The Challenges of Setting Up a Website

Completing this challenge is going to be a much bigger achievement than I’d expected.

I’m learning so much.

That’s me putting a positive slant on things.

I’ve had two weeks off school for the Easter hols and I’m ready to go back just to have a rest. Or at least a break away from my laptop.

Before we broke up for Easter I began seriously working on setting up a website – one of the challenges from my 60 Things To Do Before I’m 60 list. I read lots of posts on the internet and other people’s blogs on how to do this and it all seemed quite straightforward.

Well, that part was.

I invested in web hosting – I’ve gone with Bluehost – and then installed and imported my blog from All of this was straightforward and although a few of my posts have missing photos or photos that have lost their alignment, it was mostly fine. Much better than I expected.

Then the fun started.

I tried to change the theme. After trying lots, I eventually ended up with the bog standard one that comes with WordPress because none of the ones I tried would display properly. I’ve read that this can just be because they’re in ‘preview’ and it can be different when you go live, but so far I haven’t been brave enough to risk it.

I don’t mind the theme I’ve got at the moment, but it’s not the slick professional look I really wanted.

Next I signed up with Travel Blog Success. I’ve thought about this for a while and the timing was right. And they were having a sale.

Travel Blog Success comes recommended by a whole plethora of travel bloggers I follow. Most of them are affiliated with the course and earn money off referrals, but even bearing this in mind it seemed like a good thing to be part of. Even if only for the networking opportunities.

I only found a couple of negative reviews and they were by people who admitted they hadn’t joined or taken part and so were giving their opinions based on what they assumed it would be like. I disregarded these.

I’ve signed up for the main course and already I feel like I’ve learnt a lot. Even if most of what I’ve learnt is how much I need to learn.

Although my website should be backed up on the main server of my hosting company, it’s better to have a second personal backup as well. I also need to install extra security and firewalls, set up a password vault, change the admin address to one hackers won’t be able to find, install and set up Akismet to stop spam, get an email address to go with my site … the list goes on.

I’ve been trying to do all of these things and finding myself getting frustrated when things don’t work properly. Some of the programmes I’ve tried to install haven’t downloaded properly or I’ve had messages saying they can’t be opened or file extensions are corrupted, blah, blah, blah.

I’m sure if I was more computer savvy I’d get all of this figured out much more quickly. As it is, I consider myself to know a lot more than the average computer user who just surfs the internet and uses basic Word and email, so I can’t imagine how they would go on trying to do this. I like a challenge though and I’m going to feel much prouder of myself once it’s done than I would if I’d sailed through it.

And I mean what I said above; I’m learning a lot!

As well as setting all this up, I’ve been trying to finish the many, many posts that I have sitting in drafts. I’m enjoying going back to them and reminiscing and I’m enjoying all the writing. It is time consuming though.

I spent the first part of my first week off work working non-stop to try to get as much done as possible. Then over Easter I was at a conference for 5 days. The conference was heavy going; long days and lots of concentration needed. Instead of relaxing once I got back to my hotel room in the evenings however, I was spending several more hours on my laptop working. Now I’m home and working flat-out again.

Even though I’m working so hard on it, I’m really enjoying what I’m doing. So when I say I want to go back to school for a rest, I actually don’t. I’d rather stay at home and do this. If it wasn’t for those pesky bills needing paying I’d quite happily give up the day job.

I was hoping to go live with my website before I went back to school, but now I know it won’t be ready. Not only do I have to finish sorting out the security, but I also need to get my head round Google Analytics. I’ve opened the lesson on this and immediately closed it again. One thing at a time.

I do know I don’t want to go live until it’s set up though, as I want to be able to capture accurate data right from the beginning.

Once it’s done and I go live I’ll feel such a sense of achievement when I tick this challenge of my list.

In the meantime, this is one more post that I’m writing that no-one will actually see for a while.

Tea at the Ritz

Afternoon tea at the Ritz will be another challenge ticked off my list.

One of the more sedate challenges on my 60 before 60 list is to have afternoon tea at the Ritz.

When I first lived in London I worked at a sandwich bar on a hidden alleyway near St James’s Palace. I used to get the tube to Green Park and so twice a day I would walk past the Ritz on Piccadilly. I never ventured inside. Doormen in tophats and tails would swing the doors open for expensively clad people alighting from taxis outside; if it was raining they even held huge golf umbrellas to prevent elegant hairdos from turning frizzy.

I imagined the same doormen slamming the doors shut if I ever tried to enter in my old jeans and trainers. One day, I thought, I will go there and they will hold the doors open for me and I will go inside and have afternoon tea. (I considered afternoon tea to be the poshest of the posh when it comes to food.)

Although I’ll happily do most things on my own, this is one of those things that I think will be enjoyed more if I have someone to share the experience with. And as it’s expensive I knew it could take a while before I found someone willing. Fortunately, I’ve now found that someone.

