Travel: York Invaded by Vikings (Again) ; History Comes Alive When Eric Bloodaxe Puts the Saxons to the Sword This Half-Term, Says Joe Gilbert
Gilbert, Joe, The Independent (London, England)
Half-term in Valhalla might sound implausible, but in a city as Viking-crazy as York anything is possible. Thanks to the Jorvik Viking Centre, Norse gods and bearded warriors will again be massacring each other in the city of Eric Bloodaxe from 24-27 February, when the centre presents its Viking Festival.
Coppergate on Thursday morning sets the scene. Here, innocent shoppers will mingle with ferocious mail-clad Vikings carrying axes in a free opening ceremony. Before the week is out, 10,000 visitors will have seen everything from longship races to full-blooded battles. And that's not to mention lots of lovely fighting.
"The combat events are real crowd-pullers," admits organiser Jay Commins. "On Saturday and Sunday, Vikings take on Saxons in Museum Gardens. Both battles are free."
Before that comes training outside the Jorvik Centre at 2pm on Thursday and Friday. These free warrior-drills are aimed at the younger generation who might be disturbed by the sight of people simulating the cutting off of each others' heads. Draped in chain- mail, a five year old bursts your eardrums on a Norse horn while his brother disappears into a cavernous helmet.
Also for children, the Archaeological Resource Centre (tel: 01904 543403 to book; entry pounds 3) in St Saviourgate offers hands-on history from Monday to Friday. Here, youngsters sort through finds from ancient York such as leather goods, bones and pottery. Oh, and the remains of a 10th-century cesspit.
It's Friday at 11am that history hits the streets. Starting outside the Jorvik Centre, a 14-strong troupe will breathe fire into the sagas. Now King Eric Bloodaxe takes the stage, facing his arch- enemy, Egil. The action unfolds from Coppergate to St Sampson's Square where Gunhild the sorceress steals the show.
After the drama it's a tour to remember: deep below the Jorvik Centre, Eric Bloodaxe's city was unearthed in the 1970s. Now you can stroll through its pungent alleys recreated with stunning realism.
The thatched huts ring with gutsy Norse, crying babies and squealing pigs. Squatting round a stone-lined hearth a life-like old man warms his feet at the fire. His computer-generated face is actually based on a real Viking skull. In moody half-light, his daughter cooks a surprisingly fragrant supper. Herbs hang from timber beams, axes and ropes from wattle walls. Everything is true to excavated originals.
The Vikings took York in 866, and named it Jorvik. By 948, the city was a haven for traders, whose 10th-century shops have been cobbled back together. On my visit, I walked past baskets of fruit and eggs, eels lining oaken walls and coloured yarns looping above. In breeches and tabard, a wood-turner was working his lathe. Surrounded by geese, a pigtailed blonde returned from the well. Nearby, a bearded peasant squatted over a cesspit (the smell of which was not included).
Small wonder disease was rife. But suddenly birdsong gives way to Norse as you approach the wharf. Here, sailors unload a cargo ship crammed with wool and a fisherman fillets his catch under hanging nets.
Normally, you glide through round this display in battery-run cars (20th century I believe). But from 6.30pm-7.30pm on 25 February guided walking tours are also available, which drop by at the centre's Skipper Gallery, where you'll find objects from the Jorvik dig - stylish ankle-boots, ivory gaming-pieces and silver pennies of King Canute. …