Eye witness: Frozen in time, a bit of old England

For the first time in years, floods and frost have led to the revival of an ancient sport – with scenes reminiscent of Breughel
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The Independent Online

This is like seeing England as it was long ago, before the electric light or the steam engine. Watching skaters glide across Bury Fen, Huntingdonshire, in the weak winter sunshine it is almost possible to believe in a world without McDonald's. The flooded field has frozen over, for the first time in years, and the villagers of Earith have come to indulge in the old but very rare sport of fen-skating. If the weather holds they may even get to compete in the national championships, which have not been held in full since 1987.

Only the Adidas stripes and Nike flourishes on their fleeces distinguish these skaters from characters in a painting by Breughel. The red-faced man blowing misty breaths into his hands is not a lace-maker, or a cooper; he designs software for computers. The cloth-merchants, farriers, blacksmiths and brewers of old are all gone, and so too are most of the farmers. Instead a university lecturer strides out as her great-grandfather did in the days when fen-skating was a welcome distraction from work in the fields.

Her skates are Norwegian and modern, not the curiously rounded steel blades whose beechwood frame he screwed into the heel of his work boots. But her backside hits the ice with much the same muffled crump as his did a century or more ago.

"Isn't this great?" says Lucy, the lecturer, laughing as she struggles to get up. "It's a different kind of life out here." She's right: there are no burger vans at Bury Fen, noadmission fees and no signs – just a long line of cars parked haphazardly by a line of trees.

This is the season for Old England to show its curious face. New Year is when people all over the country engage in ancient and apparently daft activities. In Allendale, Northumberland, the villagers parade with barrels of burning wood shavings balanced on their heads. In Essex they race through the mud of the River Blackwater. In Lincolnshire teams play the Haxey Hood game, a 700-year-old contest like street rugby without the rules. It is held in memory of the day when a certain Lady de Mowbray lost her hood on a gust of wind and 13 gallant men took off after it across muddy, furrowed fields.

These strange events have one thing in common: they take place in small places far away from that other England where every high street looks the same. If Bury Fen were in the centre of London it would have been closed down by health and safety inspectors on the first day.

You would never guess it by looking at those athletes in skin-tight Lycra who race on immaculate surfaces for Olympic medals, but English speed-skating began in the Fens. The first properly organised and publicised race was here in 1814. The golden age came during the reign of Victoria, when the winters were harsh and skaters travelled from America and the Continent to race against local legends like William "Turkey" Smart for a leg of mutton, a bag of flour or the small amount of cash that would help a family to survive the winter. The first man ever to adopt the low, flailing style that everyone uses now, Turkey was as famous in the Fens then as any footballer is today.

"Getting warmer, isn't it?" says an elderly man in wellingtons by the side of the ice. My hands are frozen. He smiles. "Winter's not what it was."

The organised events became steadily rarer during the last century. There was a day's racing in 1997 but the weather has not allowed a traditional series of events since 1987. A drop in temperature last week suddenly made their return a possibility.

"We're hopeful," said Gary Warrington, their potential organiser, on Thursday. Bury Fen had to be frozen enough for a proper race-course to be marked out and smoothed over. Hitting a bump at 20mph hurts, and the slide is long.

They used to nail posters to trees or telegraph the champion racers. Mobile phones and the internet make it easier to organise a meeting, but the weather is more unpredictable than ever. Yesterday's races were called off when the ice began to thaw, leaving the surface rutted and wet. "It's not over yet," said a disappointed Mr Warrington. "The forecast is for another freeze. That's the thing with fen skating, see. You never can tell."