Friday 24 November 2023


Keenly aware of their Norse heritage and aware, too, of the Leif Erikson legend, the Olsens financed and encouraged two archaeologists, Anne and Helge Ingsted. Their mission was simple enough:  explore Leif Erikson’s route and find the evidence that Vikings had settled in America. 

The Ingsteds hadn’t been the first to search for evidence, most of their predecessors focusing on Erikson’s reference to Vinland and searching farther south where grapes were more likely to grow. The Ingsteds re-interpreted ‘Vin’ as old Norse for meadow and consequently searched farther north. It also seemed logical. Northern Newfoundland is close to Greenland, where the Vikings were already established.


 After a painstaking exploration of the coastline, studying sagas, and talking to locals and fishermen, they at last found their evidence. It stood on the northern tip of Newfoundland at a place called L’anse aux Meadows.

 There are variations in the Saga accounts. One version has it that Leif Erikson was blown off course on a return trip from Norway to Greenland and discovered America largely by accident. Another account asserts, the whole thing was a planned expedition, that a previous Viking Bjarni Herjolfsson had similarly been blown off course, discovered an unknown coast and returned to Greenland with the story. According to this saga, Lief approached Bjarni, gathered a crew of 35 men and sailed in the direction Bjarni described. They landed, over-wintered and left a small settlement. Lief himself returned to Greenland for more supplies and men but never returned. Others did, including a tough old bird called Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, the widow of Lief’s brother Thorstein Erikson. She married Thorfinn Karlsefni, a powerful warrior, and in the New World gave birth to a son, Snorri Thorfinnsson—the first European child born in America.

A modern reconstruction of a vicking turf house based on evidence found.

Climate change saw both Greenland and Newfoundland become less clement; the Viking settlement, largely constructed of wood and turf, vanished from history until very recently. Arial photography and carbon dating of wood excavated at the site further reinforced the saga accounts.

Climate change, I could have done with some of that just then. It was bitterly, bitterly cold, and just a few steps away was comfort, hot coffee and warmth; what was I doing here, shivering on deck, staring at a few unremarkable bumps on the horizon in search of a few hairy has-beens?

 Unworthy thoughts. Hot coffee could wait. We were sailing in the wake of heroes, trying to recapture the thrill of seeing land, now inhospitable and  bleak but less so a thousand years ago. It took an imaginative squint, several imaginative squints to see these hazy whale-like lumps as a Viking might have done. New land, and the important question, what lay beyond?

This may be St Anthony a more modern settlement sixteen miles away. 

Wednesday 15 November 2023

St John's, Referendums and Ghosts

St John's just before dawn

Our first port of call was the capital of Newfoundland, St John's where we were blessed with an exuberant and passionate guide who got us under the skin of a truly unique community. St Johns is a natural harbour, a port of refuge for sixteenth century French and Portuguese fishermen. 

It must be said, they lacked the chutzpa and acquisitive instincts of  our Sir Humphrey Gilbert who, in August 1583, planted his flag and claimed it for the English crown. A simpler time. 

No good deed goes  unrewarded. On his way home to England, Sir Humphrey was shipwrecked off the Azores. For the full and detailed story of how he claimed Newfoundland, read this eyewitness account here. You can scroll down the tedious maritime details until you get to him in St Johns. His self confidence is breathtaking. 

St John's had its ups and downs during the C18th when Britain and France fought for control of Canada and much of the world. British victory saw peace for a time and Newfoundland happily slumbered until 1948—when it experienced two referendums. The first referendum offered Newfoundlanders the choice of remaining under British control, joining the new Canadian Confederation, or embarking upon a close, economic union with America. One can imagine the rubbing of hands behind closed doors in the White House. 

For that first referendum, Newfoundland voted narrowly in favour of sticking with Britain, perhaps to the embarrassment of the British Labour government, which was financially strapped and had no great enthusiasm for retaining what they saw as an economic burden. Interestingly, the option of a closer union with America was not offered on the second and decisive ballot. 

For the second referendum,  all the stops were pulled out and the struggle between the two sides was vicious, intense, and reminiscent of Brexit. The Catholic Church was in favour of ‘remaining’ with Britain. Those favouring confederation with Canada were forced to play ‘dirty,’ mobilising the Orange Lodge and calling upon all good protestants to vote for union with the mainland. Like Brexit and the last Presidential election, there were rumours of widespread voter fraud and the dead coming alive again to vote. The Confederates won by the narrowest of margins. There are some not reconciled to this day. 

Speaking of those arising from the dead, St John's is chockful of ghosts; two currently reside in or around the Anglican cathedral, another in a nearby Masonic lodge, and a third in the Duke of Duckworth – which also sells some excellent beer. 

