A Trip Through Time
A Trip Through Time
We’re making our way down Edinburgh’s busy Royal Mile when all of a sudden our tour guide – a stately Scottish gentleman named Peter – darts away from the group. “Quick, follow me!” he cries, setting a cracking pace as he winds through the crowds before indicating a sharp right turn at what seems to be a completely unremarkable alleyway.
He points under its low brick archway and into the cobblestoned lane beyond – which is empty, save for a lone bicycle chained to a staircase.
“Jamie Fraser’s print shop,” he whispers, and nods before leaving me to explore. Peter turns back to round up the group, who he is leading on a walking tour of Scotland’s capital. My Outlander secret is safe, for now.
I stand alone in Bakehouse Close – named because when the city and its castle was still walled, this laneway was a dead-end, closed to the world outside. I turn on the spot twice – looking up at the sandstone walls as 18th century Jacobite-era Edinburgh appears amid the dreary Scottish weather.
You see, I’ve been romanced by historic TV dramas like Outlander, The Crown, Downton Abbey and Vikings. History is having more than a moment on our small screens right now, so I’m taking a voyage around the British Isles with the aim of better understanding the incredible past of these islands – and the inspiration for many a TV series.
The Thinking Cruise
My journey is with Viking Cruises, the line that bills itself as ‘the thinking person’s cruise’. Though I’ve pondered how I will marry that philosophy with some of my more ‘guilty pleasure’ TV viewing habits, the beauty of Viking is that the itineraries, excursions and enrichment activities are all designed to suit both subject matter experts and entry-level historians like myself. The only requirement is that you’re hungry to learn.
I’m sailing for 15 days onboard Viking Sea – a lovely 930-guest cruise ship with tasteful Scandinavian interiors and plenty of cosy nooks to sip a glass or wine and soak up the greenery and the drama of Britain’s coast. Sailing between London and Viking’s home port of Bergen in Norway, the ‘British Isles Explorer’ itinerary visits ports in England, Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
My pick of the top three destinations for lovers of historic TV drama are as follows:
Oxford & Surrounds
Before we set sail, I’ve chosen to take part in the three-day ‘Oxford & Highclere Castle’ extension. This is an exclusive Viking excursion that takes guests into the rolling hills of the English countryside, with privileged access to the country home known as Highclere Castle – famed as the setting for Downton Abbey – as well as Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill.
At the magnificent Highclere Castle, Viking guests are treated to a cup of tea and private tour of its many stately public rooms. Though it’s very much home for its current inhabitants the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, fans of the Downton Abbey series will note that almost all the furniture is just as it appears on the show – a real delight to behold.
Also included is a visit to Blenheim Palace – the rich history of which may have served as inspiration for Downton storylines. Located just down the road in Oxfordshire, the palace served as a convalescence hospital during WWI, and at the end of the 19th century, the Palace was saved from financial ruin by the Duke of Marlborough’s marriage to American railroad heiress, Consuelo Vanderbilt. Both are plot points that will be familiar to fans of the show.
At the water’s edge in Edinburgh, a short stroll from where Viking Sea is berthed, you’ll find the Queen’s beloved Royal Yacht Britannia. This shore excursion is recommended for fans of The Crown, who’ll know that the ship takes on a starring role in season two for Prince Phillip’s world tour, visiting far-off reaches of the commonwealth like Australia, Tonga and Papua New Guinea. Though the onboard scenes were actually filmed in a house in South London, this is a special piece of history nonetheless.
Commissioned in 1952 by King George VI just days before his death, the duty to finalise the design and details fell to the new monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.
During its lifetime, the yacht sailed more than a million nautical miles and served as a floating royal palace – bearing witness to state visits, official receptions, royal family holidays and honeymoons.
After 44 years of service, the ship was eventually decommissioned in 1997. Since that time, almost nothing has changed onboard, right down to the family photos and even the crew quarters. The clocks read 3:01 – the time the Queen disembarked for the final time.
The Shetland Islands
Viking history abounds in the UK – however, as the Shetland and Orkney Islands were once part of the Danish-Norwegian empire, there is arguably nowhere else in the UK where the Viking connection is so visible – and so celebrated.
While Vikings was actually filmed in the Irish countryside, for anyone wanting experience the real thing, these remote islands in the Atlantic are the ultimate destination to uncover Viking history.
The buildings in the Shetland Islands look much more Scandinavian than British. Listen closely and you’ll notice that the local dialect is influenced by Norwegian words – and the names of people, places, geographical features of the landscape and birds have their origins in Scandinavian language.
Throughout the islands, there are numerous examples of evidence of Viking occupation, however a visit to the Up Helly Aa Exhibition truly brings these stories to life. Each year on the last Tuesday in January, the Up Helly Aa fire festival takes place – a tradition that has its roots firmly in the Shetland Islands’ Viking past. Hundreds of local costumed ‘Vikings’ march through the city of Lerwick, while a Viking ship is burnt in ceremonial fashion and songs such as The Norseman’s Home are sung. If you’re not brave enough to visit the Shetland Islands in chilly January, then the exhibition is the next best thing.
Back onboard Viking Sea, Norse influence abounds. Every detail of the interior decoration has been carefully considered, right down to the choice of books in the library, curated by Heywood Hill bookshop in Mayfair. Clinker boat-building design – which helped the Vikings become the most famous sea-faring people in the world – can be found at the Viking Bar in the Living Room, and throughout the traditional Nordic spa facilities.
There’s no end to inspiration for drama in this part of the world, because what makes the islands of the United Kingdom and Ireland unique is that the history is lived. Fortresses, castles and palaces dot the landscape – such everyday occurrences, they could be your next-door neighbour. And visitors are welcomed with open arms by the local people who inhabit these vibrant islands today, and who continue to share their stories of the past.
Viking Cruises is the ‘thinking person’s cruise’, offering journeys that help you explore the most intimate nuances of your destination; its food, culture, countryside and customs. The 2020 ‘British Isles Explorer’ itinerary is a 15-day cruise incorporating England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. For more information, visit vikingcruises.com.au