Business profile: Chalke Valley History Festival

James Holland picks me up from Salisbury train station, appropriately enough, in a piece of history. The Second World War historian, novelist and co-chair of the Chalke Valley History Festival (CVHF) drives a 1949 Citroën Traction Avant, and as we rattle through country lanes to our lunch meeting with Holland's CVHF co-chair, Ottakar's founder James Heneage, I feel somewhat underdressed without a fedora.

The CVHF is in its second year, and is carving out quite a name for itself. In its inaugural year, CVHF had just 12 events, but all were almost to capacity—the festival sold over 3,500 tickets in the course of a weekend. This year, things are being ramped up considerably, with a new 22-acre venue and 50 events over six days (26th June to 1st July). Speakers include a veritable who's who of historians, including Antony Beevor, Amanda Vickery, Max Hastings and James Holland's brother, Tom.

The CVHF was set up in 2011 in this part of Wiltshire because long-time friends Heneage and Holland live in the area—the latter for almost his whole life, apart from university and a stint working in London publishing; while Heneage has been a resident for 20 years.

History lessons

CVHF was set up for an almost evangelical reason for the two men: to underscore the importance of history and get more people, particularly young people, enthusiastic about it. Heneage says: "The teaching of history is so very important, and quite frankly we don't do it as well as we should in this country, and it's not even compulsory on the National Curriculum after Year Nine. This is absurd when you think we live in a time where politicians continue to make the same mistakes that have been made in the past—in the Middle East, for example."

As a consequence, there is a expanded children's focus this year, including a Horrible Histories event, Michael Morpurgo talking about War Horse, and a number of workshops and demonstrations where children can learn how to sword fight, or see a Second World War weapons display.

Holland says: "This year we're having several living history groups—who, quite frankly, often get a bad rap. But these people really know their stuff, and they can help bring history alive. We have an event where you can hear Juliet Barker talk about Agincourt, then you can go and actually see one of the living history groups explain and demonstrate shooting longbows just like they used at Agincourt."

Big plans

The idea is not simply to proselytise about history during the festival itself. CVHF recently launched two children's history writing prizes—one for 11- to 14-year-olds, the other for 15–18s—in association with its on-site bookselling partner Waterstones and its media sponsor the Daily Mail (the winners' prize packages include a consultancy with agents at Conville & Walsh). Perhaps even more crucially, this year the festival has set up the Chalke Valley History Trust. All proceeds from the festival will go into the trust, with funds to be used to boost history in schools by way of things like scholarships or funding trips to historic sites.

At the moment, Holland essentially handles the programming of the festival and Heneage looks after the business side. As the CVHF expanded, both saw the need to have speakers other than "pure" historians, so the programme this year includes the likes of Morpurgo, Victoria Hislop and BBC Radio 4's Edward Stourton.

"With new festivals popping up every week, it is essential to have a u.s.p.," says Heneage. "So history is still very much the focus, even with our non-historians. [Hislop] is not talking about her novels per se, but about Greece's tumultuous 20th century, which she has researched meticulously for her books. A subject, of course, which is very relevant today."

Chalke Valley fact box 2012
63 Speakers
9 Living history groups
54 Events
22-acre new venue