The Duke of Duckworth

An accurate reflection perhaps of the effect of its beer

On to more salubrious topics. The Anglican Cathedral, St John the Baptist, dominates a hill upon which a Methodist Chapel, a Scottish Kirk and a Catholic Cathedral—also called St John the Baptist—sit in close proximity. 

The Methodist Chapel with some stunning stained glass windows inside.

The Catholic Cathedral of St John The Baptist

The Anglican Cathedral of St John the Baptist

All church photos credit. BM Keyton

The original wooden church dates back to 1699 making it the oldest Anglican parish  in Canada. The building of the stone church began in 1843 but was largely destroyed by fire in 1847. Perhaps God is a Catholic and objected to two Cathedrals in close proximity bearing the same name.

During the post fire  rebuilding,  a young stone mason fell to his death. His spirit though lingered, glimpses of him seen every now and again by his fellow workmen.  In this group photograph shot in 1850 ––years before photoshop or AI skullduggery––you can glimpse him too. Look closely to the left of those in their Sunday best celebrating the opening of the nave: a man in work clothes—transparent—the stonework clearly visible behind him.

More ghosts haunt the adjacent Anglican graveyard  dating from 1699. It's estimated some 20,000 bodies have been buried there, one on top of the other.  Heavy rains and ground movement quite often means that  bones are unearthed and found on the adjacent pavement. 

Most of the corpses lie in unmarked graves.  One such corpse  was  that of an unknown seaman discovered dead in an alleyway. A grave was dug, his casket lowered into it, the hole near-filled—when a loud knocking was heard. The casket was hurriedly retrieved, the body re-examined, and once again pronounced dead. The body was returned to the grave when once again the same thing happened. After the third such reoccurrence the man was buried this time for good. Though the knocking continued. 

On McMurdo’s Lane stands the Duke of Duckworth where I sampled a pint of Quidi Vidi (Look it up. Well worth a drink or three) but failed to see its famous ghost nicknamed ‘the Duke.’ Several have seen him in the window, waving at passers-by, others have sensed or glimpsed him in the pub itself. Maybe if I had stayed longer….or drank more Quidi Vidi, but there was a ship to catch. 

Ship seen here peeping coyly behind buildings.

 Still, time for a little more sight-seeing

There are various reasons given for the brightly colours houses. The proximity of the Gulf Stream and the colder Labrador current give rise to dense fogs,* and the winters are dismal. Colour cheers the soul and aids visibility in mist. The flat roofs too have a story behind them. Another great fire, in 1892, destroyed much of St Johns and to this day is remembered as 'the great fire.' Rebuilding was hurried and flat roofs were easier and relatively cheap. 

 * Because of the many dense fogs, moose are a problem, cars crashing  into them on misty roads. During such fogs many roads are closed to protect both motorist and moose.

And finally, it was time to leave hopefully with better luck than Sir Humphrey Gilbert.


Next stop—in search of Vikings.

Friday 10 November 2023

Mother Carey's Chickens

As the four-day journey across the Atlantic progressed, we slipped into a mindless routine largely dominated by food and the need to militate against its effects. So, breakfast would be followed by a brisk one-mile walk – three and a half circuits of the ship; an hour or two reading, lunch—power walk (in my case power amble;) mid-afternoon tea—power amble; reading, cocktails 6.30. Dinner 8.30 and bed. 

Walking soon became the highlight of the routine, the vast skies and endless sea. The Atlantic is so immense, the Mediterranean, to my mind, busy and a little overcrowded.

The sea proved hypnotic and highlighted a stark contrast between the superficial—ie the cruise—and the elemental power of wind and sea. It also highlighted the contrast between now and then—then being those early Viking voyages and sixteenth century seamen. The contrast was especially stark when tucking into Eggs Benedict, Lobster Bisque or roast aubergine soup, filet mignon, pan fried pheasant, red snapper, T-bone steaks, and desserts ranging from pavlovas to every kind of parfait.

 Our Viking counterparts would be chewing on nuts or dried fish but could at least forgo the compensatory power walk. Likewise, the Tudor seaman with his daily pound of biscuit and gallon of beer, his pound of salt meat every four days, salted cod on Fridays, and occasionally Pease-porridge.

The guilt didn’t last long, our present life a passing blip in a history of hardship and endurance. Enjoy. Nothing lasts forever. Tuck into that filet mignon. Walk if you must—or perhaps a spot of whale watching.

 There were ardent whale watchers amongst us. Every so often they’d scream with excitement and point. I saw nothing, not even a fin. I was told to look out for blowholes and on one occasion convinced myself I’d seen one—either that or a fish passing wind.

What really intrigued me though were the birds following in the wake of our stern. These were small, not hardy muscular things, and so far from land. What were they? 

They had this magical quality of being easily spotted but never on camera. Too fast. These are my best attempts, visible if you zoom in. Mind you, a glimpsed petrel is better than an unseen whale, I suppose.

