Vampires, Vikings and Vets

Vampires, Vikings and Vets

Hello everyone,

If you follow me on social media then you’ll know that I’ve recently returned from a holiday in and around York. The holiday itself wasn’t writing related but as I visited several locations with a link to literature I thought they would be worth writing about. I present to you Vampires, Vikings and Vets, five tales from York.


A selfie on a bridge above the River Ouse

1) Vikings

The United Kingdom is built on layers upon layers of history ranging from the Prehistoric Age to the Modern Day. One of the earliest layers of British history is the Viking Invasion. In 685AD The Great Heathern Army began to raid the coasts of England, Ireland and France. These raids escalated and in 688AD, the Great Heathern Army, lead by Ivor the Boneless (1), attacked the city of York. Present in York were the two Kings of Northumbria, Aelle and Osbert, (2) sources vary on if they escaped the battle. One account suggests that King Aelle was blood eagled, a process in which his ribs were separated from his spine and his lungs pulled through this opening to look like wings. Regardless of the Kings’ fate, York was called Jórvík by the Viking invaders and became a key city in the Viking world.

The Viking Centre in York was built to educate the general public on Ancient Norse culture. Upon entering the centre, guests have the opportunity to explore the foundations of the Viking city through a glass floor. You can see the outline of two houses and what used to be a road separating the two. Afterwards guests board a monorail and are transported through the streets and alleyways of Jórvík. The ride is populated by animatronics which are based of Viking age skeletons found in and around York. Scientists were able to rebuild the deceased’s faces using facial reconstruction technology and each model is given a voice box that speaks in the ancient norse language (a mixture of different languages from the lands the Vikings visited). After you’ve completed your tour you can visit the museum which contains the aforementioned skeletons and learn their names and backstories (3). Oddly enough the museum also contains the world’s largest historical piece of human faeces.

Grvmmi the Blacksmith (left) and is unnamed apprentice

2) The World of James Herriot

Older readers will be more familiar with the name James Herriot. Herriot was a Yorkshire vet who wrote a series of books about the colourful characters he met as he traveled the Yorkshire Dales tending to sick animals. Herriot’s books became global best sellers and were turned into a 1970’s TV series which ran for twelve years and are currently being remade on Channel Five.

The Alf Wight/James Herriot statue at the former veterinary practice. Please ignore the building work in the background

The real James Herriot was Alf Wight. Wight based all of the characters in his books off real people including his work partners Donald Sinclair and Brian Sinclair (Siegfried and Tristan respectively). Later in his life Wight trained Peter Wright, who now stars in the documentary series The Yorkshire Vet and ran the Skeldale Veterinary Centre in Wight’s memory.

I’ve read or listened to all of the Herriot’s books and have watched most episodes of The Yorkshire Vet and All Creature Great and Small so I found it strange to finally visit these locations. Most of the visitors to Thirsk (Darrowby in Wight’s books) come to see The World of James Herriot Museum which catalogues Alf’s life and successes. It also offers an interactive playroom where you can perform ‘procedures’ on animals.

Such as doing an internal examination on a cow.

Interestingly when Wight first published his books they were not immediate successes. They struggled to sell outside the local area and only became best sellers when they were offered to international markets. Obviously Wight had no idea this would happen but what a legacy to leave, eh?

3) Vampires 

An hours drive from York, across the beautiful Yorkshire Moors, is Whitby Abbey. Although Whitby Abbey can be dated back to the year 657AD it is most famous for its association with the world most famous vampire, Dracula.

In 1890 Bram Stoker arrived in Whitby after finishing a gruelling theatre tour with his client, Henry Irving, in Scotland. Stoker had a week in Whitby before his family could join him and spent this time working on the current novel, the working title of which was Count Wampyr. During his stay in Whitby, Stoker discovered a story in the town’s library (now a Fish and Chip shop) which recorded the story of the Dmitry, a Russian ship that ran aground carrying a cargo a silver sand. Stoker reworked this story into his novel, remaining the ship The Demeter and changing the cargo to soil in which Dracula sleeps.

