If you visit York in early February, you are likely to see many of the inhabitants taking to the streets in large numbers and dressing in perculiar garb. Surprisingly, for once it is not the large student population, but the locals.
York has a rich history stretching back almost two millenia, but the most famous and celebrated period is that of the Vikings and for a week every February the inhabitants of York celebrate their Viking heritage with Jolablot, and take a step back in time to re-create the past.
The festival offers a unique opportunity to anyone who has ever wanted to wield an axe, or an unfeasibly large beard, to get dressed up and parade around the streets with burning torches. The week is spent celebrating the Vikings with workshops, saga readings, a Viking Market, and various demonstrations of Viking crafts, foods and music, as well as Viking feasts and battle re-enactments. The end of the festival is celebrated by a huge parade of the 'Vikings' through the city streets, culminating on the banks of the River Ouse. Here, after a large ammount of pre-amble and dramatic music and shouting, a replica viking longship is set alight with a flaming arrow, and then all the Vikings head down to the local pub to drink mead and remove their beards.
To be a part of this years Jolablot, have a look at the website:
I have missed out on the festival in the last couple of years, but was right in the centre of it during my first year at the York University. The flaming arrow managed to dramatically miss the pitch soaked longship three times, and the assembled 'Vikings' eventually got frustrated and chucked their flaming brands at it instead, which was much more realistic. The whole week is a great experience with mainly free events, though it appears due to popularity, a lot more of the events require tickets this year. If you're driving into the city, come early in the morning to be sure of a parking space, but it makes more sense to come in on foot or by public transport as parking is limited.
Addendum: At this years Viking festival, many larger events such as feasts and the boat burning were only accessible by ticket holders. Though there were communal events such as a Dragon Boat Race down the River Ouse, and craft fairs all over the city, the boat burning seems to be a lot more tightly controlled due to damage to the Lendal Bridge which occured the last time it happened. (Caused by over-anxious onlookers crowding onto the bridge in order to see the Ship Burning Re-enactment.)
I for one will really miss this dramatic piece of reconstructed history!