In 20 years York's Jorvik Festival has grown from a small celebration into a two-week spectacular. CHRIS TITLEY charts what today's Vikings do for us.

WHEN the Vikings invaded York first time round they shaped the city we live in. They set down the main streets, gave the city a new name and turned Jorvik into a thriving workshop and trading centre.

For the past 20 years, they have invaded again. And our city has modern reasons to be thankful.

At this drab time of year, the annual Jorvik Viking Festival bursts in with a blast on a horn and a colourful clash of swords. It brings visitors, fills hotel rooms, sees hundreds of children dressing up in the first millennium's hottest fashions and generally offers a sugar-rush of fun.

This year, York is relying on the Jorvik extravaganza to fully launch its new branding as the City Of Festivals. To confirm its growing importance, the Viking Festival has doubled in length to a fortnight, covering both of the weeks taken as school half term by different local authorities.

So it perks up the slow period between Christmas and Easter - a positive boon for the tourist industry.

Gillian Cruddas, chief executive of York Tourism Bureau, said: "It makes half term even more profitable for York tourism. We've got families looking for things to do over a two-week period.

"York's already built up a strong position over 20 years as a place with lots of things happening with a Viking theme that week. It gives more hooks for our destination marketing people to use."

The festival receives positive coverage on regional television, in the trade press and further afield, Gillian said.

"People come because they like the fact that there is something going on at this time of the year. You don't normally get a lot of outdoor events until summer."

And the festival is needed more than ever. "We've had a slow start to the year. January has not been particularly good.

"Something like the Viking Festival is even more important to kick-starting tourism. Hotels and guest houses are very busy."

Organisers estimate that 30,000 people will witness at least one of the events in a packed schedule. No one knows how much it pumps into the economy - a detailed financial and visitor analysis will follow this year's festival. But the event will bring over at least 100 people from Norway, and more from Sweden, Germany and Poland.

Several foreign film crews are also coming here to file reports which will raise the city's profile.

York Viking Festival - originally named Jolablot after the Vikings' own late winter celebrations - was launched a year after York Archaeological Trust opened the Jorvik Centre, itself eight years in the making.

"We opened our doors in April 1984. I remember that very well because we didn't know until then if anybody would turn up: it could have been the biggest white elephant ever," recalled trust director Dr Richard Hall.

"We came down and they were queuing around the block."

Some had travelled from the far reaches of Britain to take a trip round rebuilt Jorvik. It became clear that the public had a huge appetite for Viking history.

However, it was inevitable that there were fewer visitors to York and the Jorvik Centre in the winter months. How could the numbers be boosted?

A brainstorming session came up with the festival and, with typical enthusiasm and determination, the trust made it happen.

Several ideas underpinned the event. It should be "something that would celebrate York's Viking past and would encourage tourism", said Dr Hall. But local people were not forgotten.

"We did think of it as a way of saying thank you to all the people in tourism and so forth - about giving something back to York's economy. So off we went."

While boosting the city's coffers, the festival is designed to raise the profile of the trust and Jorvik, rather than to raise cash.

"We don't make a profit per se from the festival," he said. "We try and break even. Some events we gain on and some we lose on.

"We want to do things in a way that people can afford them. We don't want to price them out of the market."

From the start it was to be an inclusive event. "We have always been interested in other people helping us in one way or another.

"Early on we chanced upon a number of things that have become a pretty integral part of the festival, recurring year on year. Things like the boat race, held in conjunction with people who had replica Viking boats."

The festival, like Jorvik itself, is centred around what have become York's most neglected resource - its rivers. "The Ouse would have been this great world with Viking boats sailing in all the time. We thought, 'let's have a bit of that'."

Burly Norwegian crewmen soon colonised the King's Arms and the unique Anglo-Scandinavian atmosphere began to permeate our streets for the first time since the Viking age ended in 954.

That spirit has grown ever since. For Dr Hall, one of the festival's great pleasures is seeing these friends of Jorvik arrive each year. Norway and Sweden are "a bit nippy", he adds, so folk come to "bask in our February climate".

Other festival regulars include the Regia Anglorum re-enactment group, led by Kim Siddorn. "Kim and his merry men and women are real enthusiasts.

"Some of them live the life. They know a lot about life in the Viking age, whether it's the trades or the weapons or the tools or the food."

Dr Hall puts the success of the festival down to two key things. First, we have a fascination with the Vikings. Why?

"Partly because we might like to think there's a drop of Viking blood in the veins. It's not impossible in this neck of the woods - we are at the heart of the most important Viking centre in England."

Whether you consider yourself a swashbuckler, an entrepreneur, a craftsman or a culture-vulture, there is something in the Jorvik age that would appeal.

"And it doesn't take too much ingenuity to imagine that these mean streets were laid out by the Vikings, and Eric Bloodaxe could have walked down them."

The other reason for the festival's success is its "something for everyone" appeal. Scores of children take part, and many more enjoy watching the battles and trying out hands-on exhibits.

Meanwhile food buffs can try out strange new tastes, shoppers can scour the various markets, music and theatre lovers enjoy the sagas and concerts, while historians and academics go to the lectures.

One of the most spectacular moments in previous Jorvik festivals was the boat burning ceremony, in which a warrior Viking's blazing finale was reconstructed, first on the river then on Knavesmire.

Unfortunately that became a victim of its own success. Like the November 5 fireworks display before it, the ceremony was ditched for fear of compromising public safety.

Every year, confesses Dr Hall, thinking up new events becomes harder.

They broke new ground 12 months ago staging a Viking royal wedding in the Minster. This year, the programme has been split into three themes: children's events, Vikings invade, and songs and sagas.

There are no signs of the festival running out of steam. Those who took part as school pupils 20 years ago are now bringing along their own kids.

"We are amazed that every year the festival goes from strength to strength," Dr Hall said. "The numbers that turn out are a continuing testimony to the pull of the Vikings and to the efforts of our organisers and helpers who put the festivals together."

Updated: 11:19 Thursday, February 03, 2005