SPITFIRES and Mustangs flew overhead, musketeers, soldiers and archers roamed around in the sunshine and historians, authors and politicians from far and wide entertained listeners with a wide range of talks at the Chalke Valley History Festival.

The festival, which ran from June 23 to 29, has become firmly established as one of the highlights of the calendar in the area, and this year attracted big names such as Jeremy Paxman, Ian Hislop, Dan Snow, John Sessions and actor Damian Lewis.

They were joined by well known historians, writers and politicians including Michael Gove, Douglas Hurd, Antony Beevor, David Owen and Ronald Hutton.

The topics addressed ranged from Lenin, Disraeli and Charles II to Women in Wartime France, the ancient world and D-Day.

There was the chance to find out more about the poetry of the First World War and even to enjoy a history quiz show.

Children could go to sword school or explore life in the trenches, and there were military vehicles of all kinds plus displays and re-enactments.

CHALKE Valley History Festival provided many highlights, with entertaining and informative talks, events and interactive activities for all ages.

With more than 100 talks throughout the week, there was something to suit every historical taste, and much to pique the interest even of those who might not have considered history a favourite subject before.

Lots of top historians were joined by people better known in other fields but with a fascination with the past to bring their love for their subject to the public.

A big draw was actor Damian Lewis, star of TV’s Homeland, who was there to talk about his role in the hugely successful Second World War mini-series Band of Brothers, produced by Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

He told a packed audience that he is “incredibly proud and humbled” by the reaction to the series, made in 2001 and still shown all around the world, especially when soldiers approach him.

Sporting a beard for his latest role, as Henry VIII in the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall, he said “it’s absolutely fantastic playing a genocidal maniac!”.

Much feared interviewer, journalist and presenter Jeremy Paxman gave a thought-provoking talk about his new book Great Britain’s Great War.

The Newsnight presenter, famed for putting politicians on the spot, reflected on political, military, economic and cultural points of view during conflict, which were explored in his documentary series aired on BBC earlier this year.

A shared love of past times

PRIVATE Eye editor and Have I Got News for You team captain Ian Hislop returned to the festival, having been on several previous occasions, this time talking about our often rosy view of The Olden Days.

He also stepped in as a last-minute replacement for Al Murray and spoke on the First World War soldiers’ paper The Wipers Times.

He told the audience he kept coming back because “I was filming here for a series and I found myself in a field in the beautiful countryside with people dressed in Napoleonic clothing with a Spitfire flying overhead, and I thought to myself ‘I’m absurdly happy’.”

He added that his next thought was “what is wrong with me?”

Veteran politician Douglas Hurd was joined by co-author Edward Young to talk about their research into a book on Benjamin Disraeli. And children had the chance to try out some historical writing of their own in a competition for the Penguin Chalke Valley History Prize, judged by Damian Lewis along with writer Charlie Higson and historical novelist Elizabeth Freemantle. Higson said: “There is an extraordinary sophistication in their writing. If you weren’t told they were written by children, you wouldn’t know.”

'Terrible beauty'

WARTIME Spitfire pilot Geoffrey Wellum took questions from a packed house on the final day of the festival on Sunday.

His recall, even at age 92, is crystal clear, and his replies often moved the audience.

He spoke of “the terrible beauty of flying a Spitfire at 18”.

And when asked which of the many versions of the plane he had enjoyed flying most, he said: “Gosh, I didn’t care. I was only worried whether I would get home or not.”

Historian Paul Beaver spoke about the birth and development of the plane, and the impact it had on the outcome of the Second World War.

Taking a more modern subject, was journalist and author Simon Jenkins who spoke on England’s 100 Best Views, talking about wind farms and fracking.

Then fellow journalist Jon Snow looked to the future – with a rather bleak view emerging.

He said he saw no prospect of a resolution to the Palestine/Israel problem or to the deteriorating situation in the Middle East being found soon.