A good friend and I were at the funeral of another friend this week. She was only 45 and died suddenly. After the funeral we went for a drink in her memory and got onto a maudlin discussion of how life is short and you never know what’s round the corner. I kind of know this already which is one of the reasons I have a list in the first place, but sometimes I need reminding of it.

By the end of the drink we’d decided that part of making the most of life should involve a weekend in London and afternoon tea at the Ritz. I went home and booked it.

Because we want a weekend date and don’t want to have afternoon tea at 7.30pm in the evening (that’s just wrong), the earliest date I could get is in October. At least we’ve got plenty of time to save up for it.

And maybe it will be raining in October. Even if it’s not, I might still ask the doorman to hold an umbrella over my head.



A year ago I was at Up Helly Aa

Up Helly Aa has been and gone again. It’s always on the last Tuesday of January and brightens some of the darkest days in the British winter. Shetland being so far north, it gets even gloomier than Manchester. Something hard to believe with the gloomy, drizzly weather we’ve been having lately.

Last year I was fortunate to be able to spend a week in Shetland and attend the festivities. I got to have one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life (and there have been a few!) and to cross a challenge off my 60 things to do before I’m 60 list.

I’ve been following it closely online this year and wishing I was there. I’ve just been reminiscing with my photos. The low light, rain and fast moving Vikings made it difficult to get good photos, but even the worst photos have good memories behind them and I love looking back at them. I’ve selected a few of the better ones and have put together a Flickr album.

Up Helly Aa

I’ve written a few other posts on Up Helly Aa and they can be found by clicking on the links below.

After my trip last year, I wrote about the day and the night parts of the festival.

I’ve also written an overview of what Up Helly Aa is.

My potted history of the festival can be found here.

The Up Helly Aa website can be found here.


Well that was easy …

Thanks to the advice of another blogger I’ve learnt how to export an old blog into a new one.

I’d mentioned in my last post that I wanted to transfer all my old posts on Blogger over to my new WordPress blog so I’d have everything in the one place. I anticipated this taking a very long time and thought I had around 100 hours work ahead of me. Then the wonderful Ruth over at coastalwalker chipped in with a comment telling me how I could bring the whole lot over in just a few clicks.

I’m not too bad at figuring out how things work when it comes to computers, but it hadn’t even occurred to me that this would be possible, so of course I’d not looked for ways to do it and was going to slowly copy and paste each individual post.

With Ruth’s advice I was quickly able to export my Blogger blog and import it into my WordPress blog in one fell swoop. How easy and quick was that!

Now I just have to tidy up the tags and categories AND get round to finishing all the posts I have sitting in drafts AND make more effort to post regularly. I don’t suppose anyone knows a quick way of getting posts to write themselves do they?

Up, up and away

Finally! After waiting a year and a half and booking it nine times, I finally got to go up in a hot air balloon.


A year and a half after buying the vouchers and after booking it nine times, I finally got to climb into a giant picnic basket and dangle from a big red balloon floating a kilometre above the earth.

I carefully monitored the weather reports all week. After all this time I feel like a bit of expert when it comes to knowing what weather is considered suitable and safe for a balloon flight to be able to take place. It can’t be rainy or foggy or misty. The wind speed can’t be over 6mph. The wind speed has to be checked at different altitudes, not just on the ground. The wind has to be in the right direction so the balloon doesn’t blow over built-up areas or anywhere it might be dangerous to land. Etc, etc, etc. I wrote about it here.

This time the weather actually seemed quite favourable; in fact, I was mainly worried that it wouldn’t be windy enough as the forecast was showing speeds of 1mph. If it’s not windy enough, the balloon would go straight up, hover around on the spot for a while and come straight back down again.

At the designated time of 11pm the night before the flight I rang the flight line number. Instead of the usual apology and explanation of why the flight was cancelled, I pricked up my ears as the pilot on the recording said ‘Please listen to the following information very carefully’.

He went on to say that the flight would be going ahead, but not from Bakewell as originally planned. Instead we would be taking off from the back-up site of Tissington. He gave the meeting time and directions of where to park and how to get to the launch site from the car park.

Instructions duly noted, it was then it a mad rush to get everything ready and still try to get a bit of sleep before my alarm went off at 2.30am.

After a detour for petrol, I got to my co-balloonist’s house before 3.30am and gulped down the coffee she had waiting for me.

It was starting to get light as we headed on empty roads towards the Peak District ticking off a (near) hit list of the kamikaze animals and birds determined to die under the wheels of my van. I like to think it’s because of my superior driving skills that I managed to avoid them all.

Arriving in Tissington at the same time as several other people, we parked up and walked the 10 minutes up the lane to the launch site. Through an open gate and into a field containing a very large (and very flat) balloon, a large basket and a herd of very curious cows. 

The cows were so intrigued at the strange goings on in their field they milled around us, stretching out their noses to sniff us and then skittering away when we turned round. They tried to get on the trailer that had brought the basket and balloon to the site. They wanted to get in the basket and they thought standing on a large piece of red nylon made a nice change from grass. 

