WE HAVE all heard of knobbly knee contests, but what about a competition to find a magnificent beard?

Part of York’s annual JORVIK Viking Festival, the Best Beard Competition offers a chance for members of the public, young and old, to show off their facial hair. With categories for natural-grown beards, as well as synthetic or hand-made decorative alternatives, opening the contest to anyone, of any age, who is not blessed with facial hair. There are prizes on offer as well as trophies for the winners.

There is also a chance to watch the Strongest Viking competition - a challenge to see which of JORVIK’s warriors have the most strength and stamina through a series of tendon-stretching, muscle-pumping trials.

Recognised as the largest event of its kind in Europe, the festival is a city-wide celebration of York’s Rich Norse Heritage

This year for the first time, the eight-day long event remembers legendary Vikings whose role in the sagas is often forgotten - the women who schemed, fought and led their people through turbulent times.

Throughout the celebration - which runs from Wednesday to Wednesday in line with differing dates for the school half-term holiday across the country - visitors will discover an exciting programme of events, plus living history encampments, talks, tours and, of course, dramatic combat performances.

The festival, which last year attracted more than 63,000 visitors, is organised and funded by the charity York Archaeological Trust. Many events offer free admission, with charges applying to some of the more high-profile events.

The five top free events during the week are:

A thriving Viking encampment based in Parliament Street. A regular feature of the JORVIK Viking Festival, the encampment gives visitors young and old the chance to chat to the Norse travellers, ask about their clothes and weaponry and watch craftsmen displaying their skills at everything from metalworking and jewellery-making to nalebinding - Viking knitting.

Strongest Viking competition, on Saturday February 23 at 11am in St Sampson’s Square.

*Daily storytelling, dramatic combat displays and music on the stage in St Sampson’s Square. Performances are scheduled each day, with a list of events posted daily on the blackboard by the stage.

The Best Beard Competition which takes place in St Sampson’s Square at 3pm on Saturday February 23. Crowds are also expected to line the city streets that afternoon for the parade of hundreds of warriors from York Minster to Coppergate, home of JORVIK Viking Centre.

Characters coming to the fore during this year’s festival include the colourfully named Sigrid the Haughty, a ruthless and determined character known as a ‘persuader of men’, who convinced the rulers of Sweden and Denmark to ambush the King of Norway who had scorned her in the past.

There’s Aud the Deep Minded, who led her people wisely and benevolently, rewarding those who aided her family through their troubles, and Gunnhild Konungamodir, wife of the last Viking King in York Eric Bloodaxe, who manoeuvred her sons to positions of power in Scandinavia after Eric’s death. Their stories will be presented on Friday February 22 at Freya’s Banquet at the National Centre for Early Music, St Margaret's Church, Walmgate, York.

They will then be re-enacted by a cast of warriors and shield maidens on the evening of Saturday February 23 at the Eye of York in the shadow of Clifford’s Tower.

This year the event tells the stories of Viking women - whose influence was as great as any mighty warrior - and their lives beyond the homestead, through the voices of seers, queens and shield maidens.

“For the last 35 years, the themes of JORVIK Viking Festival have enabled us to tell stories that encompass many different aspects of Viking history, from myths and legends to kings and warriors, and though women have taken key roles in many of the stories, this is the first time we’ve told all of the stories from a female perspective,” comments Sarah Maltby, director of attractions for York Archaeological Trust. “We have some superb source material in the sagas, which enables us to tell stories of exploration, settlement, conquest, magic and nobility from the perspective of powerful women.”

There is also a night-time son-et-lumière spectacular. “The festival can be either the perfect start to a Viking visit, or a fantastic way to end a half-term break,” comments marketing manager, Beth Dawes. “We try to include plenty of free activities into the programme so that everyone can access and explore our local history without worrying about the cost,” comments JORVIK Viking Centre’s marketing manager, Beth Dawes. “This year’s festival runs across the two different weeks of half term, with our highlight weekend in the middle, which should make everything more accessible to locals and visitors, too.”

At YourDIG in St Saviourgate, people will have the chance to explore Viking-age cooking and society with the University of York’s Melting Pot project.

In tandem with the celebrations there will also be academic talks and presentations highlighting York’s pre-eminent role in the understanding of Viking culture. Guest speakers include Dr Judith Jesch, professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham, who is one of the world’s top experts on women in the Viking age.

*Jorvik Viking Festival in York runs from Wednesday February 20 to Wednesday February 27. For details of all of the events in this year’s JORVIK Viking Festival visit jorvikvikingfestival.co.uk or ring 01904 615505 or email jorvik@yorat.co.uk