Blood-curdling screams from Viking raiders in full flight once sent a chill to the very souls of ancient Britons unlucky enough to be in the way of their pillaging. Powerful, battle-hardened and armed to the teeth, the likes of Harald Bluetooth, Thorlief Spear-Splitter and Arne Gull-Eater raped the people and the countryside before turning their axes on each other in a vicious blood-letting more than 1,000 years ago.
The antics of the Viking explorers have become the stuff of legend. But if you want to know what really went on in AD975, it may be necessary to travel to York. From February 14 to 23, the ancient walled city will host one the of world's great spectacles - Jolablot, a Viking celebration to mark the coming of spring.
Now in its 19th year, the extravaganza is organised by the celebrated Jorvik museum (called after the Viking name for the city). Since it opened in 1984, after the remnants of a Viking settlement of 10,000 people were discovered during excavations for a shopping centre, the museum has attracted more than 13 million visitors. "We perform a major miracle on a tiny budget," says Gillian Neild of the York Archaeological Trust, an independent educational charity which owns the Jorvik centre. "We just about break even and any surplus goes into research."
Planning for this year's event started 12 months ago, shortly after the last one finished. The festival involves hundreds of people in a painstaking recreation of Viking times. People travel from all over the world to take part. And crews from Norway, Holland and Ireland battle for honours in the longship races.
This year's event will be a day longer than in previous years and it features more activities than ever before. It starts in St Mary's Square, Coppergate, with a procession that includes an advance guard of mini-Vikings from local schools. Dozens of venues across the city are taken over by the Viking hordes including shopping centres, museums, churches and historical monuments such as Clifford's Tower. This year, visitors can witness a traditional Viking wedding and join a time-honoured family celebration with Norse ballads, board games, trials of strength and agility, saga telling and Viking food. It wouldn't be a Viking festival without bloody battles, combat training and drill, of which there is plenty throughout the week.
The spectacular longship races take place on February 22 from noon to 3pm on the River Ouse, the main artery of Viking York, between Ouse Bridge and Skeldergate Bridge.
Time Team's Mick Aston will stage a celebrity lecture on February 20 at the Tempest Anderson Hall in the Yorkshire Museum Gardens (pound;3.50 adults, pound;2.50 children and concessions. Tel: 01904 543403 to book). There will also be themed walks, a smorgasbord of crafts, a traditional market, living history displays and lectures in Norse literature and mythology.
"It's about sights, sounds and smells, it's exciting, lively and bustling, it incites the senses," says Ms Neild. "For the children it brings the words of history books alive without any effort and we hope everything we do increases people's knowledge and stimulates interest in the Vikings.
It's living history."
Jolablot festival. A daily list of events is in the 2003 festival programme. Send a stamped addressed envelope to the Festival Office, Jorvik, Coppergate, York YO1 9WT www.vikingjorvik.com Tel: 01904 643211
Other websites to visit include:www.bbc.co.ukhistoryancient vikingsindex.shtmlwww.vikings.ndirect.co.ukresourceswww.pbs.orgwgbhnova vikingswww.luth.seluthpresentswedenhistoryviking_level.html