The basket, which was already attached to the balloon, was lying on its side. A large fan stood to either side of it. Two men volunteered to hold the ropes of the balloon as the cows were shooed away and the fans were switched on. The balloon slowly inflated as it filled with cold air from the fans. As the insides expanded to cavernous proportions, the pilot walked around inside checking everything out. 

Once the balloon was fully inflated, the gas jets were turned on and flames roared into the balloon’s innards, heating the air and causing the balloon to slowly rise. As it rose from the ground it pulled the basket upright and we were instructed to quickly climb in. 

Climbing aboard was harder than it looked. Gaps in the side of the basket acted as steps so it all looked quite simple. But the basket was angled slightly outwards meaning gravity was working against us as we tried to hoist ourselves up and get our legs over the side. It was then quite a long drop into the inside, particularly when you were trying to not flail about too much and kick a fellow passenger in the face. 

The basket was divided into five high-sided sections. The pilot was in the middle section with the gas jets directly above him. The sixteen passengers were divided into the four corner sections. The sections were narrow and the four people in each were close enough together to offer cushioning and support in case of any wobbles, but not packed so closely that it was uncomfortable.

Once we were all safely inside, the guy lines tying us to the back of the trailer were released and, waving goodbye to the cows, we drifted up into space. It was a very smooth take-off and we were surprised at how suddenly the ground seemed a long way below. 

Tissington Hall
A rival balloon

As we spent about an hour and a quarter floating above the Peak District, two things I’d been told about still managed to surprise me. The first is that the trees really do look like broccoli. When I’d heard this I assumed it was a reference to how children refer to broccoli as ‘baby trees’ and that because the trees look so small from this height they could be the broccoli trees referred to by children. Not so. They actually, really and truly do look like they are made from heads of broccoli. 


Campsite in a quarry

The second thing was the silence. Yes, I’d been told it would be quiet. Yes, I knew that apart from the odd time when the gas jets were blasting extra heat into the balloon there would be no noise from the balloon and that there would be no engines to give a constant background hum. What I hadn’t realised is how much background noise there is usually in our daily lives and how we are so accustomed to it that we don’t even notice it most of the time. Even in a quiet place you can usually hear cars in the distance, cows mooing, birds singing, the wind rustling the leaves in the trees, a stream trickling by. Up here, there was nothing. Nothing. It was so quiet and still it was almost eerie. 

The eerie feeling was intensified by the lack of life below. We passed over campsites, villages, quarries, a factory. It was broad daylight but no-one was about. Of course this was because it was still unreasonably early on a Sunday morning, but as we’d been up for hours, it felt like it should be the middle of the day. 

Tiny sheep

The pilot had his GPS connected to a laptop and pointed out places of interest below us. We got a really good view of the ancient stone circle Arbor Low and saw lots of other mounds that looked like tumuli. I’m used to walking in the Peak District and feel I know it quite well. Floating above it gave me such a different perspective though. 

Arbor Low

About an hour after we taken off the pilot started to look for a suitable field to land in. It had to have access for the truck and trailer to enter to collect the balloon and basket. It had to be flat and preferably without crops or animals. And of course away from telegraph wires. 

About 15 minutes later we found a field and slowly descended. As we got close to the ground we were instructed to sit down on the foam seat that ran along the sides of the basket. With backs, bums and heads pressed across the side we gripped the rope handles opposite. Sitting in this position meant our heads and limbs were all fully inside the basket and we were braced in case the basket tipped over when we landed.

Two gentle bumps and we were down and remained upright. The whole flight had been so smooth and it really hadn’t felt like we were moving at all. At one point we were travelling at over 8mph, but it felt like we were still and it was earth below us that was reeling past. 

Climbing out of the balloon was a lot easier than climbing in. The truck driver was telephoned and informed as to where we were. Before we could deflate the balloon we had to get permission from the farmer whose field we’d landed in. The pilot told us that this is not usually a problem and the farmers generally get a bottle of whisky as a thank you. And of course, if any damage is caused, it would be paid for. 

I wondered how the farmer would feel being woken up at 7.30am on a Sunday morning by someone requesting permission to deflate a large balloon in his field, but then thought, ‘it’s a farmer, he’ll be up anyway at this time’. Unfortunately, this turned out to be one of the few days in the year when he’d felt able to have a lie-in. He was in a good mood though and not only gave permission, but came out on his quad-bike to have a chat and open more gates so we’d have easier access to the road.

It took quite a long time to deflate the balloon and involved everyone tugging on a long rope to try to pull the sides down and then lots of rolling and stuffing to get it into its bag. The balloon and basket were loaded onto the trailer and we followed it out to the roadside where chamagne was served as we waited for the minibus to arrive to take us back to Tissington.