Although the character of Dracula is a global icon, when the novel was first published in 1897 it was only a mediocre success. The novel was rediscovered in 1922 a German film company that adapted the novel into the film, Nosferatu. Although characters were renamed and the setting altered, Stoker’s relatives sued on the grounds of copyright. To prevent future copyrights attempts, Stoker’s widow asked Hamilton Deane to adapt the novel for the stage. The play became a success and it was from these productions that Dracula found longstanding popularity.

You can easily image a cloaked vampire wandering the ruins, can’t you?

4 Sherwood.

On the the way home we visited Sherwood Forest. Sherwood Forest itself can be dated back to the last ice age. There is evidence that it served as home to neanderthal man and much later was later recorded in the Doomsday Book. It was used as a royal hunting ground by various Kings and Queens of England but most notably it was home to England’s fiction’s most famous outlaw Robin Hood.

While we can track the history of the forest, Robin’s character is much more elusive to pin down. We know that he was first mentioned in the 14th century poem The Vision of Piers Plowman but the context of the poem implies that Hood would have been known by the general public at this time. Adding to the confusion the character of Robin Hood changes drastically over the centuries. In the earlier versions of the myth, he was a merciless outlaw who killed anyone who entered the forest. In the most recent versions Robin robs from the rich to give to the poor while battling the Sheriff of Nottingham against the backdrop of the Crusades. While historical documents from the time period mention several individuals with names similar to Robin Hood (Rabunwood, Robehod and Robbehod to name a few) it is impossible to tell which one, if any, was the inspiration for the outlaw. It is most likely that the name Robin Hood would be given by criminals during their arrest similar to how modern criminals use the alias John Smith or Joe Blogs. Regardless, Robin Hood continues to inspire countless generations since his conception. And that is the power of a good story.

5) York

York Minster

Although Yorkshire is a popular setting in the world of literature (Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre for example) I couldn’t find a story that is solely set in the city of York. Surprisingly there is very little reference to The Grand Old Duke of York himself aside from the occasional pub name. While I don’t have a literacy connection to make with the city I do want to mention a couple of things.

York Minster, pictured above, is a beautiful cathedral that is full of little secrets. Despite having two hundred staff members and double that many volunteers, there is an odd golden dragon beam in the naive of the Minister (the central bit that everyone walks through) that no body understands the purpose of. The Minster is also home to the King’s Screen, a collection of statues of British rulers ranging from William the Conqueror to Henry VI. The statues themselves have their own secrets. One of the Kings (I can’t remember which) has two left feet while Henry III has noose marks imprinted into his neck.

The Shambles

We also hiked the stone walls that surround the city and visited the National Transport Museum, home to over one hundred different locomotives. We also visited The Shambles, a famous medieval street where the houses lean over the people below. One of the shops here is called The Society of Alchemists where I brought these beautiful notebooks.

They’re hardback, easy to write on, have a beautiful Ouroboros symbol on the front cover (4) and come with their own motivational writing quote on the back.

Teal – If you don’t think there is magic is writing, you will probably never write anything magical.
Black – The true alchemists do not change lead into gold, they change the world into words
Purple – Some people don’t compose words, they compose magic. They dip their pen into the wilds of the universe and the alchemy of dreams appears…

If you have a fascination with stationery then you will understand my love for these notepads.

I throughly enjoyed my time in York and plan to return in several years time to look at new exhibitions and things I may have missed.

Additional thoughts

1 – Fun fact, historian’s have no idea why he was called the boneless. It’s a weird nickname to have. Some suggest that when he drank he became paralytic drunk and gave of the impression of having no bones. It could also be related to male impotence or possibly due to the fact he had double jointed legs.

2 – At this point in history, England was divided up into several smaller kingdoms each ruled by their own King or Queen. It wasn’t until 927 that England became one united country.

3- I’ve always this is really weird, if I’m being honest. Is it right to display their remains and mimic their bodies? The dead won’t object and I’m sure copyright didn’t exist in Viking culture but it’s never sat well with me.

4 – The Ouroboros symbol represents concept of eternity and endless return.

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