Following our friendly skirmish with modern Norsemen, we decided to give the Viking Exhibition at Norwich Castle a whirl and find out a little bit more about their hell-raising forebears. I’ve no clue what kind of history kids get taught these days but when I recently asked a history student what happened in 1066, he didn’t know. Now, I’m not one who thinks it should all be about dynasties and dates, but 1066? Really? In my day, the ‘Dark Ages’ (as they used to be called) were very much part of the curriculum and the Viking era was all about rape, pillage and good King Alfred burning his cakes. The aim of the exhibition – Viking, Rediscover the Legend – is to deconstruct the blood and guts myth and tell the more complex story of raid, migration and integration.
Sadly, I was a little underwhelmed by the show – a bit sparse, exhibit-wise. But it was a welcome distraction on a very hot and sweaty afternoon. And I loved the exquisite York Helmet, the best surviving example of its type in Europe. It’s quite small. I imagine the owner, Oshere, was a bit on the short side. This may explain all that Viking aggro – small man syndrome! I know all about that. I was also struck by the size of the coinage – no bigger than modern-day pennies and easily lost down the side of a sofa. But then they didn’t have IKEA back in the dark days of the Dark Ages.
Recently, Liam and I were enjoying a drink at a local watering hole, entertained by a lively band of Vikings – rowdy, boisterous and very, very drunk but much less troubling than the deliciously named Sveyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, who sacked and torched Norwich in 1004 (and went on to become the first Danish king of England). Eventually the marauding sons of Odin decided to go pillaging elsewhere. As they stumbled to the door, a hulking red-faced redhead threw Liam a broad smile. Thinking his longboat had come in, Liam started to chat and asked the man where he was from. ‘Norway’, came the reply with a proud flourish. He offered us a palmful of loose change. ‘I’m going home, I won’t need this. Give it to charity,’ he slurred. We directed him to the charity box at the bar which he managed to find, but only just. Then off he staggered down Timberhill – to catch the last longboat home, I guess. Or maybe just a flight from Stansted.
The great castle keep of Norwich dominates the city’s skyline. At first sight, it looks too twee to be authentic, its walls too sharp, its stonework too clean and its decoration too untroubled by the march of time. No wonder Liam and I assumed it to be a folly, a romantic Victorian nod to a more chivalrous age (if such a thing ever existed). As it happens, we were entirely wrong. While most of the sprawling castle has disappeared, the old keep and its handsome white Caen limestone walls have endured for almost 900 years. Its conversion from a royal palace to the county gaol in the 14th Century ensured its survival. The hanging, flogging and incarceration continued with great gusto for 500 years until the building opened as a museum in 1894. There’s a lesson there for us all: adapt to survive. I’d passed around the keep many times but had never bothered to pop in for a gander. That was until a new exhibition caught my eye – Roman Empire: Power and People – a British Museum tour. While the show didn’t quite match up to the scale and glory of the Ephesus Archaeological Museum in Selcuk (one of the highlights of our Turkey years) it was a beautifully formed diversion for a couple of hours on a crisp sunny day.
The remainder of the museum is given over to an assortment of galleries mostly dedicated to local history (Boudicca, Anglo-Saxon and Viking East Anglia, prison life). There’s even a small Egyptian gallery with its very own mummy (the excuse being that Howard Carter of King Tut fame grew up in nearby Swaffham). And only in England would you find a gallery dedicated to teapots – all 3000 of them. Sadly, the Teapot Gallery was closed (for a tea break, presumably). Generally, the exhibits had a school field trip about them. Oh to be twelve again. The keep itself is impressive and certainly wowed Liam. The Victorian renovators removed the cell blocks to open up the building’s shell and installed a galleried balcony at the level of the original Norman floor. Two massive arches support the roof. The ‘new’ look gives a real sense of the scale, something intended to send a powerful message to the defeated and downtrodden Anglo-Saxons in their tiny thatched hovels. The nasty Normans were saying, “We’re in charge and don’t forget it.” These days, aircraft carriers convey the same message.