The half glass of champagne was quite nice, but felt like a bit of a contrived attempt at being classy. And at this time in the morning and after being up so long, I would have preferred a cup of coffee and an egg butty. 

We were presented with certificates and looked at a series of photos on the laptop. A camera had been strung from the balloon taking photos of us all as we floated about. We could purchase the 30+ photos for £15, but as they were all pretty much the same, one would have been enough. £15 seemed quite a lot for what was effectively the same photo, so I didn’t bother. If I could’ve bought one or two for a reduced price I’d definitely have done so as it would have been nice to have a picture of us all inside the balloon.

The minibus arrived and we were soon back in Tissington where I made coffee and egg butties in the back of the van.

Was it worth the wait?

Yes, definitely. The whole experience was even better than I thought it would be and we got a perfect day for it.

Would I do it again?

Probably not. Partly because it’s expensive, but mainly because of all the hassle of having to keep so many weekends free; having to stay up to make the phone call; finding out it’s cancelled; having to book again, and so on. I don’t blame Virgin for this (and I’m very glad they take safety seriously and also try to ensure that the flight is enjoyable by only going on good days) as I realise no matter how powerful Richard Branson is, he has no control over the weather.

Would I recommend it?

Absolutely. But only in a place near to where you live so it’s easy to get to at short notice. 

Hitting the airwaves

My first radio interview.

Last Friday I did something that was a first for me. A local BBC radio presenter noticed one of my tweets and through this found my blog. She contacted me and asked me to go into the radio studios to record an interview. I’ve never been into a radio studio before, let alone done a radio interview, so this was all very exciting.

On Friday evening I went along to the posh new Media City in Salford where the BBC are now based. On my way from the car park I strolled past the shiny new glass edifices that have sprung from the wasteland that was the Salford I remember. The buildings reminded me of those in Hong Kong or Canary Wharf; buildings in which billions of dollars are transacted daily. Except the buildings in those places aren’t brightly labelled CBeebies.

Once inside, and with a visitor’s pass strung round my neck, I was escorted several floors up and into a small studio. I chatted with the presenter for a while and explained what my blog was about. Then she clicked ‘record’ and the interview started for real. We talked about why I’d started the blog, the types of challenges on my list and how I see having a list as a good motivational tool for life. The whole interview lasted just over eight minutes. This might not seem long in ‘real life’ terms, but in ‘radio life’ this was so long that when it went out later that night, it was played in two parts with a music interval midway through. Although I’m very chuffed with getting a radio interview, I think I’m even prouder of the fact my first interview got an interval!

Thinking about New York

New York might be cheaper than I’d thought. I’ve found a flight and an apartment. Now I just have to find the money.

New York has been on my list of things to do since long before I ever had a list. I keep my eye on prices of flights, accommodation, etc. and always give a slow shake of my head thinking ‘no way’. The cost of flights during school holidays can be astronomical and I really wouldn’t want to pay that much for a week somewhere. I could go for longer, even the whole six weeks of the summer holidays, and that would make the cost seem a little more bearable if I divide the price by the number of weeks holiday I’d be getting (anything to make it seem more like a bargain), but then the cost of actually being in New York is so high I don’t see how I could afford to stay more than a week. So my New York wish has remained firmly on the wishlist.

Recently I saw someone mention on their blog that they’d booked really cheap flights to New York with United. Interested, I looked at United’s website and searched for flights outside of school holidays and way in the future. They weren’t anything like so cheap as the other blogger had mentioned, but they were cheaper than flights I’d looked at previously. And that was only one airline.

For some reason all the cheap flights went via Washington DC. Hm, seems a shame not to jump off and have a look round there too. And I hear all the museums are free. So I changed my search to see if I could maybe have a week in Washington DC and then a week in New York. Now I wanted to go to Washington and actually get off the plane, all the cheap flights went via New York. Huh? (That’s an American term – I’m practising).

Ok, so it was looking like if I do this I have to change at Washington in both directions but won’t actually get to see it. But if I’m thinking of 2 weeks maybe I could do 2 weeks in New York and have time to see more than just the main touristy stuff. Hell, (another American term) maybe I could spend a whole month there and have the time to get myself a regular coffee shop where I can sit, read, write, watch the world go by. And possibly drink some coffee. Though Amercian style buckets of watered down, lets add a whole cow’s worth of milk, coffee really annoy me. Maybe they’ll taste better when they’re in the right setting.

I was already liking this plan, but wasn’t sure if I’d be able to spend a month camping in Central Park unnoticed, so thought I should look for some paid accommodation. First stop, the YHA website. How much??? Jeez (yet, another Americanism – I’m starting to feel fluent), is this the Youth HOSTEL Association or the Youth HILTON Association? Next, I looked at private hostels. They were cheaper, but still way too expensive for a month.

Ok, so how do I really wanna (there I go again) do this? If I want to spend a month and try to get under the skin (I know, I know, it’s only a month, but it’s four times better than a week), then I should really get an apartment and pretend to be a real New Yorker.

