A kingdom
for a Norse

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On the morning of April 14, 1984 in a small room in the heart of York three men held their breath.

As the clock ticked towards 10am, the trio who had been responsible for one of the most ambitious tourist attractions ever unveiled in this country, knew that the course of their lives would probably be decided in the next couple of hours.

Jorvik was about to open its doors to the public and the jury was very much out.

“It was incredibly tense,” says John Sunderland, the project designer who brought the vision for Jorvik to life.

“Neither Colin or I dared look out the window. Eventually Peter decided to take a look. When he got there he stood stock still. We thought it was bad news, but eventually he called us over. It was incredible, Jorvik had just opened and already there was a queue snaking around the square.”

Colin was Colin Pyrah who despite having no experience of designing museums had successfully tendered for the contract and Peter was Peter Addyman, the then director of York Archaeological Trust whose determination not to house exhibits in glass cases had won him some friends and a few enemies.

There were others who’d played a vital role in Jorvik there too – not least the late entrepreneur Ian Skipper who had found financial backers for the scheme. However, it was John, Colin and Peter who were recently back in an equally small room a couple of flights of stairs above Jorvik, partly to reminisce about the attraction which was born out of a major archaeological dig begun in the late ’70s.

“The Coppergate dig lasted five-and-a-half years,”says Peter. “It had revealed more than we ever expected about the Viking age and I remember Ian saying to me, ‘this place is wonderful, we should keep it forever’. That’s not how archaeology works. You go in, you dig, then you get out and hand it back to the developers, but Ian was right, it was too good to let go of.”

Peter decided early on that if they were going to turn the dig into a permanent attraction he didn’t want the usual museum model. He wanted to recreate a Viking village, he wanted smells and sounds and he wanted visitors to feel they were travelling back in time.

“Not many people understood,” he says, holding the original pitch for the attraction, which features an early vision for the cars which would be a central part of Jorvik. “We’d say, ‘This is the kind of thing we want’, and they’d say ‘yes, so we could build cabinets there and have some glass cases over there’.”

One person who did get it was John. As a designer he’d worked for Yorkshire Television, creating the character of Dusty Bin, but when a colleague told him about plans for a new attraction in York, he was transported back 20-odd years to the days he bunked off school in Wakefield to avoid maths lessons.

“I told the teacher I was going blind and that each week I had to go for special exercises. I don’t know how I got away with it, but I did and I divided my time between the art gallery, the museum, which was full of stuffed animals and the Playhouse cinema. After a few weeks the paintings, the exhibits and the films all started to blur into one. That’s when it struck me, ‘why couldn’t museums be more like the movies, why couldn’t they tell their own story?’.”

Two decades later John finally had the chance to do just that, but he needed help. It came in the shape of Colin who had worked in newspapers before setting up a media division offering marketing and promotion services. Together, they came up with a pitch and headed over to York to meet Peter.

“That first meeting didn’t start well. There were arguments between Peter and the architects and it felt like we were invisible. Then Peter started looking through the drawings I’d done and a smile spread across his face. All of a sudden he thumped his fist on the table and said, ‘Gentlemen, there are more exciting ideas in these drawings than I have seen from any other source to date’.”

It took a few weeks before the details were finalised, but much to their own surprise Colin and John had done it. They had won the contract for Jorvik. It was then that the hard work really began.

“I think it was a steep learning curve for all of us,” says Colin. “The trust was adamant that the attraction had to be factually accurate and every so often would rip up our designs and make us start again. Yes, it was frustrating at the time, but it was worth it for the end result.”

Over the next 18 months, Colin, John and the rest of the team successfully brought the Vikings to life. Just as they were putting the finishing touches to the place, the Press were given a sneak preview of the place.

“I will never forget the words of one national journalist. He was furious to find there were no axes, no raping and pillage. As he stormed out, he turned back and shouted, ‘It’ll never work’.”

Fortunately, he was proved wrong. Very wrong. In that first year, 980,000 visited Jorvik and they kept coming back. Money from ticket sales were ploughed back into the work of the York Archaeological Trust and that original trio did indeed see their lives transformed.

Colin went onto set up Paragon Creative which has designed and built dozens of attractions around the world, Peter remained as director of the York Archaeological Trust until 2002 and is now chair of York Civic Trust and John continued to come up with leftfield ideas.

“We’ve all done lots of different things, but nothing could ever beat Jorvik,” says John. “That was something special.”