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Iceland, land of of fire and ice, volcanoes, Vikings and visitors. Thousands of them, including us.  All to see the sights that the original visitor who came here didn’t see. Floki Vilgerdarson came here from Norway in 870 AD but was disappointed because all he could see was ice. A practical man, with his incredible powers of observation, he named the country with intuition and called it Iceland.

Sun Voyager
Sun Voyager

Sitting just below the Arctic Circle, I’ve booked a holiday slightly warmer than the last one where we were in the Arctic Circle. Based on our visit, we would have called it “Very Heavy Rain Land” but we can’t control the weather so we don’t try to worry about it, even if the rain killed our DSLR camera and any chance of the Northern Lights. This is a holiday with a difference, one where my own shield-maiden Sam, gets her hands wrapped around large specimens and where I get a hot geyser shooting its hot load all over my face, which I loved and recommend, not something I thought I would ever say. First up though on our Iceland trip is Reykjavik.

 

Hallgrimskirkja Church
Hallgrimskirkja Church

Reykjavik is the world’s most northerly capital, a small city centre with a laid back attitude and cafe culture (with WiFi in every bar) where half of the countries population is currently sitting or getting wrecked during the renowned Reykjavik nightlife. God knows how they can afford to though, it is horrendously expensive for everything. 2 beers, 2 soups in a bread bowl cost us £37, our cheapest meal, this is not a budget travel destination.

 

We’re based at Hotel Fron on Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main street, smack bang in the centre of town and its a short walk from one end of the city centre to the other and you’ll be guaranteed whichever way, that you’ll come across some talented and vibrant street that adorn the sides of buildings. In the UK, this would just be some tatty tag mark, but here they put as much effort into it as they do in getting wrecked.

 

If you thought that the food cost is monstrous, that is nothing compared to the 73 metre high phallus shaped concrete monster that is Reykjavik’s most famous landmark of Hallgrimskirkja Church, visible from almost everywhere in downtown Reykjavik. You can ride the rocket shaped tower to the top viewing platform for some splendid panoramic views of Reykjavik and surrounding scenery. Outside the entrance to Hallgrimskirkja is the statue of the viking Leifur Eriksson with his Danish war axe, discoverer of America, looking majestically over the city.

 

Of course, no visit to Iceland and Reykjavik is complete without a compulsory visit to vikings and what better place is there than the Saga Museum. In an old fish factory near the old harbour, this museum brings the Viking age to life with the Sagas a huge part of Icelandic culture. With realistic silicone figures dressed in specially crafted weapons and authentic garb, like Westworld in miniature and not unsimiliar to Jorvik in York.  The information boards cover from the late 800s onwards with 17 scenes from sagas.

 

You get an audio guide to accompany you round while you marvel at the wanton bloodthirsty characters. Seems our Nordic cousins decided to populate Iceland during the settlement age by popping off to Britain along the way for a smash and grab as over half the women during the settlement age were of Celtic blood. Before you exit, you get the chance, its almost compulsory, to to try on the chain-mail and pose as a Viking warrior. Throwing on the chain-mail weighs a ton, and I may have enjoyed this dressing up a little too much as I start to get comfy with it.

The Long House at the Settlement Exhibition
The Long House at the Settlement Exhibition

 

For a more sedate museum experience, we head to the Settlement Exhibition, Landnamssyningin, to see how the first Icelanders lived. An underground, purpose-built museum around the extensive ruins of a Viking-age farmhouse excavated in 2001. With the oldest relics of human habitation from 871 AD (+ or – 2 years), the finds include a 10th century farmhouse which was inhabited from 930 to 1000 AD, with the hall 20m long and 8m wide, not so much of a fan of the animal backbone stuffed into the wall for good luck though. The settlement of Iceland was easily dated due to a layer of ash from an enormous eruption in the Torfojokull area in 871 AD which can be dated to a degree of accuracy because traces of this have been found in the Greenland ice cap which forms annual layers and can be counted back.

 

It’s a shame we didn’t get to see the coolest light show on the planet, the Northern Lights, cancelled for each of the 3 nights we were there, we did see them briefly earlier in the year while we were in the Arctic Circle in Norway. I guess this just gives an excuse to visit another Nordic country next year.

