucously ramshackle quiz. Historical charades were particularly entertaining, especially with the host seeming to have different answers on the card. A fine way to end the day as the sun set over the rolling Wiltshire countryside.