29 July 2015

Research: Norway 4 - Viking Ships Not From Norway

How could I write a series about Norway and not include something about Viking ships? In truth, I found Norway surprisingly quiet about its Old Norse past. Yes, the places we visited mentioned farming and shipping from what the rest of Europe calls the 'Viking era', but mentions seemed to be the sum total of it. Even Bergen, which houses the Maritime Museum, doesn't go, er... overboard.

So for this final post in the series I shall concentrate on two replica ships which have made their mark in different ways and in different areas. First up is Sea Stallion from Glendalough.

'Sea Stallion from Glendalough' overwintering in Collins Barracks, Dublin, 2008

Note rowing benches and shape of the oars
Back in 1962 several Viking era ships were excavated from a watery grave north of Roskilde in Denmark. One was found to be 96 feet in length - often referred to a 'dragon ship' - and believed to be a coastal-sailing prestige vessel incapable of enduring the rigours of the open sea. That misapprehension was sunk when dendrochronology proved it had been built around 1042 from Irish oak cut near Dublin. 

From what was left of the original, blueprints were produced and a reproduction constructed using as close to known methods as possible. In 2004 it was launched, and in 2007 it was sailed using known Viking routes via Norway and Scotland to overwinter in Dublin, before returning to Denmark via the English Channel the following year. I recall watching a BBC programme on the first voyage during some of the roughest summer weather on record, expecting its back to break in the heaving seas, but seeing it flex along its entire length between wave troughs. It weighs 8 tons, has a draft of 3 feet and 60 oars. For its full statistics click HERE.

Sea Stallion from Glendalough still sails. Check out its interactive July 2015 route HERE.

The second replica ship is the Islendingur (Icelander), a copy of the Gokstad ship dating from 890 excavated from a burial mound in Norway in 1882. The original (more or less) now resides in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.

Islendingur was built in 1996, almost single-handedly by Gunnar Marel Eggertsson who had sailed the Norwegian Gokstad replica Gaia to Washington in 1991. It was intended as a teaching ship for Icelandic children, but with the millenium coming up it was decided to re-enact the voyage of Icelandic Sagas hero Leif Eriksson and sail from Iceland via the old Viking settlement in Greenland, to Vinland. This was achieved, with a crew of only 9 (plus a motor in case of problems) in 2000, with the ship landing at L'Anse au Meadows in Newfoundland, the single authenticated Viking settlement in North America.

The picture left gives some idea of its internal size. The diagonal beam is, in fact, its mast which fits into the 'foot' by the visitors. Note the loose-laid decking, unlike the integral seating for the Sea Stallion of Glendalough. 32 oarsmen would have crewed the original ship, sitting on their individual 'war chests'.

The ship is smaller (75 feet) and nearly half as wide again with a deeper draft, ideal for carrying provisions, including live animals. Its full statistics can be viewed by following the link below.

The ship now resides on permanent display at Vikingaheimar, the Viking World Museum specially built to house it at Reykjanesbaer on the Atlantic coast of Iceland, between Keflavik airport and the capital, Reykjavik.

To view the other posts in this series follow the links:
Norway 1: In the Wake of the Vikings
Norway 2: The Hopperstad Stave Church
Norway 3: Bergen & the Hanseatic League

22 July 2015

Research: Norway 3 - Bergen & the Hanseatic League

Our cruise ship wasn't all six course dinners and gentle strolls round the deck admiring the awesome scenery. Part of the on-board entertainment included lectures. Geoffrey Farrell, ex Oxbridge, was our affable and informative speaker, and it was in no small part due to one of his talks that when the ship berthed in Bergen more than a few passengers looked at the Bryggen with different eyes as they headed for the Hanseatic Museum.

'Bryggen' means wharf. Out of sight to the right is the quayside.

The Bryggen is now a UNESCO heritage site, but the gable-end warehouses have been through several rebuilds, mostly due to devastating fires, since organised trading was established in the 11th century.
Little wonder fires took their toll.
The area soon became known as the Tyskebryggen - the German Wharf - when guilds of foreign merchants, financially backed by their market towns, began to take over the buildings. Eventually they made Bergen their centre in Norway, a kontor of their Hansa. 

The Hanseatic League, as we know it, was a set of formidable trading alliances, with either kontors or agent-warehouses in most major ports around the Baltic and North Seas. There were several on the east coast of England.

I found it interesting to realise that Hull, the embarkation port of our cruise ship in the UK, had been, and is now for historical purposes, a Hanseatic Port. In the mediaeval period its main export was wool from the religious houses in the region, and then cloth. I can't help but feel that when the town gained its charter in 1299 to become King Edward I's Kingston-upon-Hull, it was with half an eye to a cut of the Hanseatic revenues it would bring to the crown.

Bergen's Hanseatic Museum at the end of the Bryggen has recreated a merchant's combined warehouse and rooms, which included living quarters for eight apprentices (both servants and the shifters), the journeyman (who kept them in order) and the merchant himself.

Life was spartan. We couldn't take photos in the museum, but follow this LINK for a view of the sleeping quarters for the apprentices - two to a bunk - the sliding doors used to keep the rats from cuddling up. The merchants also had Assembly Rooms which, alas, we couldn't visit, but the linked article makes "interesting" reading.