 

Links:

Iceland – The Icelandic Phallological Museum

Iceland – The Golden Circle Tour

York, the wild northern frontier nestling on the river Ouse is a popular and busy place. Battered by Brigantes, rampaged by Romans and harried by Norsemen, its had its fair share of long stay visitors, some are on an extended stay at the Jorvik Viking Centre.  Today, it is thronging with tourists, pounding the pavement and treading the tourist traps. But beneath their feet is a hidden world and the buried remains of the Viking settlement of Jorvik.

Jorvik viking toilet
A Viking taking a….poo. This tourist attraction insists you get up close and personal.

In 1976, before construction work in the centre of York where the Coppergate Shopping centre now stands, the York Archaeological Trust unearthed Viking age timbers and other Viking age artefacts in unprecedented numbers in the damp conditions that helped to preserve the finds. Whether they were raiders and/or traders, or perhaps just wanted better farming land or weather etc is still open to debate.  One thing for certain is that my wallet was raided and credit card assaulted by the fee to enter the Jorvik Viking Centre.  But at least you can visit as many times as you’d like within the year.

Jorvik Skull of male aged 16-25 showing battle injuries.
Skull of male aged 16-25 showing battle injuries.

Today the Jorvik Viking Centre stands on the exact site where the remains had been found.  Inside, you step on a glass floor with an accurate reconstruction of what the Coppergate dig would have looked like below your feet.  Most of the items are reconstructions of discarded objects except the animal bones and shells.  Considering they dug up 5 tons of animal bone, there appears plenty to go around.  There are maps provided to show you what’s beneath the glass floor but you can’t read them because it’s so dark.  I’m guessing Vikings didn’t have street lights, so that makes it authentic.

Builder on the Jorvik ride
Builders taking a break from chucking mud at wattle to build viking housing. Nothing has changed in a 1000 years…

Then it’s onto a ride taking you back to the 10th century Viking settlement, a street and market place with historically houses, clothes, tools and smells.  Animatronics waxwork dummies with faces based on reconstruction of Viking age skulls, speaking the languages of old Norse and old English.  It’s a bit like a PG rating of Westworld without Yul Brynner running wild. Nearing the end of the ride, we are err… lucky enough to see, hear and smell, a Norse chap taking a dump, spared only by a wicker screen to protect his modesty and our blushes. It stinks and there is rubbish everywhere. This, dear readers, is what Scandinavian life has to offer you.  Then again, I suppose it’s easier to accept it at the end of a pointy sword thrusting at your belly.  Disappointingly, not one Viking is wearing a helmet with horns and we do not see anybody having a blood eagle.

Female skeleton discovered in the excavations at Coppergate. She was around 46 old and 5ft 2in, robustly built and possibly used crutches.
Female skeleton discovered in the excavations at Coppergate. She was around 46 and 5ft 2in, robustly built and possibly used crutches.

The last third of the exhibition has associated collections of 800 artefacts from the 40,000 that were found.  Bone and antler working to make combs, leather for making shoes etc.  Of course, any Viking experience is not complete without battle and you now get a  chance to see a few weapons and the injuries these can cause on the battle-scarred skeletons on display.  The weapons are not that good and better examples are on display in the Derby museum from the Vikings when the Great Heathen Army camped over winter at Repton or those on display in the Leeds Royal Armouries.  The skeletons however are a grim reminder of diplomacy on the receiving end of an axe edge.

Battle skeleton at Jorvik with 16 visible injuries. Its possible he died at the Battle of the Standard near Northallerton.
Battle skeleton at Jorvik with 16 visible injuries. Its possible he died at the Battle of the Standard near Northallerton.

One skeletal chap on display has 16 visible injuries including an axe shaped wedge wound to his upper leg, two stab wounds to the pelvis penetrating the abdomen and two execution style wounds to the back of his head. He was aged between 18-25 and was one of a group of 30 skeletons all showing blade injuries that had not healed.  They were discovered in the cemetery at the Church of St Andrew in Fishergate so it is unlikely they died in the famous clashes at the Battle of Fulford, a Viking victory, or the Battle of Stamford Bridge where Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson (half-brother of King Harold) was killed by the English army of King Harold before he marched down to Hastings to face William Duke of Normandy, heralding the end of the Viking age in Britain.

Learn more about the Jorvik Viking Centre here.

