See you on the ice: a new wave of temporary rinks establishes skating as the season's coolest activity

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The Independent Online

It is nearly 20 years since Christopher Dean, a former policeman, and his ex-insurance clerk partner Jayne Torvill notched up nine perfect scores at the Sarajevo Winter Olympics.

Their heart-stopping interpretation of Ravel's Bolero was to propel ice skating to unprecedented levels of popularity in Britain. But the nation's love for the sport was to slowly melt away - until now.

This Christmas, the minority pastime is being transformed into a mass event with dozens of temporary ice rinks installed in some of the most unlikely locations.

From Bluewater shopping centre in Kent to Hampton Court Palace, the King's Road to the roof of the London Aquarium, thousands of people are skating on a daily basis.

"It is very popular at the moment," said Keith Horton, general secretary of the National Ice Skating Association. "The best thing about temporary ice skating rinks is that they've succeeded in making skating more accessible to a lot of people."

Its popularity has not been confined to Olympic hopefuls. Greg Dyke, the director general of the BBC, took a team of executives to the rink at Somerset House in central London earlier this week for a Christmas skating party.

Richard Branson, the head of Virgin, also arranged for a temporary rink to be installed for his daughter's birthday at a private party in London.

The popularity of the sport has been reflected in the burgeoning crowds flocking to festive ice rinks in London in the past month.

More than 2,000 skaters a day are visiting Somerset House, where the rink, in the historic courtyard, is decorated with flaming torches and a 40ft Christmas tree. Linda Bernhardt, the public events manager at Somerset House, said: "It is becoming more popular every year. There will be in excess of 100,000 visitors by the end of the season and we're already booked up until 4 January. The wonderful thing is that it's very mixed. There are children and businessmen. There was even a marriage proposal last night."

A temporary ice-skating rink on the roof terrace above the London Aquarium has also proved popular. In the shadow of the London Eye, with stunning views across Westminster, the rink attracts dozens of children every day and is crowded with adults at night.

Kathryn Stafford, 39, from Wandsworth, south-west London, who was with five children aged between six and 16, said: "Skating has always been popular but there are so many more places where you can actually go at the moment."

Crashing into the barrier, her nine-year-old son Tom added: "It's really good fun. But it's not as easy as it looks."

Ian Robinson, a 36-year-old telecommunications worker from Cookham Dean, Berkshire, said he had decided to reward his colleagues for their recent hard work with a trip to the rink. Moments before inelegantly launching himself into the swirl of skaters, he said: "There do seem to be more rinks around in London. This is a great venue with fantastic views and seemed like an innovative way of thanking my team for their hard work."

Meanwhile, an ice-skating rink has been opened on the King's Road, in Chelsea, by the enterprising owners of Patisserie Valerie.

Tatiana Munro-Cameron, aged five, who lives nearby, said: "This is my second time and it's really good. It feels a bit like you're roller-skating."

Daniele Rossi, whose family runs the patisserie, added: "This is the first time we've done something like this and we've been really busy. It's perfect for parents who are shopping with their children and we've run out of small boot sizes a few times already."

The growth of skating's popularity has not been confined to the capital. Peter Emmett, managing director of Promo Concepts Ice Magic, has installed 65 ice rinks in the UK and more than a dozen abroad in the past year. "It has exploded in recent months," said Mr Emmett, whose company specialises in synthetic ice rinks.

Aria, a company which installs ice rinks, also reported a boom in business. Its most impressive venture is the largest temporary ice rink in the country which has been installed at the Millennium Dome and can hold up to 300 people.

"We have been rushed off our feet dealing with the demand for ice-skating rinks. We started with just one a year in 1999 and now we have 12," said Stacey Gent, a spokeswoman for Aria.