Somewhat to my husband’s concern and, it must be admitted, without much further thought, I agreed some time ago that I would love to give a talk on D-day at the Chalke Valley History Festival. Set in the green fields of, yes, a chalk valley, past escarpments and an idyllic shaded stream, a collection of picturesque tents welcomes you to a world of history.
Begun some 9 years ago by James Holland to raise money for a cricket club, it has since moved to larger fields and become the biggest history festival in the world. A well organised team now runs it, creating a week of lectures, events and re-enactments which all seem to flow with consummate ease. Attracting perhaps 60 speakers on many topics, it also aims to engage children, to make history entertaining and has now set itself up as a trust to promote the understanding of history. There are pop-up history entertainments, a tank, trucks, old cars, plenty of seats everywhere, old army tents serving tea, a variety of different yummy foods and good coffee.
The key theme this year was the 75th anniversary of D-day and luckily my talk was scheduled before the one given by (Professor) Andrew Roberts, to whom I later listened with much enjoyment and then bought his latest book about Churchill, “Walking with Destiny”. Thank you to the Daily Mail for their generous overall sponsorship and the Cobham family for my particular talk.
I am not at all a professor of history but a writer who enjoys researching and sharing the everyday lives, the laughter and tears of all of us who live through the historical events that affect our lives. Most of us do not shape events but have to cope with the consequences of the actions of others.
Andrew Roberts’s talk began by reminding us of the number of narrow escapes which characterised Winston Churchill’s early life, from brushes with death, illness, to coincidental or fateful times he avoided disaster. Of course not all of his decisions led to success but the theme of learning and experience, of confidence and determination with better planning and preparation began to evolve.
In contrast, I was drawing out the themes of mischance, of accidents and the senseless disasters of war, which seemed to me to be so hard to live with when I delved a little deeper into the course of WW2 at Highclere, setting the scene for D-day.
The 6th Earl of Carnarvon, family and friends were admirers and supporters of Winston Churchill through the years before, as well as the years of, war. The visitor books testify to the interesting array of friends old and new who stayed at the Castle seeking moments of respite from the intensity of war. From Elvira de La Fuente (Agent Bronx) or Alfred Duff Cooper, Brigadier John Durnford-Slater, General Patton, the very pretty actress Jeanne Stuart (who the 6th Earl said “simply adored him”), Loelia Westminster, Raimund and Elizabeth von Hofmannsthal. Looking at some of the guests and reading their diaries paints a fascinating picture of life. I was also able to share the memoirs of below stairs, of Robert Taylor, the Butler, the Land Girls and of course the teachers living with the tiny evacuee children still billeted for safety in the Castle through D-day (photograph above).
All the characters take me on a journey, a glimpse into this moment of time. They are too many to relate just in this blog, but I was particularly drawn to John Durnford-Slater, who was involved in the creation and above all the spirit of the Commandos in 1940. From November 1943,he was a key figure in the development and detailed planning of the commandos’ role in D-day. Undoubtedly he also shared a love of racing, cocktails and living life to the full with his host Lord Carnarvon. He was one of an extraordinary group of men and staying here at Highclere just after Agent Bronx.
From Chalke Valley which takes place in June, we have been talking about developing an autumn Weekend here. A Highclere History Festival in collaboration with Chalke Valley, linked by passion and geography. Our aim to explore how we can walk best in time and our target is mid October 2020. Watch this space…