So next up, was the AirBnB website. I’d heard of this, but never had reason to use it before. It seems to be people basically renting out rooms in their homes (or sometimes their whole homes) on a short-term basis. There are some luxurious places on there, but they didn’t grab me. And although they are probably a great price in the big scheme of things, they are way out of my price range. Then I found a wonderful apartment with three bedrooms that are rented out separately. The apartment is in Brooklyn which I like the sound of (‘I live in Brooklyn’ sounds so much more me than ‘I live in Manhattan’). The apartment is small but quirky and rather than the stylish designer pads I’d been looking at, this one reminded of Monica’s apartment in Friends. I know I could be at home there, I know I could. The price was ok and even a bit cheaper if staying for a month.

So I’ve found a flight (November seems to be cheapest) and I’ve found an apartment. Now I just need to find the money to pay for it. If prices have gone up by the time I get the money together, I won’t be going in November. But now I know I can do it, I will be going sometime. I’m already working on my itinerary.

Up Helly Aa 2015 (the night)

Burly men in beards and bras. Definitely a night to remember.

As I watched the flames die down and the burning galley turn to ash, I was buzzing with everything I’d seen, heard, felt and smelt so far this evening. It was after 9pm, but the night was only just beginning. It would be at least 12 hours until I’d get to bed. With exhilaration coursing through my veins and anticipation tingling my nerve endings I made my way to the primary school where the evening’s entertainment was just beginning.

It was already busy when I arrived. I gave my name at the door and, thanks to Linda, the daughter-in-law of the man I’d met earlier at the galley, my name was on the list and in exchange for 25 quid I was given a wristband. Up Helly Aa is expensive. The costs involved in making the detailed costumes and weaponry and building the galley are no mean amount. I don’t know if any of my £25 went into a general Up Helly Aa fund or if it was all to cover the costs of the evening, but either way by 8am I definitely felt I’d got my money’s worth.

A disrespectful tribute to Elvis. He was sat on the toilet which flushed each time the music changed.

I headed first for the toilets to peel off a few layers of clothing. A couple of girls were fluffing their hair and applying extra make-up. They looked very glamorous and in my trousers and plain top I felt very under-dressed. I mentally kicked myself for not having packed an outfit on the off chance I got lucky enough to be invited to a hall. Fortunately I’m not one for letting the wrong outfit get in the way of enjoying myself and I made my down to the far end of the school corridor where I stashed my bag and extra clothing. 

Buxom ladies at a local cafe

This area was doubling as the ‘bar’ area and people were sat around tables enjoying a beer, glass of wine or something a little stronger. No alcohol is sold in the halls so it’s strictly BYO. Most people were very well prepared, with stacks of plastic glasses as well as the booze of their choice. Alcohol is not allowed in the main hall so throughout the evening people were disappearing back here to return a while later with an extra glow to their cheeks. 

Tea-dancing OAPs find themselves in an aerobic class

I found my way to the main hall and pushed through men in fancy dresses to enter. The 48 squads make their way around the 11 participating halls and put on a short performance in each. There are two to three squads in each hall at a time and once they’ve all performed, the band strikes up and everyone is pulled up onto the dance floor to be whirled around in a series of traditional dances with names like Strip the Willow, Eightsome Reel and St Bernard’s Waltz

Green Been / Red to Come – the numbers representing the squads

A board behind the band held the numbers representing each squad. The numbers started out red and were changed to green once the squad had performed. 

‘I Don’t Look Good Naked Anymore’

As the squads are all male and many performances require female characters, the squads adhere to the traditions of theatre from years’ past and enthusiastically embrace cross-dressing. It is said that lingerie shops in Lerwick do a roaring trade in the month before Up Helly Aa with all the butch builders, plumbers and roadworkers piling in to buy their bras. Shakespeare would have been proud.


The Jarl’s squad arrived at about 12.30am

As the squads are meant to be in disguise most performers wear masks, heavy make-up or dark glasses, only revealing their identities once their performance is finished.  

They must’ve been feeling hot

The performances are outlandish and tend to be risqué with the squads having names like Fat Bottomed Girls (pink frocks and well-endowed bottoms) and Horny Germans (lederhosen and William Tell hats). Some acts had performers removing clothes, thrusting their pelvises and generally behaving in ways you wouldn’t want your granny to see. Except the grannies here had seen it all many times before and didn’t bat an eyelid. Other performances poked fun at local issues, one such being the skit performed by the Clangers. The squad were dressed as the pink woolly Clangers from the 1970’s children’s TV programme and in the style of the programme, which was quite subversive in some of the issues it alluded to, pulled no punches in referring to all the ‘clangers’ they say Shetland Islands Council have been responsible for. 

