Vikings invaded Harrogate on the evening of Thursday 23 October and, for an hour or so, stomped around the genteel furniture shops and posh kitchen emporia of northern England’s happiest city.
In their mail, shields and helmets, carrying burning torches in the dark, they looked quite scary. They drew crowds of children and adults with their battle cries and horn blasts. But they caused no panic (though some had their photos taken) and did no damage.
By 8pm the couple of dozen marauders had retreated to the Old Swan Hotel – where a few of them had been sighted earlier, giggling in the car park as they put on their gear – and were milling about queuing for drinks like the rest of the more conventionally dressed crowd at the opening of the second Harrogate History Festival.
Harrogate Mayor Jim Clark – wearing his chain of office and waxing lyrical in a corner of the ballroom about Harrogate’s being “a town ideal for festivals like this: a very relaxed and informal kind of festival,” – broke off as a posse of Vikings with beer glasses went by to join costumed male and female friends occupying the room’s central table.
“All these Vikings,” he said, waggishly shaking his head. “It worries me a bit. I will have to keep hold of my chains! Or I’ll get knocked on the head or something.”
The Vikings were only the first bit of history in a four-day weekend celebrating historical fiction and non-fiction with a stunning variety of talks, panels, visual presentations and interviews.
Among special guests were Bernard Cornwell, Elizabeth Chadwick, Alison Weir and Sarah Gristwood, Elizabeth Fremantle and Suzannah Dunn, Peter Snow, Sarah Dunant, Jim Naughtie, Sandi Toksvig, Conn Iggulden and the British Museum curator Irving Finkel.
On that Viking-infested first night, the crowd of fans, authors, publishers, and agents was also introduced to the finalists of the historical-writing world’s answer to the Oscars – the Historical Writers’ Association Crown for Debut Historical Fiction. It was won by Kate Worsley for She Rises, a Georgian novel set in the Essex port of Harwich. Harrogate History Festival’s Outstanding Contribution to Historical Fiction Award went to Bernard Cornwell.
The History Festival is the younger sibling of the Theakston’s Old Peculiar Harrogate Crime Festival held early in the year. The older festival has been going for a decade and is now a major part of the crime writers’ circuit.
Agatha Christie and the mysterious affair at Harrogate’s Old Swan hotel
Both festivals are under the umbrella of Harrogate International Festivals, and both take place in the hotel famous for sheltering the 36-year-old writer Agatha Christie during her mysterious disappearance in December 1926.
(This story alone makes the hotel a natural draw for writers. Christie left her home in Surrey, without warning, on December 3. Her car was found hanging precariously half-off a chalk cliff the same day – a scenario rather likef one of her novels. Police launched a manhunt, but she’d apparently vanished without trace. Eleven days later, a banjo player at the hotel recognised her as one of the guests. It turned out that she’d checked in under the name of her husband’s mistress, Theresa Neele, and, while half the police in the country were looking for her, been having fun every night at the dances and palm court entertainments.)
Seasonal Vikings’ last outing before vanishing for the winter
One of the chattier Vikings watching the prize-giving turned out to be from Leeds and to be called Barry Hughes.
He and the silent and helmeted friend at his side run a local re-enactment group for Vikings, he said – one of many scattered around the country. He did it because he liked being part of a script, and enjoyed the thrill of going out and actually getting involved in battles.
There’s a season for doing battle, it turned out. “We don’t do it in winter. The last one of the year is Hastings in October. But the last one I went to that we did was Stamford Bridge in September, the anniversary of the actual battle.”
In winter, Vikings sort out their kit and work out what they’ll need next spring. There are shows of kit every week. “A lot of people make a living now out of selling the kit – a good living as well, because it can be expensive.”
Posh chain mail, for instance, is pricey. “The riveted kind, what he’s got on,” Barry said, gesturing at his friend, “you’re not going to get a lot of change from £500 for that. It all depends on what kind of kit you require. But that is really high status.”
Barry’s friend turned his helmet towards us. I could see shy eyes deep within it.
“The posh stuff,” Barry said. “You’ve got the posh stuff, Lef.”
“Oh yeah,” Lef replied rather nervously.
Barry turned to me. “He’s Polish,” he explained.
It was the first time he’d been to the History Festival, Barry added, and he’d enjoyed invading town. “I was expecting to be heckled, to be honest,” he said. “But people were very positive; curious, really.”
Vanora Bennett is the author of six novels including Midnight in St Petersburg. Her latest book, The White Russian, was published in hardback by Century/Arrow and comes out in paperback in spring 2015.