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James Holland on Chalke Valley History Festival

Despite Covid restrictions, Chalke Valley History Festival is going ahead – here's what to expect

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This week’s episode of Break Out Culture stars James Holland, historian and chair of Chalke Valley History Festival, which runs from 23 – 27 June. We share an extract from the conversation below.

James Holland on Chalke Valley History Festival

James Holland

Ed: The Chalke History Festival is a much anticipated annual event that draws some stellar names, and this year is no exception. You’ll be able to listen to Max Hastings, Neil Ferguson, Tom Holland, Anthony Beevor, Professor Margaret MacMillan and Dan Snow.

Charlotte: And it’s in a beautiful part of the world. You can glamp or camp, and it promises to be a lot of fun. It’s also extremely popular with children and teenagers. Everyone who goes to it goes back year after year, and here to tell us all about it is the festival chair, James Holland.

Ed: You started on a very small scale 10 years ago, just to raise money for the local cricket club. Then it grew and grew – tell us the story of the last decade…

James: We built a new cricket ground 11 years ago, up in the valley. I said to James Heneage: ‘Why don’t we do an arts festival on that and see what happens?’ And he said, ‘Look, you’re a historian and I love history. Why don’t we do a history festival, because no one else is doing that?” And I said, ‘You know what? That is a really, really good idea.’ So we did that first one in 2011 and it went down well. The following year, we added living historians. And since about 2014 or so, we’ve been at more or less the same scale in terms of the number of events we do.

Charlotte: It’s held in such huge affection by people. There’s a lovely quote by Ian Hislop. He says, ‘This festival is entertaining, informative, and thought provoking, and that’s just the audience.’

Chalke Valley History Festival

Tim Abell

Ed: So, presumably we’re all on tenterhooks. We’re recording this before the great Boris announcement. If he extends lockdown, can you pivot to digital quite quickly?

James: We’ve not been assuming at all that we’re going to be in stage four. So the whole festival is geared up for the existing restrictions, which enables us to have 4,000 people on site at one time, which is half what we’d normally expect to get on a Saturday of the festival, but it means we can still have it.

Charlotte: What on earth is a course in 19th century body snatching?

James: I’m really intrigued about this. I think the macabre is quite fun. Quite often, you’d have people going to funerals and pretending to be relatives, and what they’d be doing is watching where the grave was and seeing what goes in with the coffin and all that stuff. And they’d be pulling them out again within 48 hours, and then sending them off for medical research. I’m not quite sure how they’re going to do it, but I have seen the corpse.

You can listen to the full episode here.


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