As the song by Flanders and Swann goes, “Mud, mud, glorious mud – nothing quite like it for cooling the blood!” Well, after a weekend at the Chalke Valley History Festival, my blood must have been pretty cool. Glastonbury, eat your heart out!
This was my first experience of this festival and it didn’t get off to a very auspicious start. I was staying in Salisbury and set off for the Chalke Valley extra early Saturday morning so that I would have time to wander around the site and explore. I arrived really early – there were only two vehicles in the queue for the service road where I needed to unload my copies of Feud for sale The short queue, however, soon got longer as a number of cars and vans drew up behind me. We sat waiting and my early optimism began to wane as none of us moved forward. The marshal at the head of the queue seemed to be receiving universally bad news busy on his walkie-talkie for his face wore a semi-permanent crestfallen expression. As he walked up the column of vehicles he shared with me the news that a tank had ‘taken out’ the service road and a van was blocking the entrance to the main car park. Thus wherever anyone wanted to go, they couldn’t. So glad I got up early and missed breakfast…
Eventually the column inched forward onto the hastily repaired service road which I thought was still pretty treacherous – though I continually redefined that word as the weekend went on.
I was directed to unload in a layby off the road. Now, by layby I mean a large hole adjacent to the road and thinly covered with long grass. I set off with some boxes of books to find the Emporium hoping that whilst I was away the car would not sink into the sea of mud. The Emporium was a marquee cunningly hidden in plain sight amongst other marquees. So when I asked a passer-by where it was, he said: “you’re standing in front of it.”
The journey from the service road to the car park involved driving randomly across the site until I rediscovered the road to the car park, narrowly avoiding a small skirmish party of Vikings loitering behind a tank. The car park was a bit muddy but I must admit that at the start of the day I didn’t really register that it was on a slope and I was parked at the bottom of it…
Anyway, I was just glad to have arrived, unloaded and parked without any casualties.
In the emporium I met Michael Wills and Glynn Holloway, the other two authors with whom I was setting up a small outpost of historical fiction. Wives and family also appeared during the day – lovely people! In fact I met some terrific people during the weekend.
The variety of events and activities was awe-inspiring: re-enactments, pop-up talks, sword school for children, aerial displays as well as the great programme of talks. During the day, shots were fired from cannon, handguns and tanks; aircraft flew past, Vikings flew past. Also, there was much food! And coffee!
It was during a noisy battle re-enactment that the festival’s first serious test came – no, not marauding soldiers raping and pillaging, but rain. The festival had been plagued by showers all week – no surprise there really given our ‘summer’. But this was not a shower, it was serious rain. ‘Rain, Jim, but not as we know it.’
This was epic rain worthy of Armageddon and devastation on a biblical scale ensued. Inside the emporium, we looked on – dry and not too apprehensive. We remarked upon the sturdiness of the marquee and sympathised with some traders whose small tents had been flooded out. Then the rain stopped and we gave a sigh of relief. Our stall was intact and the disruption to the activities outside was only temporary.
During the day I met many, many people and had some great conversations because it seems that readers like to interact with authors. I am fortunate that the Plantagenets in general, and the Wars of the Roses in particular, are currently very popular. Many enthusiasts were keen to talk and ask about the history – a couple of favourite questions were: “Was Edward IV really a bastard?” and “Where do you stand on Richard III?” The latter answer being: not too close!
I also met for the first time a lady I knew well on Twitter but who I would have been hard pressed to pick out in a line-up. It was great to meet a fan but especially another lover of history. I enjoyed all the conversations and I hope that those who actually bought a copy of Feud enjoyed their purchase.
Then the afternoon was disrupted by another bout of rain – this one even heavier than the first! There was no hiding place: water apparently runs downhill and the emporium was on a slope. As the water flowed inexorably from one end of the emporium to the other, a certain film title popped into my head: Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It. Our only good fortune was that our historical fiction outpost was in the middle on a sort of island of dry grass. Being historical fiction writers we immediately felt at one with Hereward the Wake in the fenlands around Ely.
Despite all the inclement weather, spirits remained buoyant. I went off to pay homage to my hero, Michael Wood – is there anyone in the pantheon of historical speakers who is more enthusiastic than Michael Wood? Well, he certainly did not disappoint as he spoke eloquently of the making of England under King Alfred.
After the talk I, like many folk, headed for the car park. There we found that the heavy rain had reproduced Somme-like conditions underfoot, or more importantly, under wheel! Just taking my mud-caked wellies off at the car was difficult enough, let alone trying to reverse the car.
I noted that other vehicles making their way up the slope were struggling – sliding, wheels spinning as they tried to discover some traction in the deep mud. I was quite excited to have reversed out.
A car drew alongside mine and the window was lowered. A rather nervous looking woman asked me: “how are you going to do this?”
“First gear and very slowly,” I replied. She nodded but still looked very uncertain.
I set off up the exit road. There were soldiers – Gurkhas, I believe – lifting cars bodily out of the mire. My little car, much to my surprise, made it up the slope unaided – I don’t know how because I had my eyes shut a lot of the time! Then I rolled the car, very carefully, down through a small muddy lake and out onto the exit road – oh me of little faith!
Despite the effects of the rain, it had been a tremendous day and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The scope of the festival was vast and the re-enactors in particular provided a real buzz. Not everyone was fighting, many folk were ‘living’ a particular period. Quite a few had made the items of clothing they wore and their attention to detail and quest for authenticity was admirable.
Outdoor events are not everyone’s cup of tea but anyone who is interested in history should certainly consider going to Chalke Valley Festival. You always have to be prepared to exercise a measure of stoicism if the elements conspire against you, but the experience is worth it.