Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The Viking Ships of Roskilde, Denmark

One of the great things about Copenhagen is that the 48 hour travel card available to tourists can be used on Denmark's suburban railways. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to jump on a train and take a day trip out to Roskilde which is a town whose identity is firmly set in the Viking era.

The Quay at Roskilde
 The vast Roskilde Fjord offers protected access to the North Sea and easy passage to Norway and the British Isles beyond. In ancient times Roskilde was a bustling trading settlement. Nowadays it is a thriving tourist destination drawing visitors to its' impressive cathedral and the internationally acclaimed Viking Museum. The walk from the station to the quayside is about a mile down a shopping street and then through a waterside park.

The Prow of a Viking Longship c1050 AD
In the 10th Century five Viking ships were deliberately sunk across one of the deep water channels leading down into Roskilde from the open sea to the north. They were a disparate selection ranging from a small cargo ship through to a full length 36 metre fighting long boat. The remains of the ship are in a concrete structure on the shore of the Roskilde Fjord adjacent to a small harbour filled with reconstructed ancient ships, some of which take tourists out onto the water.

Reconstructed Viking Ship on Roskilde Fjord
I found myself thinking about why the ships were sunk in the particular channel that they were found in. The answer lies in a calculation of speed, visibility and readiness; the speed with which an intruder could reach Roskilde town, the extent to which the presence of the intruder could be signalled to the townsfolk and finally how quickly the townsfolk could mobilise for action - women & children to safety and men armed and ready to fight. Obviously the seaways needed to be kept open for local traffic so the contemporary defensive tactics entailed forcing intruders down particular passages, delaying them where necessary, in order to allow the townsfolk to prepare for battle.

Permanent Block and Floating Barrages
The map above shows the routes through Roskilde Fjord in light grey. Roskilde is off the map at the bottom and the spot where the Viking ships were discovered in modern times is shown as Peberrenden. The actual site of the Viking ship block is known as Skuldelev hence the finds being known as the Skuldelev Ships. The shortest route is blocked thus forcing ships to take a longer route - giving time for mobilisation of the defence on receipt of a warning by fire beacon.

Roskilde Viking Museum
As one might imagine only the skeletons of the 1,000 year old ships remain. This does not detract from their impact though. Whilst the museum building is not a pretty sight from the landward side, it does have a water facing glass wall which shows off the ships to maximum effect. The picture above shows the largest ship along with a scale model.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Vaxholm Fortress - Stockholm's Lock

The island of Vaxholm is a leisurely boat ride from the city of Stockholm and makes for a lovely day trip with it's brightly coloured houses, picturesque harbour and quant waterside restaurants. There are two shipping routes through the archipelago which sits between the city of Stockholm and the open sea. Of these, the channel that runs between Vaxholm and Rindo is the most important and it is not surprising therefore, that Gustav Vasa chose to build a fortress on this spot in the 16th Century.

Vaxholm Fortress
Prior to the 19th Century Stockholm sat in the middle of a Swedish empire which incorporated what is now Finland along with Latvia and Estonia. More recently Vaxholm's strategic importance has been sharpened because, in the context of 19th Century Sweden, Stockholm faced directly into territory controlled by potential enemies - in particular Russia and Denmark.

Vaxholm's Strategic Importance
The islet on which the modern day fortress was first used for military purposes in 1548 when part of the Oksdupet channel was blocked in order to force shipping into the narrow passage past Vaxholm. In Vasa's era considerable improvements were made, including the construction of a three storey tower.

The fortress first proved its' value in 1598 when a Polish fleet was stopped by the guns deployed on the islet's ramparts. Similarly, a Danish fleet was sent packing fourteen years later in 1612. Just over 100 years later a Russian fleet was repulsed by the island's garrison of 400 men serving 80 guns.

Following the Finnish War of 1808-9 between Sweden and Russia further improvements were made to the fortress at Vaxholm and during the period 1833-63 the citadel was completely rebuilt. Two metre thick walls were lined with granite blocks and the fortress was armed with 150 230mm guns served by a garrison of 1038 artillerymen.

Early 20th Century Naval Gun
Through the ensuing one hundred years or so various improvements were made to the Vaxholm defences. During the World Wars the fort saw no action although in the early 1940s Polish submarine crews were imprisoned in the citadel. The cold war brought further developments including a post WW2 upgrade of the batteries.

Post War Artillery Cupolas
In the year 2000 the island's defences were decommissioned and the citadel was fully opened as the Fastnings Museum which was extended and improved in 2003 - home to a fascinating array of exhibits illustrating the history of Sweden's coastal defences. The islet on which the fortress sits is accessed via a chain ferry which runs back and forth to the nearby island harbour.

Vaxholm Chain Ferry
It is possible to walk right around the island and well worth doing so as many of the later defences are still intact including the last iteration of the main battery. The museum is superb and will easily soak up a couple of hours. Finally there is an cafe in the inner courtyard where al-fresco diners can enjoy a lunch sitting amongst decommissioned sea mines of all shapes and sizes.

For a taste of Vaxholm's beautiful water front click here.