TODAY is the last day of National Ski Week and we haven't seen so much as a snowflake. Piste off? If so, you'd head for East London's Beckton Alps. They are less picturesque than the French Alps and smaller - they consist of a 200 metre long plastic slope - but they're cheaper, nearer and if you're a ski virgin the instructors don't make you feel like a prat.

And I should know. In my two sweatshirts, jumper, jacket, scarf, padded gloves, tights and leggings, I felt like the Michelin Man. No matter. My protective layers took the edge off my nerves and 20 minutes into my first lesson I realised I was a natural. I pushed off, and slithered for a full three minutes on the practically-horizontal nursery slope. My skis and poles flew everywhere and I landed in an ungainly heap. My Italian coach Sergio Cis rushed over: "Brilliant!" he beamed, "you were brilliant!"

Sergio, 52, is a former Olympic skier and ex-trainer of the English Alpine Squad. He's also a dab hand with amateurs. He showed me how to carry my skis without poking someone's eye out, warm up, sidestep, snowplough - all the dull beginnery stuff - with minimum fuss. When we progressed to the ski lift he warned me to watch the moving machinery "or the button chair will hit you - clunk!" I nodded impatiently and a button chair hit me - clunk!

We got to the top and I realised that the Beckton Alps (45ft) was, in fact, a huge sheer mountain face. Gibbering with fear I shuffled my way down as Sergio shouted: "Weight on your left ski. Now right! Now left!" My backside hit plastic more than once but after 90 minutes I was swish- swashing quite happily. It put a soppy grin on my face for the rest of the day.

what to wear

Gloves and long sleeves are compulsory for safety reasons. Dress warmly. It's best to wear thick trousers because falling and slithering on plastic bristles is painful. Waterproof clothing is advisable as the spray mist system - which gives the slope extra slide - seeps through cotton. Most schools provide skis and boots.

how to get there

Beckton Alps Ski School, Alpine Way, London, E6, is situated on the A13 near the junction with the A406 North Circular Road. If you are travelling by public transport take the Docklands Light Railway to Beckton station.

Other good schools include: Sheffield Ski Village (0114 276 9459); Southampton Municipal Ski Centre, (01703 790970); Sunderland Ski Centre (0191 5229119); Bromley Ski Centre (01689 876812); Hillingdon Ski Centre, Middlesex (01895 255183); Ski Rossendale, Lancashire (01706 226 457).

For details of your nearest ski school call the English Ski Council (0121 501 2314) or the Ski Club of Great Britain's Dry Slope Location Line (0891 333474 - all calls charged at premium rate).

how much it costs

Prices vary, but at Becton Alps ( 0171 511 0351) peak admission for adults is pounds 7; pounds 6 for under 16s. Four 90 minute/ three 2 hour lessons cost pounds 45. A private lesson, pounds 20, plus pounds 5 for each additional person (max five).

reader offer

Show this newspaper for a 20 per cent discount on the Beckton beginner's course. The offer is open for two weeks.