‘Fat Bottomed Girls’

As well as performances and dancing and trips to the bar there were visits to the buffet. Hot soup was being served along with unlimited mugs of tea. Plates were continually being replenished with sandwiches, cakes and biscuits. The tea was welcome, especially when it got to about 5am and I was starting to flag. A couple of mugs of tea and I was raring to go again. 

A ‘Fat Bottomed Girl’ watching ‘Putindabootin’ Russian dancers

It did strike me that, despite all the merriment, party-spirit and alcohol, no-one seemed really drunk. There was none of the falling around you see on Saturday nights in city centres. No-one burst into tears or started a fight. And I didn’t see one person throw up. I don’t know if it was because of the mixed age group or because everyone knows everyone else or just because of the laid-back character Shetlanders all seem to share, but I do know I liked it. 

He wasn’t really naked

By the time the last squads had performed, the last tunes had been danced to, and the last mugs of tea had been supped it was 8am. There weren’t quite as many people as there had been earlier, but there were still a lot. Everyone was still cheerful as they made their way out, shouting their byes and dispersing to their beds. 

In need of a bikini wax

I walked back to Tesco car park where I’d left my van. I was surprised to see the burger van in the car park was open for business and had a customer. How could anyone still be hungry after all the food in the halls? I wasn’t surprised however, to see the customer was a man wearing a tutu. 

In need of a diet

Note: my photos are RUBBISH. Trying to take photos of fast-moving performers indoors whilst facing a spotlight was a challenge way beyond my photographic abilities. I’ve included a few here anyway as they at least give an idea of what some of the performances were like.

To read about Up Helly Aa day click here.

I’ve written about the history and traditions of Up Helly Aa here and here.

The main Up Helly Aa website is here.

Up Helly Aa 2015 (the day)

Days don’t get much better than this.

The Up Helly Aa flag flying over the town hall

It looked as though it was going to rain, but I wasn’t worried. Up Helly Aa NEVER gets cancelled because of the weather. Only world wars have been able to stop it (and that was probably due only to the lack of men). It was postponed at the last minute for Winston Churchill’s funeral but no-one was very happy about that (and still aren’t if the lack of interest in his 50th anniversary was anything to go by). Far too many sandwiches went to waste and people who’d come up specially ended up missing it. So that’ll never happen again.

I wasn’t in any particular hurry as I knew the Jarl’s squad were getting breakfast and facial tattoos in Islesburgh Community Centre and I wouldn’t be allowed in. I’ve been able to pass myself off as a lot of things, but I don’t think even I’d pull off impersonating a large bearded Viking. After breakfast the squad were taking the galley down to the waterfront for an official photo session and then leaving it there for the rest of the day whilst they went around town visiting care homes, schools and the hospital. I thought the waterfront would be too crowded so instead waited near the town hall. Afterwards, when I saw how good the photos of the whole squad atop the galley looked, I wished I had gone myself. Instead, the first I saw of them was when they came marching up the road to the town hall, roaring and generally making a lot of noise. They did look rather magnificent. 

The Vikings are here!
Raven wings and a mighty beard

So much care had been put into the costumes and weaponry: textiles, chainmail, carved, highly polished wood, intricately patterned metalwork, and of the course the Jarl’s helmet resplendent with its raven wings. Once they’d all gone into the town hall I went down to the harbour to look at the galley. This was equally magnificent. The level of detail equally intricate. 


There were still quite a few people around and as I waited for a chance to take a people-free photo, I got chatting to the man who was looking after the galley. He told me his son will be Guizer Jarl next year and so this time next year he will be touring the care homes in full Viking dress rather than standing in a raincoat guarding the galley. 


Named after a penguin named after a Viking

He was dismayed to hear I wouldn’t be going to any of the halls. The halls are a really important part of Up Helly Aa, but all are privately run. The festival is a really special time for Shetlanders. If islanders who have moved away are going to come home only once in the year, it will often be for Up Helly Aa. People I spoke to told me it’s more important and a bigger event than Christmas, Easter or birthdays. It’s easy to understand then why, although they’re happy for outsiders to watch the parade, the halls are private and for friends and family only. To have a load of tourists in your hall would be the equivalent of having a load of tourists come round to your house on Christmas Day morning to watch you open your presents. You probably don’t mind the tourists coming along to the carol concert or midnight mass, but there is a line you don’t want them to step over. I understood this and accepted that, as much as I would like to, I wouldn’t be going to any halls.

Spot the penguin

I should have known better. This is Shetland after all. People are friendly and rules are just there to, yeah, well, whatever. John told me his daughter-in-law (wife of next year’s Jarl) was running one of the halls and that when he got home he would ask her if there was a spare ticket for me. He took my mobile number so he could let me know. Just in case he called over some other people and got me the phone number of someone running a different hall, so I had a backup plan if his daughter-in-law didn’t have any tickets. 


