World of opportunity knocks at York’s flood-hit Viking centre

Sarah Maltby, director of attractions at Jorvik
Sarah Maltby, director of attractions at Jorvik
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It’s taken months of hard work, a hopeful spirit, and no small measure of Yorkshire grit.

But now, eight months after the devastation of last winter’s floods, one of York’s premier visitor attractions has finally been stripped bare.

And this blank canvas at the much-loved Jorvik Viking Centre is ready to be re-built.

“There’s a lot to do - we do recognise that,” said Sarah Maltby, director of attractions for owners York Archaeological Trust. “We didn’t want to be in this position. We never thought we would be. But we are now having to make the best of it.

“And it’s an opportunity to make this a better experience for people to enjoy.”

The hugely popular Jorvik Viking Centre, which attracts half a million visitors a year, was forced to close for the first time in its 32-year history after it was hit by last winter’s floods.

Stunned staff had watched in horror as a deluge of filthy river water began to run down the walls of the basement attraction the day after Boxing Day.

They quickly built a barricade to hold back the rising water levels, rescuing priceless artefacts before giving in to the inevitable.

The attraction’s carefully crafted Viking city, painstakingly created over the course of years, soon stood under a metre of dank, stagnant river water.

Forlorn mannequins, once representing this city’s rich history, stood in the rank, dark pools, with the entire ‘Viking experience’ washed away by the debris.

It took two and a half months just to clean. Wash away the filth and strip back the spoiled tableau. Then came the time to plan.

The centre’s famous haul of Viking treasure was shipped out to other sites in the city for visitors to enjoy, including York Minster, the Theatre Royal and St Mary’s Church.

Dubbed ‘Jorvik on Tour’, the goal of sharing these irreplaceable artefacts, depicting domestic life in Viking times, was to keep the city’s story alive until the restoration is complete.

And now, eight months after the floods hit, owners have handed over the keys to the design team at RMA to recraft a piece of what makes York famous for its Viking heritage.

“It was so unexpected, it was extremely upsetting and sad to see the centre underwater,” said Mrs Maltby.

“It’s certainly been an uphill challenge. But we’ve recognised that we can do something better. This is the start of the rebuild.

“We don’t want to put it back just as it was before. Yes, it’s based on the archeology we discovered in the 1970s, but things have moved on since then.

“We now know an awful lot more about the Vikings in York. We now know there was a great mix of people here, from all over the world.

“Essentially, it’s going to be the same attraction, that everyone knows and loves. But a new one for the 21st century. A new Jorvik, a new level of attraction.”

The exhibition will still feature an underground ride around a mock-up of an ancient Viking city. But there will be new displays, more animatronics, better use of modern-day technologies and more up-to-date information.

“We’ve tried to stay positive all the way through,” said Mrs Maltby. “But it is an opportunity and that’s exciting. We can incorporate new technologies, make it a better attraction.

“People tend to forget that, until the Jorvik centre opened, York wasn’t known as a Viking city. It is now.”

Campaign Canute

Restoration costs at the Jorvik Viking Centre are to total £4.3m, of which £1.5m is to be raised through fundraising ventures.

The trust has launched ‘Campaign Canute’ towards this, backed by celebrities including Brian Blessed and Dan Snow, in the hope of funding work to reopen the centre next spring.

Members of the public are being offered the chance to sponsor everything from a piece of straw on the roof of a house (£2), to a smell of the day (£100), or become the voice of an animatronic model (£10,000).

A text message lottery is also being held, for £5, members of the public can text VIKING to 70660 to become the face of one of the models.