Since its inception ten years ago at the hands of a local artist, the Sheringham Viking Festival in Norfolk, England, has grown into a popular and much-loved event. Today, it attracts thousands of people yearly to the town of Sheringham to celebrate the area's rich Viking history. 

To find out more about the festival's origins and what visitors can expect to find there, The Viking Herald speaks to festival founder Colin Seal and Erica Deojay, a committee member and enthusiastic participant. 

To burn a boat on the beach 

The 2024 Sheringham Viking Festival will take place on 13 April in the scenic seaside town of Sheringham. 

The event's founder, Colin, grew up in London before spending 16 years in the United States, where he pioneered bus mural techniques and worked for several notable American institutions, including Disney. 

Now in his eighties, Colin is well known in Norfolk for his striking town murals, which typically depict scenes of coastal life. 

However, Colin started the festival because he wanted to make a rather different type of artistic statement. 

"Basically, I really wanted to set fire to a boat on the beach," Colin tells us. 

As a member of the Sheringham Carnival committee, which puts on various other local events in addition to the carnival itself, he was ideally placed to realize his plan. 

"I organized the Viking festival through the committee. I also got together with a few friends and talked to various people in the know. Mind you, as far as the bureaucracy was concerned, it was almost impossible." 

"In the end, I ended up contacting the coastguard and telling them the council had said we could burn the boat on the beach. Then I told the council that the coastguard had already given permission, so they decided to allow it too!" 

The festival, initially a small local gathering, now draws approximately 4,000 attendees annually, featuring a boat-burning ceremony that mimics ancient Viking funeral rites. Photo: Gareth Gabriel / The Studio Sheringham

An evolving event and a Viking past 

Fortunately, the first event was well-received and immediately captured the imagination of Sheringham residents. Today, the festival attracts around 4,000 visitors each year and plenty of press coverage. 

"I always liked the idea of the Vikings, even if I didn't know much about them," Colin says. "In fact, at the start, I was interviewed by the media, and people said, 'Look, this is Colin. He knows all about the Vikings.' But I didn't at all. I wanted to learn as I went along." 

"Looking back, the first boat looked like it was from the children's cartoon Captain Pugwash, and our Vikings were very shabbily dressed," Colin admits. 

"But we've evolved since then. Gradually, reenactors contacted us and asked to come along, and a boat builder, Bryan Howe, offered to help make the ship. It grew bigger and bigger." 

The festival has seen significant evolution, from its modest beginnings with poorly dressed Vikings and a simplistic boat, to involving professional reenactors and intricately crafted ships. Photo: Gareth Gabriel / The Studio Sheringham

Scira's land 

"We're celebrating the fact that this part of Britain was under Danelaw, as well as all the other Viking connections," says Colin. "There are lots of links. Until very recently, for example, the fishing boats in Norfolk used the same clinker system as the Vikings." 

Indeed, as part of the kingdom of East Anglia, Sheringham was governed by the Norse for more than a century as part of the Danelaw. 

Many Norse are also believed to have settled permanently in Norfolk, particularly in an area known as the Isle of Flegg, just a few miles from Sheringham. 

The festival is often referred to by locals as Scira, which is the Viking equivalent. 

As committee member Erica Deojay points out, many historians believe the name Sheringham originates from the period of Norse settlement, though there is some debate on the issue. 

If they are correct, the name would mean "the Ham (settlement) of Scira's people." Scira may have been a Viking warlord who was given the land as a reward for his performance in battle. 

Bryan Howe, a local boat builder, has contributed significantly to the festival's authenticity, designing Viking ships that are not only larger but more historically accurate with each passing year. Photo: Gareth Gabriel / The Studio Sheringham

Odin joins the show 

While the festival initially took place in February, it has moved to the spring in recent years, in part to make the Viking village a more hospitable experience. 

As Colin explains, "It was freezing by the sea – sometimes the snow would go horizontal. We wanted to get a village going on and that was much, much better in the spring." 

"People stay in town longer instead of rushing off after the show. Previously, one of our marshals had to go to hospital for hypothermia." 

The torchlit parade through the town's high street will also feature a brand new statue of Odin, designed by the ever-entrepreneurial Colin, who also works at the local museum and runs a community art group. 

"We have reenactors on the beach who do battles against the village in the morning. In the late afternoon, they march down the high street with flaming torches," Colin explains. 

"The people who light and carry the torches have to be well-trained, too. The torches at the first festivals dripped like mad, so it wasn't the safest." 

"At dusk, we set the boat on fire with arrows on the beach – though we also light it from the back, too." 

Reenactors participating in the festival engage in mock battles on the beach and contribute to the educational aspect of the event by demonstrating Viking combat techniques. Photo: Gareth Gabriel / The Studio Sheringham

Plenty of fun and spectacle 

Erica, a retired local resident, always looks forward to the spectacle of the finale, set against the deep cliffs and wide beaches of North Norfolk. "There's the slopes going up, with a ridge across, full of people ten deep," Erica tells us. "The music is also brilliant – real Viking music." 

There is an entertaining family feel to the event, with plenty of locals getting into the action and dressing up in Viking clothing. 

"I love dressing up too," Erica tells us, "But I'm very naughty – the first few years I had a Viking helmet with the horns. Of course, a lot of the reenactors would come up to me and say, 'That's not what they wore.' But I don't care – I'm dressing up and I don't mind if I look silly." 

"It's also about theater," Colin tells us. "It is fun. We want to make people dress up and enjoy themselves. It has a very pagan feel to it. And there's nothing like a fire at the end of winter to welcome in the spring!" 

For more information on the 2024 Sheringham Viking Festival, see the Sheringham Carnival website.

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