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Viking Man

Our travels around these Isles have repeatedly put us in touch with both the lives of people who share them with us today and with those whose past lives have become our heritage, something we British often revere and respect even more. It has come as something of an unexpected pleasure to find our heritage exposed and on view almost everywhere we have travelled so that we have been able to indulge ourselves in discovering the historical context of the places we have been and the people who previously lived there. We have seen patterns emerging, migrations of people, for example, where we have visited both ends of the trail or else seeing similar influences occurring in different places. And by this time we were beginning to feel that we had much of the history of these Isles just about worked out, a sort of mental timeline in our heads which provides us with a reference point on which to hang new information from another part of the land, or another community.

Take the Vikings, for instance. Like most people we thought we knew about them coming over from Scandinavia with their long ships and their well protected noses, how they beat up the locals wherever they landed, but brought some nice jewellery with them. Then in the end they settled down, became part of us and gave us our red hair but mostly we are indifferent to their legacy and if asked, most of us would probably regard their influence in our culture as no more important than, say, the Romans or the Irish or any other group of incomers.

Then suddenly we come to a part of our land which, despite having the same sets of incomers as elsewhere, has a totally different perspective on history. We find ourselves on an island where the Viking influence predominates above all others and their culture is venerated as if they had arrived only yesterday. And the reason? It is from the Vikings that the Isle of Man gained its governance, a system which has been around longer than anything else in the world and something they are endlessly proud of.

This is a place which is strangely part of Britain yet at the same time it is fiercely separate, a state of mind that begins to rub off on those coming to live here almost from the minute they step ashore. Look around and you’ll see a red letter box outside a Co-op store, cars with steering wheels to the right which stop at zebra crossings, all the trappings of Britishness yet somehow I find myself imagining I am in a foreign country, being almost surprised when I hear English spoken. The confusion is compounded by the police force here which has adopted the British police uniform, but only up as far as the neck (do not be tempted to think, as I did, that the white helmet is fancy dress). Only our mobile phone is certain as to where it is….abroad.

Independence of government, however, does not allow escape from the same weather that has dogged the rest of the northern part of Britain these last few weeks so when Peel Harbour finally provides us with an incredible sunset we once again find ourselves planning to put to sea, finding a narrow window of reasonable winds sandwiched between something much worse. Scotland, Northern Ireland, Isle of Man and finally we make an early morning departure from Port St Mary, which nestles down at the toe of the island, and many hours later, Wales is in sight. We are country hopping and along with us, for reasons best known to themselves, a river of jellyfish wends its way across the Irish Sea. These are mostly a purple coloured variety which have been as plentiful this year as we have ever seen them. At times we have been literally ploughing through solid jellyfish pasture, which makes us wonder where the predators are, whatever creature it is that feeds on these defenceless blobs.

We are moving ever southwards now, no particular timetable in mind, but we are conscious that we’ll eventually be sailing into the crowded waters of the south coast of England, a place many light-years removed from the Western Isles of Scotland where we started this year. We have frequently found ourselves alone on the sea, not another vessel or yacht in sight, but at the brink of the summer holiday period we imagine this is about to end. Soon we’ll be jostling for the last harbour pontoon space like the rest.

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