A festival dedicated to history, attracting 44,000 enthusiasts to a greenfield site in Wiltshire every June.
The brainchild of the founder of Ottakar’s bookshop, the Daily Mail Chalke Valley History Festival started as a fund raising exercise for a local cricket club but now puts all its profits back into a trust promoting the understanding of history to all ages. We talk to Alex Hippisley-Cox about the 60 acre site, which includes a huge living history encampment.
Describe your event and how many people it attracts?
The Daily Mail Chalke Valley History Festival is the largest festival entirely devoted to history in the world and takes place annually at the end of June. It is a unique combination of talks, discussions and topical debates, plus a vast living history encampment, where the very best living historians – all experts in their field – bring history to life with their extensive knowledge and passion for their subjects.
In 2018, the Festival sold over 44,000 tickets and attracted audiences not only from the UK, but from abroad too. We have regulars who visit from The Netherlands and Belgium, and some even come from as far away as Canada. This summer, over 150 talks and debates will be delivered by eminent historians, writers and commentators.
Explain a bit about your venue and its history:
The Chalke Valley History Festival began in 2011 on a small scale and as a fundraiser for the local cricket club. Club stalwart and historian James Holland had the idea for a festival but it was James Heneage, founder and former CEO of Ottakar’s bookshops and now historical novelist, who suggested a festival dedicated to history.
The festival takes place in a usually quiet field in Broad Chalke, near Salisbury in Wiltshire, and is spread over 60 acres in the heart of the beautiful Chalke Valley countryside.
What is the aim of the event?
The aim of the Chalke Valley History Festival is to excite, enthral and entertain about the past. All proceeds from the festival have, since 2012, been directed to the Chalke Valley History Trust, which promotes the understanding of history to all ages, but especially children. Since 2013, the festival has also incorporated the History Festival for Schools, that enables pupils and teachers to get out beyond the classroom and experience history in a new way.
The festival provides a full programme of curriculum-based subjects, delivered with expertise and a fresh, interactive and immersive approach. Last year, with increased numbers of children and schools attending each year, the festival welcomed nearly 2,500 students and teachers.
How does the relationship work with the venue you hold the event at?
We have a very good relationship with the local farmers that host our festival and, once the event is over, we are very mindful of leaving the site and returning it back to them in the same condition as when we took it over.
How did you find applying for permission to run the event?
We have a permanent licence and have not really had to make any compromises. Wiltshire District Council have been nothing but supportive and helpful.
How have you planned the layout of the event?
Our layout has evolved over time and we mainly use marquees, which we hire. We have quite a number of different elements to include in the layout of the festival – tents for the speaker events, the bar right in the centre, a big separate dining tent, the Green Room for the speakers, an undercover area for our booksellers Waterstones, a press tent, food concessions and a shopping ‘Emporium’, plus the enormous living history encampment – so it’s quite a challenge getting the jigsaw to all fit together. We want our visitors to have the best possible experience, so it’s important to make it flow right.
How did you research and source your suppliers?
We use local firms and other companies that have proved their worth in the past.
What entertainment do you offer and how did you choose and source it?
We have a fantastic band called The Branflakes who play jazz in the bar at the weekend and then on the Saturday evening, when we host a fabulous ‘Forties Style’ party, we have The Bombshell Belles who entertain us with the best wartime favourite songs. They were coming to us well before they were in the final of Britain’s Got Talent and they are now one of the highlights of the festival.
What provisions do you make for power, lights and sound?
The lights and sound are provided by Firebird and the electricity by Rob Blesard. The teams are all incredibly professional and nothing is too much trouble for them.
How do you manage admissions and visitor safety?
We are ticketed and Red Kite manage our health and safety.
What ground protection do you use for cars and footfall?
We use heavy duty tracking for the car park and all the pedestrian walkways.
How do you publicise the event?
We obviously work very closely with our generous sponsor, The Daily Mail, and other national newspapers, plus a very supportive local media in Wiltshire, all of whom help to give us PR coverage up to and during the festival week. The Salisbury Journal, Spire FM and BBC Radio Wiltshire have been on board with us from the start, but their support has increased year on year and we couldn’t do it without them.
In the months leading up to the festival, both national and local media will include our event details in festival round-ups, and we arrange interviews with many of our stellar line-up of speakers who help to promote their upcoming events. BBC South Today, our local TV news programme, has given us some amazing publicity over the years, and has even done the live weather report from the site a few times!
Increasingly, online coverage has becoming very important to us and our social media channels (we use Twitter, Facebook and Instagram) are now a really important way of getting our news out to visitors. We also have a growing database of people who come back every year, so we make sure we keep them up to date with all our news via regular newsletters and emails.
What challenges have you faced?
A few years ago, before we moved to our new site in Broad Chalke, we experienced the worst June weather we could remember. It rained solidly for a week, and the site turned to mud, making it really difficult to access the festival and move around safely. The staff and volunteers did a fantastic job keeping things moving, and making sure that the show went on, but it’s not something we want to repeat! In our new venue, the water drains away really well, so thankfully we won’t have that particular problem to face again.
How have you financed the event and how profitable is it?
We finance the event with sponsorship money, grants, private donors and ticketed events. Any profits we make get ploughed back into The Chalke Valley History Trust.
What are your plans for next year?
Almost as soon as the festival finishes at the end of June, we start thinking about the next year and planning our programme. We take feedback from participants and visitors very seriously, and are constantly looking to improve the festival experience. It’s too early to tell you about what we’ve got coming up for 2020, but we are always trying to refresh the format and bring in new ideas so that the festival evolves and attendees learn about history in lots of different ways.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the outdoor event industry?
Have a wet weather contingency fund!
MARQUEES & FLOORING
DP Marquees www.dpmarquees.co.uk
STAGES & LIGHTING
HEAT & POWER
Robert Blezard www.robertblezard.co.uk
GT Tracks www.gttrax.co.uk
Rob Beale www.robbeale.co.uk
WI-FI / CARD MACHINES
Event Wi-Fi & Communications www.eventwifi.net
H&S / SITE MANAGEMENT
Red Kite Management www.redkitemanagement.com
The Daily Mail Chalke Valley History Festival
Bury Lane, Broad Chalke
Wiltshire SP5 5DP