Even the boats have beards

I spent part of the afternoon wandering round town. The window displays in the shops all had an Up Helly Aa theme. Even Specsavers had joined in with a poster depicting a Viking squad hauling a fishing boat along to the burning place instead of their galley, unaware of the irate fisherman chasing them; the caption was, of course, ‘Should’ve gone to Specsavers’. As well as Vikings, there was quite a penguin theme. This was because the Guizer Jarl is known by the nickname ‘Penguin’. There was a penguin design painted onto the galley which was named Nils Olav after a penguin in Edinburgh zoo with the same name.

The Bill had been attached to the market cross earlier that morning. It’s a carefully hand-inscribed proclamation satirising local events and notable people from the past year. In red and black painted text it lampoons the discussion around school closures, the unreliability of the Northlink ferries and the controvesial Mareel arts centre. It took me several readings to understand most of it, but even though I try to keep up with Shetland news, there were still parts that were over my head. 

Crowding into the museum

The Jarl’s squad was due at the museum in the late afternoon, so I made my way over in plenty of time. The entrance hall was already quite crowded with people waiting to see Vikings. A couple of guys were keeping everyone entertained with live music. The Jarl’s band arrived first and they squeezed in with their bulky instruments and got set up. Then the rest of the Vikings arrived. Before they came in I would have said it was impossible to fit seventy Vikings all in bulky costumes into the already crowded space. But fit they did. More and more of them pushed through the doors and spectators were crushed back to the walls. They could have shown rush hour commuters on London Underground a trick or two.  

For their theme song, they had chosen Daydream Believer, albeit with a few word changes. As their voices reverberated around the hall, big grins on their faces, light glinting of their chain mail, swords and double-headed axes, I knew I’ll never be able to hear that song again without thinking of Vikings.

Just 2 Vikings having a chat

Following the sing-song everyone piled outside where the Vikings lit their torches for a TV interview. Dousing the fire in the harbour, they then did what all good Vikings do and drove off on their bus.

TV interview

The Junior Jarl’s galley

Wandering back up to the town hall I was in time to see the Junior Jarl’s squad setting off on their parade. The schoolboys also have real torches and proudly set off marching, pulling their galley to the playing fields where they would burn it. It was just starting to rain, but didn’t manage more than a few drops before stopping again in plenty of time for the main parade.

Schoolboys with a burning mission

I went back to my van which I’d moved to Tesco car park so I wouldn’t have too far to walk at the end of the night. As I got my layers on ready to stand around for a few hours watching the main parade and galley burning my phone rang. Yes! I had a ticket. It’s the custom to dress up for the halls but as I hadn’t expected to go to one I didn’t have any posh clothes with me. I wasn’t going to let a little thing like that stop me though. I put a slightly nicer top on over my thermals and considered myself ready. 


By 7pm the streets were heaving. I think Shetland’s entire 22,000 strong population, along with several thousand visitors had all congregated on the same few streets. I’m not used to crowds in Shetland. All 48 squads take part in the main parade. As they are nearly all holding burning torches, not all of them are wearing their costumes (or disguises). If the outfit is likely to be flammable (or affected by the weather) they wear ordinary clothes on the march and change before starting their rounds of the halls. The torches are lit, the streetlights go out.

At 7.30pm a rocket is fired from the town hall and they’re off. As 1000 men wind their way round the route a ring of fire encircles the spectators. It’s dark, in the distance only the line of fire can be seen. Even when they are marching behind buildings, the sky is strangely lit up in shades of flickering oranges and reds like an all-encompassing sunset.

I had a great spot right at the kerbside. The smell of paraffin, the heat from the blazing torches, the singing and Viking yells, a thousand men marching past, flames flickering, everything seeming to move so quickly my eyes struggled to focus, let alone my camera. I felt like every one of my senses was being overloaded and maxed out. Still they marched. Still they yelled. Still the flames flared devouring the oxygen from the street.

Earlier John (the man guarding the galley) had pointed out that nowhere else could you give a thousand men a bottle of whisky each and not expect trouble. Here, they not only give them a bottle of whisky but a flaming torch and then plonk them down in the middle of this heady atmosphere. Trouble? Of course not. I don’t know if it’s due to the laidback Shetland attitude or if it’s because this is such an important tradition. Although there’s plenty of alcohol involved, it’s taken far too seriously and with too much respect to be turned into a free-for-all piss-up.

Finally the squads made their way through the gates into the playing fields and stood around the galley waiting for the Jarl to disembark and give the signal for the torches to be hurled onto the galley. It caught light quickly and a year’s work was turned into a bonfire. I’d moved to the road above the playing fields but was struggling to see over people’s heads. Standing on tip-toe I peered over shoulders. The boat took a long time to burn and people started to move away whilst the blaze was still roaring. I got a better view then and watched as the dragon head slowly drooped and fell, succumbing to the flames.


