Today (August 2) in London History – Viking Invasion

The 1949 Viking Invasion. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

This is like panning for gold. 

Usually, I find a speck or two. And that’s all right. Gives me something to work with. Just occasionally, though, I really hit it – whoa, will you look at that, that’s not a gold speck, that’s a gold nugget.

Today’s one of those days. A great find. A gold nugget day. 

And what qualifies as a gold nugget for this Today in London History series? 

Well, first of all it has to be intrinsically interesting. But intrinsically interesting by itself does not a gold nugget make. For it to be a nugget, it has to be something that easily clears the fence and makes it into the I Never Knew That About London pen. 

1066, 1666, 1966 – you see how easy English history is – plague, fire, The Gunpowder plot, royal stuff, The Blitz, Nelson’s funeral, etc. all of those things are more or less on most people’s mental map – but there are huge areas on that map are marked out as Terra Incognita and if you can find something that opens some of that up to view, well, that’s a gold nugget. 

So here we go. I was panning for gold last night. And there it was. A nugget.

It’s August 2nd, 1949. I’m thinking this is probably the highlight of the summer. And, astonishingly, it’s all but forgotten today. 

The headline itself is a show stopper: Viking Invasion.

It was billed as a re-enactment of the beginning of Englishness 15 centuries ago. The arrival of those stalwarts Hengist and Horsa – which, if the legend is grounded in historical fact, was the beginning of the Anglo-Saxonisation of Britain. Hengist and Horsa are believed to have come from Jutland, which is part of Denmark. And Denmark, Vikings… well, it all sort of hangs together. But really, it was any excuse for doing something that was a complete hoot, something that grabbed the imagination.

I don’t know how long the planning for the invasion took. But the facts that are to hand about the Viking ship and the distance it covered and its crew are pretty impressive. 

The 15-ton, 76-foot Viking ship was called the Hugin. It started its, ten-day, 600-mile voyage at Esbjerg on the west coast of the Jutland peninsula in southwest Denmark. The Hugin did have one sail but basically its crew of Danes rowed the Hugin across the North Sea, to Broadstairs. They cooked meals in primitive fashion and slept on bare boards. The Hugin was the biggest ship to be beached in Broadstairs since 449. 

I don’t know if it was a sight for sore eyes – but it certainly must have been a sight for jaded eyes – to see 53 bearded Danes come charging ashore – 53 bearded Dane, with battleaxes and spears in their hands and knives and cutlasses between their teeth and wearing winged helmets and traditional Viking costumes with brightly coloured blanket cloaks. Never before were invaders given so enthusiastic a welcome. Tens of thousands of Britons were there to cheer them on, welcome them ashore. Children were waving Danish flags.

Nine Broadstairs men dressed as ancient Saxons – yes, the history does get a bit wobbly here – brought a goblet of mead which they drank with the Danes. The invaders brought gifts of silver chains, amber bracelets and replicas of Viking ornaments. 

Broadstairs was just the start of the fun. From there the Hugin sailed to  Ramsgate. Then it was rowed up the Thames from Tower Bridge to Richmond. More on that in a minute. And then on Tuesday – August 2nd – the invaders were guests of honour at Guildhall, where they were warmly by the Lord Mayor of London and London aldermen and councilmen.

And who were these Vikings? Well, you might ask. Their age range was 19 to 54. The 54-year-old was a Copenhagen dentist. Among the others were an architect, a greengrocer, a bookseller, a cigar sorter (whatever that line of work was), a paper hangar, a surgeon, a gardener, two policemen and quite a number of students.

Speaking of students, my favourite bit of the whole escapade took place on the penultimate day of the invasion. The Vikings rowed up the Thames to Richmond. 

They got a tremendous reception in Richmond. But they hit resistance on the way up to Richmond. After passing under Vauxhall bridge the invaders were attacked by a small boatload of medical students from St Thomas’s Hospital. Inevitably, the medical students were scantily clad. They’d smeared their faces and bare bodies with blue dye – in best Celtic and Anglo-Saxon warpaint tradition, that – think Braveheart and Boudicca and generous applications of Woad. Brandishing mops and primitive battle axes the Britons approached the Hugin and opened fire with tomatoes and bags of flour. The police foiled the attack. For their part, the Vikings responded with war cries and rowed on. 

And that brings us to the finale – on August 2nd – at Guildhall. 

Hil Hil Hil the Vikings roared. Accompanied with that gesture of triumph, the clenched fist. Hil Hil Hil, well, I think that’s something like Hail Hail Hail.

And for a final note, reception over, outside Guildhall the invaders’ chieftain, topped to the north with his horned helmet, sounded a farewell blast on a replica of the famous golden horn.

What a hoot. What a toot.

And a Today in London recommendation. Eezy peezy. Room 41 at the British Museum. 

If you want to make a note of it: you want Case 16, Case 21, Case 23, Case 24 and Case 25. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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