Living midway between two large East Midlands towns, I can count on one hand the times I’ve been to Derby. It doesn’t sound like the most appealing place, yet another homogenised high street but full of Derby County supporters with an alarming affection for sheep.

Viking sword from Repton at Derby museum
Viking sword from Repton at Derby museum

But I thought it may worth a look, after all, the Great Heathen Army (not Derby County fans this time – even if they are the great unwashed), that band of Vikings, decided to stop in nearby Repton for Winter in 873 AD. Turns out that some of them stayed far longer, 249 were found in a mass grave at Repton Church. Derby can do that to people.

Several graves were found, one, the Repton Viking Warrior, was 6 foot tall, aged 35-40 and killed in battle, he may quite possibly be Ivar The Boneless.  Buried with his sword and other items after dying from spear wounds on his skull and a massive cut to his upper thigh which may have removed his genitals.  Buried with things he needs for the afterlife, including his sword, jewels and a necklace with Thor’s Hammer.  Also in the grave was a boar’s tusk placed between his legs, a substitute for his penis to make his body complete for his trip to the viking afterlife in Valhalla.

Thor's Hammer and bead necklace from the Repton Viking Warrior's grave
Thor’s Hammer and bead necklace from the Repton Viking Warrior’s grave

He’s also had a facial reconstruction. You can find out more about this reconstruction and the Repton Viking’s by watching the BBC documentary ‘Blood Of The Vikings’ on YouTube. Granted, I now know more about swords and other stabbing weapons than is probably healthy for a man. Among the other items at Derby museum: a gold noble coin from Codnor Castle found when Time Team filmed there, The Repton Stone, flint arrowheads and tools dating back 300,000 – 40,00 years old, Egyptian mummies and the bronze age Hanson log boat. All to see for free.

Links:

Derby Museum

Great Heathen Army

Trip to York and the Battlefield of Towton.

A long weekend but no lazy days for us. Time to pound the pavement with a visit to the wild barren northern frontier, or York as most call it. Rampaging Romans, bearded Vikings, Norman knights, conquest castles, whippets, flat caps, York has it all. Even got their own gallows at Tyburn on the Knavesmire. Just the place to hang Scottish rebels, horse thieves (Dick Turpin) and other rapscallions. So with shield-maiden Sam in tow, we trudge around York’s tourist traps. Just hope the locals have already had their fill of pillaging, plunder and bloodletting.

Firstly, lets talk about York Minster, that famous house of God but with some unholy prices. Suffice to say we didn’t stick around. You’ll find many places in York where you wont stick around, not because of Viking warlords or rampaging Romans but pretty ridiculous prices putting you off. This includes the dungeon, minster, castle, museum, all as guilty as Dick Turpin, but at least he wore a mask when he robbed people. Perhaps the heads of these attractions should be exposed on the city walls at Micklegate Bar. Nice to see they’ve removed the heads that were put up there in the past, it might have put visitors off.

So we trundle along to Coppergate and the Jorvik museum. Step inside to see a reconstructed excavation of exposed 1000 year old timbers and other artefacts below your feet. Dirty lot these Vikings. Then onto the ride for the reconstruction of a smelly street of the age complete with realistic creepy life-like animatronic waxworks. Its a bit like Westworld without Yul Brynner running wild. Now you’ve got a chance to view some skeletons, one male and one female from the Coppergate dig. There are also skeletal remains with battle wounds to see how viciously men can slay each other. Yes its short, sweet and not cheap but at least you get a years entry with your ticket.

As if to emphasise the point about slaying each other with sharp swords and stuff, on the way to York we pass the battlefield of Towton. On Palm Sunday in 1461, during Wars of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster, the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil resulted in the reported deaths of 28,000 men. Any romantic visions of the Wars of the Roses should be dismissed as men fleeing over the fields at Cock Beck and Bloody Meadow were slaughtered in the rout. If you’ve got any doubts about the lack of chivalric niceties, check out the BBC documentary Secrets of The Dead – Blood Red Roses (easily found on YouTube) that shows you the coup de grâce delivered to some unlucky victims. Brutal.

Links:

Jorvik Viking Museum

You Tube – Secrets of the Dead, Blood Red Roses, Towton 1461

 Towton Battlefield Society

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