I stayed till the fire was almost out. Most people had left by then, but I wasn’t in any hurry as I didn’t have to be at the hall till 9.30pm. I wandered round to the other side of the playing fields. Most of the squads had left as they needed to get into their costumes. A few men were left watching the last of the flames die down. For some reason one of them decided to do the Haka – the Maori war dance made famous outside of New Zealand by the All Blacks who perform it at the start of their rugby games. A Viking doing the Haka; now that’s a cultural mish-mash I wasn’t expecting to see. 

I chatted to an older guy who told me he’d spent some of his younger years around Manchester and Lancashire and then slowly made my way to the hall, buzzing from what I’d experienced so far and excited about what was to come.


To be continued …

To find the continuation in which I write about the Up Helly Aa night in the halls click here.

I wrote about the Up Helly Aa traditions here and about the history here.

You can find the main Up Helly Aa website here.

A Potted History of Up Helly Aa

A brief look at the origins of Up Helly Aa.

Ancient Roots

Up Helly Aa, as it’s known today, is a relatively recent introduction to the Shetland calendar, though its origins are rooted far back in time. The torchlit procession and burning of the galley (Viking longship) stem from the ritual cremations of Norse chieftains and the ancient pagan ceremonies held to welcome the return of the sun following the winter solstice. The elaborate use of disguises seen today echo prehistoric fertility rites; even until the Middle Ages people dressed in straw costumes to encourage the gods to bless them with bountiful crops and productive animals. The feasting and all-night partying is reminiscent of the Viking drinking halls of times gone by. Norse skalds were known for their sharp wit and today this tradition is continued in the form of the ‘Bill’ which is displayed on the Market Cross from early morning on the day of Up Helly Aa.

A Different Calendar to the Rest of the UK

Shetland retained the Julian calendar long after the rest of the UK adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. This meant Christmas was celebrated on the modern-equivalent of January 5th, New Year on January 12th, and Uphellia which marked the end of the Yuletide festivities was celebrated 24 days after Christmas making it the 29th January. The celebrations involved fire and feasting, but not Vikings.

It’s all Napoleon’s Fault

The Auld Yule and Auld New Year (old Christmas and New Year) were celebrated in Lerwick with guizers (people in disguise) grouping together to visit private houses and be treated to food and drink. The festivities were lively and lasted all night. Uphellia festivities, on the other hand, are thought to have been more of a rural tradition, presumably because appeasing pagan gods in the hope of ensuring a good crop was of far more relevance to the country folk than the townsfolk. The festival only really spread to the main town of Lerwick when soldiers and sailors returning from the Napoleonic Wars brought their newly-acquired tastes for firearms and debaucherous partying with them. The adoption of Uphellia was a good excuse to let their hair down, kick their heels up and set fire to things.

This year’s Up Helly Aa programme quotes the diary entry of a Methodist missionary who visited in 1824:

‘the whole town was in an uproar: from twelve o’clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting. This was the state of the town all the night – the street was thronged with people as any fair I ever saw in England.’

A Merging of Traditions (and calendars)

Over time the Auld Yule and Auld New Year traditions in Lerwick melded with the rural Uphellia celebrations in the beginnings of the Up Helly Aa festival we see today. By 1879 it was decided that Christmas and New Year would follow the rest of Britain and be held on the 25th December and 1st January. The Uphellia celebrations continued to adhere to the old calendar and were still held on January 29th.

Burning Barrels of Tar

Around 1840 burning tar barrels were rolled down Lerwick’s narrow main street for the first time. Rum or beer casks were cut in half and filled with wood shavings mixed with coal tar (the tar being acquired as it was ‘accidently’ left outside the gasworks). Up to ten barrels would be fastened to a trolley and pulled, burning, through the street. This continued until the 1870s when the ideas that are still seen today started to come into play. The tar barrels had been dirty and dangerous, more so because rival groups often came to blows when they met in the street. Special constables were introduced to little effect. Despite complaints by the middle classes and interventions by the town council it seems that the tar barrelling only came to an end because the interests of the participants were changing and enthusiasm was developing in Shetland’s Viking past.

And then there were Vikings

Firstly, the festival began to be known as Up Helly Aa (sometimes Up Helly A’) and, rather than the 29th, the last Tuesday in January was fixed as the date. Guizing was introduced in a much more elaborate form, as was the torchlight procession. The first clear Viking themes were introduced in 1877 and in 1881 the first torchlight procession took place with 60 torches carried through the street. By the late 1880s the galley (Viking longship) had appeared. In 1906 the first Guizer Jarl (chief guizer) was appointed.

It was only after the First World War that the tradition of the Guizer Jarl having his own squad of Vikings became an annual event. Although money was tight in the 1930s the festival limped through. It was in these poverty stricken times that the ‘Bill’ poking fun at those in charge became the greatly anticipated proclamation it is today. The BBC filmed the festival in 1949 and it was from this year on, that the previously haphazard timings became the tightly adhered to schedule we see today. Since 1956 there has also been a Junior Jarl’s squad.

For more about the modern celebrations see here for a post I’ve previously written.
You can find the Up Helly Aa website here.