The boom of a cannon shook my window last Thursday evening. I thought I’d learned something new about this place, Greenwich: there must be a ceremonial gun that’s fired in the Old Royal Naval College across the street, to commemorate some admiral or victory. But it wasn’t a round-number time such as nine o’clock, and I didn’t see anything special when I looked down into the street or across over the academic buildings. More gunfire. Then Tilly, on the other side of our top floor, yelled: “There’s a huge cruise ship on the river!”
I ran down the stairs and out the door. Fireworks fountained over the Thames, making enough noise for an artillery battle. But I’d forgotten to bring my iPad, it’s two staircases from the top of our house to the street, and by the time I’d run back up and down the show was over. I’ve patched together a scene (a not quite possible one) using a stolen newsmedia photo.
The fireworks appeared to be at the end of our street. The monster vessel casts a blue glare across the water. Soaring in the foreground is the prow of an older and more dignified ship, the Cutty Sark, now preserved on land, to which I shall return when I know more about it.
The cruise ship Viking Sea (said the news the next day) is 745 feet long, holds 930 passengers, has three swimming pools and a snow grotto. It made a maiden voyage from Istanbul via Venice and up the long Thames estuary, to moor off Greenwich pier, a location chosen because of the London skyline and the naval associations. It became the largest ship ever “christened” on the Thames. We must have been somewhere else at midday when it arrived and received a traditional salute by 48 sailors standing on the Cutty Sark’s yard-arms – something I’d have liked to see. British elections were taking place on May 5, and the fireworks were colored red and blue for the two leading parties.
This cruise ship, a floating twelve-storey building, is classified as a small one. We have to admit to having twice been on cruise ships, because they seemed the only way of getting to eclipses; we’ll never do so again. (They’re entirely different from the little old cruise ships on the Nile, or the three-masted schooner that we once took to the Caribbean.)
Viking Sea is the second of six that Viking Cruises intends to build, ant it will sail around Scandinavia as well as around the world. But Viking Cruises is based in – Oslo? No: Los Angeles.
Real Vikings were once at Greenwich.
The Vikings were the seafaring warriors from Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland) who terrorized Europe from the 700s to the 1000s. (The word, Old Norse Vikingr, Old English Wicingan, was thought to mean that they were the people of the vik, “wick” or “creek” or “inlet” or “bay,” because they sailed from the fiords of Scandinavia and far up the rivers of the victim countries; but it could be from one of the other meanings of wick.) The Danes plagued England during the reign of the unfortunate king who came to be called Aethelred the Unready; they constantly had to be bought off with “Danegeld,” but they kept coming back to conquer, plunder, and sometimes to settle.
The river Thames goes into the most pronounced of its meanders, four or five miles downstream from the old center of London and thirty or so miles before it widens enough to become part of the sea.
On the outside of a meander a stream is deepest. Here a Danish fleet anchored in 1011 and stayed for more than three years. Though there are a few traces of prehistoric burials and a Roman villa, it may be that these Danes were the first to call the place grene vik, the green inlet – referring to the Thames, or to the small Ravensbourne tributary that comes in just to the west?
The marauders camped on the high ground to the south (where the observatory now is), and from this base they ravaged the surrounding Kentish countryside. For three weeks they besieged Canterbury, which was already the capital of Christianity in England. Let in by a traitor, they sacked the town, burned the cathedral, and captured the good archbishop, whose name in its Anglo-Saxon form was Aelfheah, “elf-high.” They kept him prisoner for seven months, hoping his flock would offer a large ransom for him. They did, but he refused to let them impoverish themselves by ransoming him. The Vikings lost patience, also were drunk on the wine they had looted, and they killed him by pelting him with bones and the head of a cow.
An oar dipped in his blood immediately sprouted leaves.
And that is why the parish church of Greenwich, said to be on the spot of his martyrdom, is dedicated to Saint Alphege. One cannot help wondering whether his spirit is consoled or pained by this lavishly classical monument, opposite to a place where we like to breakfast.
Life has improved in some ways. On the other hand, it might be even worse to be living within range of an ISIS encampment.