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Fenland skaters blow hot in the cold

Rare staging of championships with a 300-year tradition is made possible by big freeze. Andy Martin reports
According to thermodynamics, it is impossible to attain absolute zero (minus 273C). Bury Fen, in Earith, Cambridgeshire, made a fair crack at turning thermodynamics on its head on Saturday. It certainly succeeded in turning a few skaters on their heads as the Fen Championships were fought out on a 400-metre track carved out of a 30-acre sheet of solid ice. Amid scenes straight out of a Brueghel, several hundred men, women and children skidded about on skates, sledges, prams, dustbin lids and, often enough, the seat of their pants.

I arrived prepared to do a Harry Houdini to escape from beneath the frozen flood waters of the River Ouse. The notice on the gate did not exactly reassure me: "Skating is dangerous and you skate at your own risk. DEEP WATER IN PLACES." But I need not have worried. The ice was so fathomless I would not have been surprised to spot a refrigerated hairy mammoth down there. There was no risk of falling through the ice.

Contestants in the Fen Championships had to come from within a 40-mile radius of March, near Peterborough. The word "heat" for the early rounds was never less appropriate. But the hottest skaters were Michael Edwards, from King's Lynn, 16-year-old winner of the one-and-a-half-mile Fen Cup in 4 minutes 34 seconds, and Jonathan Cave, 17, of Peterborough, who won the 500 metres sprint in 38.24 secs. Both are members of the Great Britain short track squad. Skating is a great tradition on the Fens. Our only world champion, James Smart, came from nearby Welney. The locals credit the 17th-century Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden with bringing skating over to England at the same time as he drained the Fens. Now the serious skaters regularly travel to the Netherlands to train, buy their kit, and go through their paces at the Mecca of skating, the giant 400- metre indoor ice palace at Heerenveen.

Conversely, some Dutchmen come to live over here. Jan van Wonderen said Bury Fen reminded him of Holland in the winter where everyone puts their skates on and you can glide over 50 kilometres across country without ever having to take your skates off. There was only one vital thing missing: the koek en zoopie (cake and drinks stall). "In weather like this, you really need soup and hot chocolate and a fire going."

Phillip Doubleday at 66 was the oldest competitor and clocked a respectable 5 min 38 sec in the one-and-a-half-mile event. Born in January 1929, he was first carried on to the ice in March 1929 and could skate almost before he walked. As a professional skater he had fallen through the ice more times than he cared to remember. "We don't like it," he said, gritting his teeth, "but it happens." Fen farming stock are hardy souls. Professional skating started here when farm labourers, laid off for the winter, would skate for money to replace their wages. They skated to eat.

Now there is a new order threatening to overtake the old: in-line skaters or rollerbladers. The technique (sit low, drive on the outside edge) is broadly similar, but the ethos is hedonistic Californian rather than stoic East Anglian. Melton Morris, grandfather of Michael Edwards, originally built a in-line skating track at West Winch, near King's Lynn, to provide out-of-season training to ice skaters. "Now," he says, "in-liners have taken over."

But the rugged conditions on Saturday favoured the born and bred ice warriors of the Fens. "This is the hard men - or the lunatics," Mr Morris said. Second in the one and a half miles was Michael McInerney, a rollerboy who had swapped his wheels for blades for the day. "This is not my peak season," he pointed out. "If this were July, I'd be flying."

The great thing about the Fen Championships is that they hardly ever happen. The event can only take place when conditions are perfect, if you can call a killer wind-chill factor and lumps of snow and hoarfrost lying about the course perfect. Fen skating reminded me of the Eddie Aikau Big-Wave surfing contest, in Hawaii, which is only held when the waves get higher than 20 feet. "Yeah," said one woman spectator, "but I'd rather be in Hawaii."