Gentlemen always travel by bobsleigh: Rosie Millard meets a group of holidaymakers dedicated to winter sports, Twenties style

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A YOUNG man saunters up to me, a large watch on a chain dangling from his tweed jacket. We are in Boisdale's, a small wine bar in central London. 'We always kick off from Boisdale's,' he announces. 'It's the tradition.'

The 'kick-off' is a farewell party for about 50 people bound for the slopes of Innsbruck, Austria. Yet this group is dressed not in ski jackets and bum bags, but in tweeds, brogues and the odd pearl necklace or two. Under the dining table rest curling sticks, Twenties flying helmets and skates. Outside, a jeep holds more than 20 toboggans, complete with leather straps. The scene is like a combination of the AGM of the London Young Fogeys Club, a prop sale from the film set of Chaplin, and a photo-shoot for Country Life.

'My tailor made these plus fours for me,' says Benedict Worsley, one of the revellers, whose legs beneath the breeches are properly adorned with ribboned woollen stockings. 'Ya, it's the sort of thing we normally wear. This tradition all started off from the idea of the Brits in 19th- century St Moritz, you know.'

The 'tradition' is Les Avants Tobogganing and Bobsleigh Club, an organisation founded 12 years ago and committed to a kind of annual time-warp holiday for 100- plus people keen on winter sports as they were practised in the Twenties. Les Avants spurns the Salomon boots and chair-lifts favoured by modern skiers.

They get on to the pistes in tweed breeches and leather boots, up the pistes in Range Rovers (never drag lifts), and down the pistes on a combination of toboggans, sledges and five-man bobsleighs. The whole tiresome debate about whether a steep blue run is equivalent to an easy black is strictly off-piste, as is anything not resembling the spirit of 'good old-fashioned amateur fun', as one member put it.

'Topper' Warrington, owner of the watch and chain, is with Les Avants for the fourth year running. 'I've not gone skiing once since I took up bobbing with Les Avants,' he says enthusiastically. 'I just don't need it any more. When you go skiing, you aren't doing any era, are you? Here, we are partaking in the totally amateur, pre-war era. It's just far more romantic.'

Topper gazes warmly around at his fellow Avants, some of whom have turned up in shooting suits. 'We ban all newspapers and return to the spirit of the Twenties; you know, flying helmets, black-tie evenings and all that.'

Everyone is part of a team; organised by the club's founder, Keith Schellenberg, they are reminiscent of an era when half the atlas was coloured pink for Empire. 'We have the North of England team, the Siberian team, the Home Counties, and Belgravia teams,' says Topper, captain for the North of England. 'Oh yes, and the Holy Roman Empire team. I'm not sure why it's called the Holy Roman Empire, but there must be a reason.'

His friend Tim Emrys-Roberts sports three metal Les Avants badges (one for each year's participation). 'Why do one winter sport all week, like skiing,' he says, 'when you can do a different one every day, such as curling, or skating, or tobogganing?'

He throws himself backwards and waves his arms about. 'This is how you can go down on a toboggan] On your back]'

Tim, who works for the Bank of Tokyo and is captain of Belgravia, is in no doubt as to the delights of tobogganing in preference to more contemporary winter sports.

'We go down these old Twenties sledge runs in the moonlight. You have a kind of Davy Lamp on your helmet, and as you whizz past all you can see are the sparks off your runners as they bite the grit. One day we hit a patch of ice. 'Bail out]' shouted our leader, and we all just flew off into the air. It was quite exciting.'

The rest of the week on the slopes of Innsbruck is not quite your average ski package either. 'Apres-ski discos?' says Serena Schellenberg, disapprovingly. 'No, we don't do anything like that after a day on the slopes. To be frank, we just do some reeling.'

Ranald Macdonald, chief of the Scottish Clanranald, is in his fifties and one of the oldest Avant members. 'In Les Avants, we discard the modern crassness which exudes throughout life,' he says, puffing on a large cigar. 'Such as instant food and garish clothing. No skin-tight ski suits. We dress like gentlemen on the slopes, not like a glamour puss.'

He glares at a young man in a baseball hat; clearly an outsider. 'Les Avants is about taking part in the finest amateur style. All is forgotten after the moment of glory or failure. That's how it should be.'

Speaking to Ranald, one gets the idea of him as a sort of living incarnation of the 19th century, thundering down the snowy slopes of Europe every year at speeds of up to 50mph on an ancient sledge. 'People tobogganed before they even ski'd]' he says. He first conquered the Cresta Run in 1964.

'Nowadays skiing is all about millionths of a second, and professional training and extreme competition. In Les Avants, the essence is bravery, and not crowing if you have won.'

As I leave, Les Avants are proposing a toast to Topper, who appears to have done much of the leg-work in organising the trip. Benedict turns to me and whispers confidentially: 'Some people would say we are a bunch of upper-class twits, but on the other hand . . .'

He pauses for thought. 'We just have our own style here, in the same way modern skiers do.'

(Photograph omitted)

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