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Legend has it that the beam is as long as a Viking's oar. ALL PHOTOS COURTESY JOHN WARWICK
WHEN ON DRY LAND, EXPERT fisherman John Warwick goes by his legal name. But when he’s standing chest-deep in the Solway Firth, negotiating the capricious tide, he’s known as Young Slogger. His father, Slogger, fished the firth before him, and the nickname identifies Warwick as part of a line of succession—not just a fisherman, but a haaf net fisherman, and therefore a guardian of tradition.
The Vikings were the first haaf netters. Many centuries ago, when they arrived in this narrow passage of the Irish Sea, the Nordic mariners developed a new method of fishing better suited to the local tides. Rather than cast lines from the comfort of a boat or shore, they stood in the water with a 16-foot-long beam affixed to a net and bisected by a 6.5-foot-tall pole. By digging the pole into the sand and holding the beam above water, haafers created a soccer goal-like structure that could trap unsuspecting salmon or trout riding the tide. The residents of Annan, a town in southwestern Scotland that hugs the Solway Firth, have been haafing ever since, braving quicksand and currents for the occasional catch and, more consistently, the camaraderie.
“I was brought up in a fishing family,” says Warwick. “My father haaf netted, and his father before him.”
A massive 1,100-year-old graveyard leads to a surprising new view of the Nordic legacy in Britain
St. Wystan’s church in Repton. In 873-874, a Viking army is believed to have entrenched in the garden. Right, Viking burial mounds in Heath Wood
Cat Jarman led me through a dense tangle of forest called Heath Wood. We were in Derbyshire, close to the very heart of England. There was no path, and the forest floor was overgrown with bracken and bush. It was easy to lose your footing and even easier to lose your way. Jarman, a fit, cheery woman in her late 30s, plunged jauntily on as I tried to keep up. “See all these lumps and bumps?” she asked as we broke into a small clearing. She pointed to an array of 59 small, rounded hillocks, many two or so feet high and four or five feet in diameter. Humans, not nature, had clearly put these things here, and they gave off a spooky, supernatural energy.
“We are literally walking across a Viking cemetery—the only known Scandinavian cremation cemetery in the whole country,” says Jarman, an archaeologist, whose new book, River Kings, takes a fresh look at who the Vikings really were and what exactly they were up to here. She flashes me a broad smile. “It’s very good, isn’t it?”
Yes, it is good—simple, powerful and mysterious. For a ceremonial burial place, the Vikings picked a surprisingly unceremonial spot. The overgrown forest shrouds these tombs in anonymity. There is no visible sign of a Viking settlement nearby, just an expanse of open fields and beyond that, a hamlet with a church, school and a few houses. The Vikings used rivers to get around, but it’s an awfully long hike from here to where the River Trent flows today. Which raises a big question, says Jarman. “Why have you got these Scandinavian cremation mounds here in the middle of nowhere?”