Zoom in and you may or not see them

Storm petrels, a whale watcher informed me. I was hooked. Skimming on wind, walking on water. Storm petrels—or Mother Carey’s chickens—what wonderful names. For those early seafarers swallowed and tossed in their small wooden boats, the storm petrels appeared like Dracula's bats, demonic, harbingers of death. Mother Carey’s chickens bringing fresh food for the great sea-witch and her husband Davey Jones. 

Breton folklore holds that storm petrels are the spirits of sea captains who mistreated their crew and doomed to spend eternity flying over the sea. Another superstition affirms they are the souls of drowned sailors, others swore they were the devil’s bird. Whosever bird they are, the storm petrel is truly remarkable, spending most of its life at sea, returning to land only to breed. They also live a long time—for a bird—with a life span averaging 25 years.

Credit BM Keyton (succeeded where I failed)

I couldn’t get close enough to verify this, but they also have a gland above their nasal passage which allows them to excrete the excess salt from their natural diet. 

One tradition has it that the petrel’s name is derived from St Peter’s short-lived attempt to walk on water. An alternative explanation is that it comes from the word pitteral, a reference to their ability to pitter patter over water. 

I could have watched them for hours, skimming and cresting the waves but that night a storm hit us. They may have been harbingers, but eight of these birds almost came to a sticky end. Worn and battered they took refuge on the ship and were discovered the following morning miserably huddled on deck, looking the worse for wear. There, they allowed themselves to be collected, placed in a box for warmth and later released.

They didn’t look too demonic to me, but they did have a musty sweet smell, the result, I discovered later of the oily plankton soup swirling about in their stomachs. Unfortunately, I forgot to examine their nasal passage. 

Thursday 2 November 2023

The Adventure Begins


Our last view of the Liver Building

The voyage begins

Hard to believe, but Birkenhead can look quite pretty from a distance and in the right light.
(apologies to those  whom it may concern)

Cruises are a strange old thing. We set off from Liverpool, this time for Canada, and once again I was struck by the simplicity of boarding in comparison with airports. There is only the one terminal and a single ship to focus on. The line is leisurely and gives you time to assess your fellow passengers as they quietly assess you. First impressions? They’re all so bloody old, and yes, I get the irony. 

We inched closer, packed like cows in an abattoir minus the stress and panic or indeed blood. Perhaps a little tense. I looked around again, sensing the huge and accumulated experience of elder spirits, bulbs in the potting shed waiting to flower, probably after that first drink on board. 

Bulbs in a potting shed? The three brisk and jolly women behind us looked more like characters from an Agatha Christie novel. ‘Murder on the Borealis.’

The guy in front of us, a small, dapper man in tweed and matching flat cap, a possible victim. He looked lugubrious enough, lips pouting at nothing, and carrying a ukulele in a black plastic case. He’d been on an earlier Fred Olsen cruise that had offered onboard ukulele lessons. His head had been thoroughly turned by the experience and this time he’d brought his own in the hope there would be fellow ukulele players on board. There were, and later on in the cruise, we discovered the surprising amount of violence the ukulele can nurture. There were fisticuffs, two men squaring up to each other. Ukuleles at dawn. I was baffled. Musical differences? We’re talking ukuleles here.

There were also Irish ‘travellers’ on board and a tall, thin man in his nineties walking with sticks—Mr Fred Olsen himself. We discovered this later, but even before then, I sensed this trip was going to be fun.

I think, to enjoy a cruise you have to enjoy people—or tolerate them at least. The Borealis is relatively small, with just over 1100 of us on board. A decent enough size compared with some of the 7,000 monstrosities currently ploughing the seas. I like people well enough, but that many? Moderation in everything.

Time Square from different levels. A central focal point.

As the journey progressed, I was struck by the many life stories, snippets of conversation that revealed hidden depths. Every day, every hour was like a kaleidoscope, tiny fragments of colour re-sorting themselves depending upon where you sat, walked, ate, or drank. There were the two women who’d gone through two husbands and were cheerfully looking for a third; the ninety-two-year-old Anglican priest who’d served in pre-revolutionary Iran.

 He told the story of his first Christian convert—a blind Iranian boy—who’d explored his stole and vestments by touch and listened intently as the then equally young priest had described their colours. In time, the convert became a priest too, married, and had children. 

And now the old man, bubbling with excitement and glee, came to the crux of his story. After years of clandestine messages secreted out from Iran, he was about to officiate at the marriage of that first convert’s granddaughter, wearing the same vestments and stole that had first enraptured the young Iranian. More, he’d translated and published the service into Farsi especially for wedding. I hope I have as much energy and enthusiasm when, God willing, I reach ninety-two.

One of the several lounges, this very much in the vein of a library/gentleman's club. That is not me in the chair

For us, an ornate but necessary signpost. The corridor to the left of it led to our room