Eyewitness: When cheekbone met granite on ice

It's not quite as easy as it looks on television.
Click to follow

Curling? What's the big deal, they said? It's just housework on ice. You've seen it on the television, now go to Scotland and show them what the English can do. So I did. All too plainly, I'm afraid, as will become apparent; and we're talking painfully apparent. Ice and granite, I can now inform any wannabe curlers, are very hard.

Curling? What's the big deal, they said? It's just housework on ice. You've seen it on the television, now go to Scotland and show them what the English can do. So I did. All too plainly, I'm afraid, as will become apparent; and we're talking painfully apparent. Ice and granite, I can now inform any wannabe curlers, are very hard.

The theory of the game can keep for a while (or a decade or so, if you want my opinion) but my practice of it I should confess straight away. It went like this:

Shod in trainers, but with the left sole covered for sliding purposes in what appears to be a plastic shower cap, a tentative entrance was made on to the ice. With right foot in sort-of starting blocks, and left leg crouched beside it, the brush tucked under-arm Long John Silver-style, and the handle of a stone in the right hand, the hips are raised and, with a push on the blocks, a forward glide is achieved and the stone released. Or, in my case, propelled inadvertently off at an angle while the body crumples to the ice.

But this is nothing compared to the sweeping. The speed needed, while shuffling sideways, is surprising; well, horrifying really. And then there is the sweated labour of simultaneously brushing like a mad thing while keeping one's feet. And avoiding earlier stones which lie about to catch the unwary. It was this that brought about the premature end to my game. A stone left carelessly in the target, an all-too-late attempt to hop over it, and cheekbone suddenly met granite. Kindly hands led me from the rink. "I think you had better sit down," said a voice. It may have been Lynne, or Roy Cannon, or his daughter Rachel, but with double vision it was hard to tell. A few minutes later – and this was Rachel – came another voice. "Look," she said, "you've made a little dent in the ice."

I record these valuable experiences in the interests of public safety. After all, it looks as if large-scale refrigeration is possibly about to become very big business indeed. Over the last few days, in the wake of Britain's Olympic gold medal, the sport of curling has been virtually besieged by people who want to try it. The 30 curling venues in Scotland, and the one (soon to be two) in England, will not be enough to hold them. Heaven knows what might have to be iced over to handle the demand. But, if this weekend's curling fever is anything to go by, take no chances. If you own a garden pond, fence it in now.

This is no idle advice. The TV audience for Thursday's final set a new midnight viewing record with a figure of 5.6 million. Many of these, it seems, have bombarded anyone connected with the sport with phone calls and emails. Lines to organisations such as the British Curling Association and curlingshoes.com website have been clogged, and Chris Hildrey, development director at the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, said: "We've had so many people ringing in and saying, 'I saw it on TV, can I come and have a go?'" Once they find out that Tom Hanks and Bryan Adams play, and see the forthcoming curling movie (Men with Brooms, starring Leslie "Naked Gun" Nielsen), there's no telling what might ensue.

On behalf of the sport's would-be English masses, I went to the Braehead Curling Club outside Glasgow. It is not hard to find, you just follow the children carrying brushes. They are among scores who forgo the attractions of duvet or TV, and brave that day's blizzard to assemble for Saturday morning curling. There are as many girls as boys.

As the children begin their games on the club's eight rinks, supervised by blue-jacketed women coaches, the parents look on. Here is Fiona Richmond, mother and twice-a-week curler, who has brought Grant, 11, along for his first try. He came last week but the ice was too crowded for him to get on. In the coffee bar overlooking the ice, six fathers sit chatting, watching, and briefing this wide-eyed, middle-aged wannabe.

Curling, I was told, consists of two teams of four, each of whom takes turns to slide a 42lb granite stone towards a 12-foot bull's eye 30 metres away. After every player has had two goes, the stone(s) nearest the centre score a point(s) and 10 rounds, or "ends", make a game. So far so good, but, this being sport, unnecessary complications are introduced. To speed the stone on its way, two players armed with brooms brush ahead of it to lubricate the ice. Efficient brushing can, it is said, add three metres to the stone's distance; and so, to encourage the scrubbers (not the approved term) the stone-thrower shouts at them. Echoes and the Scottish accent can mislead the lowland ear but, according to Braehead's development officer, Lynne Robertson, what they are yelling is: "Hard! Hurry!" This sounds aggressive, but only to those who don't know Glasgow on a Saturday night.

I may have travelled north with too much of a music-hall idea of what Glasgow expects, hence my attempt to nut the curling stone. But novices like me have been doing this for 500 years. The Scots claim to have invented the sport but the Dutch, as they do with golf, contest this. They cite the paintings of Brueghel, two of which show little figures agitatedly doing things on ice which could be curling, or an early Flemish mugging. The Scottish answer to this, roughly translated, is: "Didn't see you in Salt Lake, Dutch Jimmy." They have a point; for whoever invented curling, the Scots perfected it, codified it, boast the world's oldest club, and spread it to the US and Canada. In the latter, it's a big deal; a million players, 1,000 clubs, and 300 hours of it on TV every year. Scotland also supplies the world's stones, most of them made from granite mined on Ailsa Craig, an uninhabited island off the Ayr coast which otherwise serves as an overcrowded housing estate for seabirds. The quarried rock is then fashioned into polished curling stones at a factory in Mauchline, Ayrshire. Top-of-the-range ones come in at £600.

The shoes – one with a thick rubber sole, the other with a quarter-inch layer of Teflon – can cost up to £180 for a pair. Brushes – and no, that old one of your mum's that you use to sweep the alley will not do – are priced around £50.

These expenses are not likely to deter curling wannabes, especially as all equipment comes with the hire of a rink. The unexpected labours of brushing might, however, as could the raw chill of the ice, its hardness when fallen upon, being shouted at, and little girls doing better than you.