Detail of one of the older merchant warehouses. I'm sure the bin isn't original.

Past wooded islands carrying red-painted summerhouses, and rocky skerries carrying odd-shaped lighthouses, Bergen is a wonderful city to sail into and a fascinating place to visit - from its funicular railway carrying passengers up the mountain for fantastic views of the port, to the smell of the Fish Market on the quay, to a visit of Edvard Grieg's house.

But will I use the warehouses of the Bryggen in future fiction? Maybe not directly in their place or time period, but aspects of the buldings, the shadows cast in the alleys, the close proximity of the lapping water, and the incidence of destructive fires, will all now filter into my subconscious ready to be inked on the page. 

With thanks Cruise & Maritime Voyages for embarking from Hull, and to the crew and staff of the Azores for a splendid holiday. As the saying goes I'll be back! In a week we leave for Orkney and Faroe. Expect more research posts.

15 July 2015

Research: Norway 2 - Hopperstad Stave Church

While on the cruise of the Norwegian fjords we took a single excursion from Vik to Flam. There was no other way I'd be able to visit the Hopperstad Stavkyrkje. Believe me, photographs don't do it justice, especially ours.

Hopperstad Stave Church set on a hill overlooking Vik on the Sognefjord

It dates from the early 12th century, only around 140 years after Christianity had been accepted as the nation's religion - which in reality means that both Christianity and Paganism would have been followed, the Old Norse pantheon led by Allfather not having yet been consigned to folklore - hence the carved dragonheads acting as 'protection'.

Carved roof detail of the Hopperstad Stave Church

Inside, it was darker than I imagined, the roundel windows set in the upper roof the only source of light, and we had to allow a good amount of time for our sight to adjust. The camera made it, more or less.

Detail of the load-bearing staves

If this sort of construction was being used in the 1100s, it was a skill well honed over decades if not centuries, and I can well imagine the lofty halls of Jarls sharing the same basic structure. Very much a touch of The Lord of the Rings.

Intricate carving and canopy paintings

Few stave churches survive. Many were destroyed at the Church's direction to be replaced by a more acceptable 'reformist' type now seen throughout Norway. Hopperstad was saved because it was out of the way and, after plague severely reduced the local population, most people had moved down to Vik by the fjord. It was a forward thinking conservationist in the 1880s, Peter Blix, who became the power behind its restoration. More information can be found HERE.

In the area, but not on our itinerary, were the Hove Steinkyrkje, the first church in the region to be built of stone, which has a beautiful painted interior, and the Urnes Stavkyrkje which has UNESCO World Heritage status.

Other posts in the series:
Norway 1: In the Wake of the Vikings - landscapes of the fjords
Norway 3: Bergen and the Hanseatic League.
Norway 4: Viking Ships Not From Norway

9 July 2015

Research: In the Wake of the Vikings

What other way could I follow in the wake of a Viking longship except by cruising the Norwegian fjords? Ahem... well, that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

We were on a small ship of 550 passengers, a tad larger than the biggest dragon ships, granted, but its wraparound deck afforded fantastic views. And it was the views I'd gone for. I like to footfall the landscapes I'm intending to write about, and the majesty and drama of the fjords have to be experienced from the water.

This is an early morning glide along the Hardangerfjord heading towards Ulvik and Eidfjord. Even in June there was plenty of snow on the higher reaches, so in any fiction there'd be no moving grazing animals to higher pastures. The area is renown for its mild climate, its orchards growing 80% of Norway's fruit harvest. Mmm...

Atmosphere can be everything when writing fiction

The itinerary took us successively north, along the Sognefjord and into the Aurlandfjord, the Nordfjord and into glacier territory, and the Storfjord into the Sunnylvsfjord and the Geirangerfjord. Many of these are known to have been inhabited, if sparsely, long before the feared Norsemen launched their fabled ships.

Here we are heading inland along Gerangerfjord past the famous de Syv Sostre (the Seven Sisters), one of many sets of impressive waterfalls along the route: 

The "shrubs" are fully grown trees

We took one excursion off-ship, arcing across the high plateau from Vik in the Sognefjord to Flam in the Aurlandfjord. The scenery was breathtaking and alien to both the lush natural flora and the cultivated fruit farms by the fjords' edges. Cherries, anyone? Raspberries? Perhaps not here: 

Who would have expected bare-limbed deciduous trees on the banks of a still-frozen lake in June?

So what did I take from the landscape? The strata colours of the rocks; the warmth of the atmosphere despite the snow and ice; the noise and sheer volume of water in the falls creating rainbows in the sunshine; the surprising lack of a breeze; the even more surprising lack of birds in comparison to the UK. More than anything, the serenity. This, and more, is both noted and now filtering through my subconscious.

Other posts in this series:
Norway 2: Hopperstad Stave Church outside of Vik. Now I know where The Lord of the Rings drew its architecture.
Norway 3: Bergen's Bryggen and the Hanseatic Museum
Norway 4: Viking Ships Not From Norway - replicas that have sailed the seas.