The new ice age

This winter, no city centre will be complete without its own festive ice rink. Adrian Turpin braves the cold to find why we're so keen to get our skates on
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The Independent Online

It's a little-known fact that the patron saint of skating is St Liedwi. In 1396, she took to the frozen waterways of Holland, fell over, cracked her ribs, and remained bedridden for the rest of her life. Not quite as dramatic as being crucified or roasted over a griddle, but strangely appropriate. The pope who gave her responsibility for those in peril on the ice must have had a sense of humour.

It's a little-known fact that the patron saint of skating is St Liedwi. In 1396, she took to the frozen waterways of Holland, fell over, cracked her ribs, and remained bedridden for the rest of her life. Not quite as dramatic as being crucified or roasted over a griddle, but strangely appropriate. The pope who gave her responsibility for those in peril on the ice must have had a sense of humour.

For her part, when she picked up her saintly portfolio, Liedwi must have thought she had died and gone to heaven (which, of course, she had): a light workload with long summer holidays interrupted only by the four-yearly rush for the Winter Olympics: not even the patron saint of teachers gets off so lightly.

I suspect Liedwi may be having second thoughts. In the next few weeks, she is likely to be rushed off her skates interceding for the broken-wristed and damp-trousered, the sliced-off finger and the sore of rear. Britain is about to embark on its annual flirtation with skating, as our town centres transform themselves into temporary rinks. Londoners can pick from Somerset House on the Strand, Kew, Hampton Court and Marble Arch. Edinburgh's Winter Wonderland is now in its eighth year. For eight weeks, a little bit of Princes Street Gardens, the green oasis in the middle of the city, will go white. In Glasgow, they do things differently. Rumours suggest that a skating surface may be dyed orange to satisfy the sponsors, Irn-Bru.

The most spectacular addition to this year's crop is the Eden Project in Cornwall. On Monday it will open a semi-permanent rink, built at a "high-six-figure cost" according to the marketing director Dave Meneer. Set beside the hothouses, it lets visitors go from sub-tropical to sub-zero conditions in the space of a few minutes. That, says Meneer, is a unique selling point. In other respects, however, Eden is just the tip of an iceberg. Leeds, Plymouth, Bath, Blackpool, Cardiff... the list of cities embracing the white stuff this Christmas reads like the National Express timetable. These days, if you don't have a rink, you're not on the map.

Yet, only a decade ago, the nearest most Britons came to ice at Christmas was clearing the car windscreen and fixing a gin and tonic. So how did it come to this? It's tempting to attribute the current ice boom indirectly to Britain's Olympic ice-dance champions, Torvill and Dean. In truth, though, it has less to do with British sporting heroes than cheap flights to the Continent. Keith Browse toured the world with Torvill and Dean, producing ice rinks for the ice-dancers' farewell tour in 1993-1994. His company, CRS, now sets up rinks as far away as Hong Kong and Australia, and this year will supply the equipment for, among other cities, Edinburgh and Plymouth.

"We kicked it off in Britain eight years ago in Manchester," Browse says. "But skating as a pastime has always been far greater on the Continent. Lots of towns in Eastern France, Bavaria, Austria had seasonal rinks. To an extent, we looked towards them." But it's the low-cost flights revolution that has been so crucial to the renewed popularity in the sport. Tourists on winter shopping trips to mainland Europe have seen what they are missing - not just the ice, but the Continental-style Christmas fairs with their gluhwein and hot chocolate. It's a new market that has just been waiting to be tapped.

Meanwhile, others have found inspiration from further afield. Karen Koren, who has run Edinburgh's winter rink since 1997, remembers a "eureka" moment on a trip to New York. "I was in Central Park on a crisp winter evening and I saw the Wolman rink with the city skyline behind it, and I thought, 'wouldn't it be fantastic to do something similar at home, with Edinburgh Castle in the background?'"

That the technology is well-established has helped. It has become become cheaper and more environmentally friendly, but it hasn't changed significantly for years. A matrix of pipes is laid in a grid on top of insulation (typically polystyrene). Through the pipes is pumped a solution of antifreeze at between -10C to -15C. This grid is then repeatedly sprayed with water to build up layers of ice. Given a dry, windless day the rinks can stand air temperatures as high as 20C before they start to melt.

It's not quite as simple as putting ice cubes in the freezer box, but almost. The genius of this system is such that, once installed, it's simple enough for clients to operate on their own. It does not, however, come cheap. A 40m-by-20m rink - roughly the size of Edinburgh's Winter Wonderland - will set you back around £65,000. Add to that the cost of insurance ("a lot - especially, for some inexplicable reason since 9/11," says Koren), and you begin to understand why an hour's skating can set you back as much as £12.

Nevertheless, business is more cut-throat than ever: "Our heyday was three years ago," says Browse. "What you find since then is that this kind of skating has been in decline on the Continent, so European companies have been looking to get a foothold in the British market.

"The appeal of this kind of skating is a cyclical thing, and the cycle on the Continent began before ours." Perhaps it's inevitable that skating's appeal should be cyclical, a boom-and-bust activity. Before the days of artificial rinks, the weather saw to that. Why bother to master a pursuit when a warm winter might keep you from the ice for two years? Who could afford the equipment on the off-chance?

