Vikings come raiding again

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.

St Alphege church, Greenwich

Life has improved in some ways.  On the other hand, it might be even worse to be living within range of an ISIS encampment.




14 thoughts on “Vikings come raiding again”

  1. I know you’ve had enuf but grant me one last try to show the different “i” sounds.

    Consider the words Buy and Bicycle. Now try pronouncing Bicycle using “buy” as the first syllable.

    You can try the same exercise with Pie and Pisces, or lie and lighter.

    1. The differing vowels in your “buy” and “bicycle” (a difference I do not notice in my own variety of the language) are probably what are called allophones. That is, the difference is due to the phonetic context (being followed, or not, by a consonant), and is not phonemic. A clear example of allophonic difference, which English-speakers don’t notice, is between the sounds of “p” in “pin” (where it is followed by a puff of breath, like a brief “h”) and “spin”, where it is not. “P” and “ph” (with the aspiration) are distinct phonemes in many languages, making difference between words; in English they are not. To show that two sounds are distinct phonemes you usually have to find a minimal contrast, such as between the sounds of “th” in “thy” and “thigh”. You probably can’t find any minimal contrast between your two variants of /ai/.

  2. Guy, it sounds like you’re getting settled after your move. I hope all is well. Thanks for the blog posts! I never thought to wonder where the name “Greenwich” comes from, nor Viking for that matter.

  3. It seems like every location has advantages and negatives.

    I’d prefer to live in Middle Earth in the Shire.

    Speaking of the Shire, the art at the top of your blog reminds me of Tolkien’s Shire.

    I assume it is one of your sketches. Where is it?

    1. At last someone has asked me that. It is the Tocra Pass, in Libya. It is–
      I’m not sure how many people see these “comments”, let alone replies to them. I think I’m going to make this into a separate little post, tomorrow.
      Rick, your name looks as if it may be pronounced something like shy-tower. Is that how you say it? I believe the second part is cognate with “hewer” – Eisenhower was the “hewer of iron”. What does the first part mean? – I’m sure it’s not the same as Scheiss!

      1. I think it means lumberjack. Scheit is a log, and hauer means hewer, or chopper. Lumberjacks are strong and self sufficient so that would be a noble lineage.

        If Scheithauer did have a cognatic relation with Scheiss, it could mean hewer of shit, or someone who cuts through the crap, getting to the heart of the issue. That is also noble.

        A patient of mine who grew up in Austria said it means Shit house, but I don’t believe her because it’s -hauer not -haus.

        My brother said it means picture frame maker but I couldn’t find any etymologic evidence of that.

        At any rate, I have the name but not the blood. My paternal grandfather was Polish. His father passed away and his mother remarried a German who adopted my grandfather and gave him his name.

          1. I grew up in a German-speaking family, so I am sure the name would be pronounced “shite – hower” in its native German, with the “t” being part of the first syllable, and the “h” definitely being pronounced to start the second.

          2. I forgot to answer that part of your post.

            My family and I pronounce it Shy-tower, except that the long “I” sound is more like the sound in ice rather than the long “I” sound in shy or pie.

            I called a random Scheithauer, a realtor in Utah. She pronounces it the same way as my family here in Ohio does.

            Maybe it’s an American thing. In Germany it probably is pronounced Shite-hower. That would make sense if it means hewer of logs.

            There are a few people that pronounce it Shy-tower with the long “I” sound as in shy or pie. They are the ones with the West Virginia accent.

          3. Linguistic discussion isn’t clear without IPA (International Phonetic Association) characters; I hope sometime to be able to use them (as Wikipedia does); I use an approximation to them in my astronomical glossary, “Albedo to Zodiac”.
            My playful question to Rick has led into this digression; the issue is whether his name is sounded as [Saitau@r], [Sai tau@r], or [Sait hau@r], in which I’m using [S], [@]. and [ ] (blank space) to represent the first consonant in “sugar”, the shwa or central vowel, and disjuncture, a feature that has a slight effect on surrounding sounds. English generally doesn’t use [h] except initially or after disjuncture (with “Aha!” as an exception).
            I didn’t know of any English dialect with distinction between two forms of the diphthong [ai]; Rick implies that for him there are different diphthongs in “I” and “shy”.
            Geoffrey Jackson, also trained in linguistics, specifically Germanic languages, may have a comment. Otherwise, we’ve probably had enough on this topic.

          4. Another interesting thing about my name is that many Hispanics don’t even try to pronounce my name. That’s probably because the spelling is so foreign to them.
            My patients in the Puerto Rican community simply refer to me as, “The chiropractor with the long last name”.

          5. There is an astronomy connection to words that end in “-hauer.” The German name for the constellation Sculptor is “Bildhauer,” where Bild is German for “picture.”

  4. I remember standing on the prime meridian in Greenwich with fond memories and touring the Royal Observatory. History is so much more “real” if you can see where it happened and the artifacts.
    The Herschel house in Bath was amazing and one for any astronomy enthusiasts bucket list.
    Thanks for bringing back memories of sitting by the Thames with a ploughmans lunch and a couple pints.

Leave a Reply to Rick Scheithauer Cancel reply