Meet the Yorkshire family who are part-time Vikings

It’s the giant flag pole propped up against the living room wall and the wooden shield poking out from behind the settee which hint at the Grayshon family’s other life.

Mark Grayshon with his wife Sam, and children Jorja aged 7 and Lucy aged 9. Picture by Simon Hulme.
Mark Grayshon with his wife Sam, and children Jorja aged 7 and Lucy aged 9. Picture by Simon Hulme.

While dad Mark works as an operations manager at a print firm close to the family home in South Leeds and his wife Sam is a part-time call centre worker and a full time mum to nine year old Lucy and seven year old Jorja, come the weekend all four step back into a simpler - if slightly more merciless - time.

The Grayshons are a family of part-time Vikings with carefully detailed back stories straight from the history books. Mark, who also goes by the name of Magnus the Ruthless Gunnarson, is the second born son of a fierce warrior who following the death of his father went to seek his own fortune abroad. He also owns his own set of chain mail and is pretty nifty with a broadsword.

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“He was one of a band of Vikings who captured Jorvik,” says Sam, whose own Viking name is Silvi Helgadottir. “Feared by his enemies, he has a reputation for never backing down in a fight, although ironically since we started doing this Mark is actually a lot calmer. There is definitely something therapeutic about being able to sword fight every weekend.”

Jorja and Lucy Grayshon demonstrating their archery skills. Picture by Simon Hulme.

It was in 2016 that the Grayshons began living their double life, the result of countless trips to York, undoubtedly the Viking capital of England.

“It’s all down to those two,” says Sam pointing to Lucy and Jorja or Livia and Jora as they are also known. “When they were really little we would often go to York for a day out and they loved the Jorvik Viking Centre so much that we ended up buying an annual pass.

“They were always really interested and would ask countless questions. Then three years ago they asked if they could get dressed up to go to the York Viking Festival.”

The annual event attracts thousands of visitors to the city each March and with Sam’s mum the practical sort she agreed to run the girls up a couple of outfits.

“While we were there I got talking to one of the re-enactors,” says Mark. “He asked me where we lived and when I told him, he said if we were really interested we should drop a line to the Ormsheim Vikings, who are based in Leeds.”

Founded in the early 1970s by a couple of bikers keen to find an alternative hobby, the Ormsheim Vikings are part of the oldest and largest Dark Ages reenactment organisation in the country and two weeks after first hearing about the group, the Grayshons became its newest members.

“I’ve always loved history, so I came up with each of our characters,” says Sam, explaining that she was the result of an affair between a poor serving girl and a wealthy Viking lord. “He was married so he paid my mum off and she raised me in an old shack in the woods.”

The tragedy doesn’t end there. In the hope that she could give her daughter a better life, according to Sam Silvi was later sold to a farming family, but when a fire destroyed the estate she was bought by a Viking trader and sailed with him to England.

“That’s where I met Magnus, who gave me my freedom in return for my hand in marriage,” she adds by way of explanation.

The Grayshons have fully embraced their Viking alter-egos and they are not the only ones. The Ormsheim Vikings currently has more than 40 members who from Easter to October stage historical encampments and battles as far north as Scotland and as far south as Hastings.

The group’s Viking village can vary in size from a single tent to a small town, but the idea is to give the public a taste of what life was like back in the 9th century AD.

“They can come and see us grinding rain to make flour, making bread and repairing clothes,” says Sam. “We also like to demonstrate leather working, metal smithing and woodworking as these were all vital jobs to keep a settlement running.

“All groups are different, but we really like to encourage the public to come and chat to us. For that to work, you have to remain in character and it also means that they can have a go at some of the activities themselves.”

Over the last three years the Grayshons have amassed an impressive wardrobe of authentic Viking costumes, which are gradually taking over their terraced house.

“The two main materials used by the Vikings were linen and wool, but they would have had limited colours simply because of the range of natural dyes available to them,” says Sam.

“I do a lot of research to ensure that everything is as accurate as it can be and some of the group’s older members are incredibly knowledgeable about what’s authentic and what’s not.

“For warmth, the Vikings would have used the furs of reindeers and Arctic foxes. Not everyone likes the use of real animal skins, but we want to make the experience as genuine as possible and we will only buy from reputable traders.”

Sam’s mum is still on hand to run up pairs of woollen socks and hats and Mark is now also a pretty skilled shield-maker.

“That one is trimmed with leather, but look at this one - it’s edged with dog chews,” he says of his slightly more modern reinterpretation. “Dog chews are made from rawhide which would have been a really versatile material for the Vikings and so far it’s worked really well.”

With most of the larger events including a battle reenactment, Mark is also a trained Viking sword fighter and this year he has got back on a horse for the first time in years with a view to joining the cavalry.

“People think the fights are choreographed, but there not,” he says. “Obviously if we are reenacting a specific battle then a certain side will have to win, but apart from that anything goes. We use eight different shots and depending on the angle you know what to do to block each one, although it doesn’t entirely stop injuries.”

A misplaced axed led to a badly sprained wrist and he’s had more bruises than he can ever count. However, for a man whose middle name is ‘ruthless’ he can’t really complain and Sam also believes their double life has been good for teaching their daughters resilience.

“What’s really lovely is to see the girls being girls,” she says. “When we are at an event there are no mobile phones and they spend their days climbing trees, running around and using their imagination.

“Recently they had some training in archery. It’s physically quite demanding but they both absolutely loved it and they have really embraced every opportunity this hobby has given them.

“They also get to meet with people of different ages. There are not many hobbies where a teenager will become friends with someone in their 60s, but a love of the Viking period really does span the generations.”