The history of skating is, at best, sketchy. In the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge, the earliest physical record of the sport in Britain can be found - deer-bone skates dating from Roman times. Scandinavian tribes are thought to have introduced the metal skate into Britain during the Dark Ages. By the 12th century skating had clearly become an entertainment. In 1180, a monk called FitzStephen published his Description of London. "Many young men play on the ice," he wrote. "Some tie bones to their feet and under their heels and shoving themselves with a little picked staff do slide as swiftly as a bird flys in the air or an arrow out of a cross-bow."

The mini-ice-age that gripped Europe from the 16th to 18th century guaranteed the activity's popularity. In London, the regular freezing of the Thames allowed great frost fairs, a mixture of ice-borne markets and playgrounds. When Pepys writes of skating in his diary, the terms in which he talks of it are almost aesthetic rather than sporting: "To my Lord Sandwich's, to Mr Moore and then over the Parke, where I first in my life, it being a great frost, did see people sliding with their sweats, which is a very pretty art." It was a prescient observation. Centuries later people would be arguing whether ice-dancing should really be classed as an Olympic sport.

But the man who did more than anyone to establish skating as a sport in Britain was Robert Jones, a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. Jones was a popular figure in 18th-century London's social scene. He was also, in 1772, sentenced to death at the Old Bailey for committing sodomy against a 13-year-old, a crime for which he was eventually pardoned by George III on condition he went into exile.

The same year he published his Treatise on Skating, "founded on certain principles deduced from many years' experience". Jones's infamy didn't stop the popularity of his book which, according to Rictor Norton's sourcebook Homosexuality in 18th-Century England, provided insights into such skills as gliding properly and offered suggestions on how to achieve the "flying Mercury position". Norton celebrates him as "the first queen on ice". He also pioneered the metal skate that screwed into the shoe.

So much for icy trivia. If the history of skating tells us one thing, however, it's that there has always been something manic and faddish about its appeal. The Victorians' described the public's (generally) harmless obsession with the sport in the 1870s and 1880s as "rinkomania". In winter, police were posted by inadequately frozen ponds to stop the public getting onto them.

In the late 18th century the Royal Humane Society provided wardens to save people who got into trouble while skating. By all accounts, the number of lives they saved was considerable. One contemporary journalist wrote of 30 to 40 people being pulled to safety every day: "The unlettered Cockney looks upon all this as a matter of course; he seems to think he has a right to risk his life if he choose, and that the Royal Humane Society have a right to save if they can, as a matter of business, and that accounts are square between them."

It was little different abroad: in 19th-century New York, the public were so mad for skating that a ball was hoisted to the top of a pole, and trolley buses flew red flags, to signal the ice in Central Park was ready.

Interestingly, the fashion appears to have crossed classes. You couldn't get much further from those "unlettered Cockneys" than Goethe and Wordsworth, who were both devotees. In Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, the well-bred Kitty painfully rejects her suitor, Levin, at a skating park.

A social historian could offer 10 reasons why it should fascinate such a wide sweep of society. Sex was surely part of it, the ice being one of the few places where men and women could consort socially - at least in some societies. As late as 1851, a woman was stoned to death in Germany for skating. It may or may not be significant that Sigmund Freud forbade his wife to skate.

But does any of this explain the current outbreak of seasonal "rinkomania"? It would be pushing a point to say that skating was, by and large, sexy. Robbie Williams did his bit with the video for "She's The One", in which Williams plays an ice-skating coach who finds love when he is forced to compete after his protégé is injured. (No, really, it could happen). But I strongly suspect the only people in the country who thought Torvill and Dean were sexy were Torvill and Dean. Remember, too, the episode of Sex and the City where Carrie finds out that her lover, Sean, is bisexual. "I could've told you that," says Samantha. "He took you ice-skating, for God's sake."

Personally, I've never got past beginner's frustration and the fear of ending up as one of the 18,000 skaters a year who end up contributing to the accident statistics. There is something almost melancholy about the disparity between how you imagine skating will feel (gliding aerodynamically like Raeburn's painting of the Reverend Robert Walker on Duddingston Loch) and the way it often is (chugging arthritically in a small circle like an elderly relation doing the conga). As Holden Caulfield observes in The Catcher in the Rye, all this is made worse by "at least a couple of hundred rubberneckers" who don't have "anything better to do than stand around and watch everybody falling over themselves".

But I know that Holden and I are in a minority. And if I don't want to risk the ice I can appreciate those who do. Something remains of skating's Victorian spirit of classlessness - though it may be better to call it inclusiveness. How many pursuits in our atomised, focus-grouped society appeal to young and the old, blue- and white-collar, men and women? Literally and metaphorically, skating is a great leveller.

That can disadvantages. City-centre rinks will, almost inevitably, attract some more familiar with Asbos than salchows. "You have to watch out for the groups of teenagers with bottles of Coke and something alcoholic", says one organiser. "What we tend to do by way of discouraging them is put on Frank Sinatra and 'White Christmas'. It seems to do the trick." And if it doesn't, you can always call on St Liedwi.