Wimpole History Festival showcases the amazing exploits of our forebears
Who knew history was such fun!
This year’s Wimpole History Festival was illuminating, delightful, insightful and utterly beguiling.
It’s the second year of the weekend-long event and the Wimpole Hall organisers have rejigged their season around it: the Wimpole at War calendar has been incorporated into the history festival, which means a flypast from a Dakota on the Saturday, and a Spitfire joining the Dakota on the Sunday.
The packed programme of speakers includes Mary Beard, Helen Castor, Kate Mosse, Jenni Murray, Bridget Kendall, Francesca Simon and Charles Spencer. The schedule is so full-on it’s not possible to see all the talks, debates and performances, but that’s what you want from a festival: so much going on that you can’t see it all! How to decide? Eschewing the scything festival and the archery session for the Living History experiences in the Display Field, I witness some epic performances and incredulous audiences of all ages, transfixed by what they were hearing and seeing.
The talks and demonstrations are laugh-out-loud funny andap so poignant they leave you humbled by and grateful for the bravery and resilience of our forebears.
First up in the Living History field is a World War One plane, an Airco DH2, hand-built by Ken Besfor from Norfolk. Ken had no previous experience of building planes.
“I did microlighting 20 years ago,” he said, “and I’ve been doing reenactment for longer than I can remember, and one day I decided I’d build an aeroplane.”
Further along in the Living History field was a replica of a dining room situation in 1470. This was both intense and hilarious. Here is Catherine, a widow of wealth. The seating arrangements at the table inb her house are discussed in detail. She sits in the high chair and her companions, both named Ian, take the more deferential seats. But it could easily be otherwise.
“As soon as I remarry, my husband takes the high chair,” she explains to the visitors gathered around the tent.
“Once she’s married, despite everything she’s done in the meantime, she ceases to exist,” says Ian. “She has no legal status, so it’s in her interests not to remarry, but it’s in my interests to marry her because I would assume control of everything she owns which, as a widow, would be quite substantial.”
“It’s a business arrangement,” Catherine says briskly.
“And wives and girlfriends would never meet,” adds Ian. Then they poke fun at Game of Thrones.
“The Houses of York and Lancaster have become the Lanisters and the Starks,” says Ian.
“Tell me,” says Catherine, “is there a wall in Game of Thrones? Up north?”
“Funny you should say that…”
Nearby on the World War Two area there are talks about some of the derring-do history specialises in. Dressed in military uniforms of the time, the raids on St Nazaire dry dock and the activities of the SAS on D-Day are explained, to general astonishment.
Another military reenactment group was explaining that many of the British Army’s military successes happened despite bad planning and poor weaponry – such as the Sten gun.
“The Sten gun cost seven shillings – 35p – to make, and every penny was a rip-off,” said the soldier in charge of the group, explaining that it was poorly made and misfired frequently when it did work. Nor was it the first example of British soldiers being sent to fight with poor equipment... The Bren gun’s magazine clip “had only enough ammunition to fire for three seconds”.
“The problems were highlighted by the fact that on D-Day American soldiers were discovered to have had a reserve parachute.” the seated-in-a-circle audience heard. “It turned out the average US parachute jump was from 1,500 feet, but for a British parachutist the average jump was 300 foot, so that was an eight-second jump and they still hit the ground at 25mph… if you miss the first parachute you’ve have plummeted to the ground anyway, so why carry a second?”
Meanwhile the talks are, rightly, a key component of the day and Helen Castor’s was on Elizabeth I and it was packed out. What is it with the Tudors and the belligerence of English rulers that appeals to punters in 2018, one wonders? Speakers included Christopher Andrew on the history of intelligence; Thomas Williams on the Vikings; Tracy Borman on her debut novel, The King’s Witch and – the biggest draw of theOther sday – Bridget Kendall and Peter Pomerantsev on ‘The Cold War roots of Putin’s Russia’.
Also in the mix was the husband-and-wife duo of broadcaster Peter Snow and historian Ann MacMillan, whose paperback edition of ‘War Stories’ came out last week.
“The hardback edition came out in September so this is the first talk we’ve given since the paperback edition has published,” said Peter Snow in the green room. “Since September we’ve done 30 book festival talks – there’s more than 200 similar festivals every year in the UK.
“It’s extraordinary and it’s snowballing – people are still reading books and it’s terrific to come and talk and meet with other authors.”
So how did they decide who was going to do which of the 34 individuals whose wartime exploits they recount with such intense enthusiasm?
“When we finally decided on the shortlist we would choose the ones we were particularly interested in,” said Ann.
Their afternoon talk revealed a sort of comedy stand-up routine. They picked half a dozen subjects from their book and narrated the key heroics in forensic, almost surreal, detail. Peter has an endearing habit of giggling when some particularly bonkers example of heroism or military lunacy occurs. When asked during the Q&A whether they had any arguments about who to include, Peter chimes in with “Oh no no, no arguments at all, that didn’t happen” and everyone laughs and Ann takes over and chips in with another anecdote about the wild lives of their heroes and heroines. So, they are asked, many of these stories are unintentionally hilarious because of organisational cock-ups: does that still happen?
“Goodness, yes,” says Peter, “it happens all the time, and in politics too.” Cue more laughter. “But,” he adds, “most had extraordinary experiences, whether or not they made a hash of it.”
Marvellous. Thanks to the amazing team who have hit new heights with this year’s programme. As one attendee commented: “The festival really makes you think about the suffering of war, and the confusion, and the heroism – and the terror, through the changes of time and era.”