Winter wonderlands: Taking to the ice

This Christmas will see more outdoor rinks than ever before, many of which are set in some of Britain's best-known urban spaces. Jonathan Brown and Lucy Phillips report on an ice phenomenon
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The Independent Online

Something about the sight of a dashing figure swishing across a frozen surface on nothing but a pair of slender metal blades has always been hopelessly romantic.

In Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, the author uses the love-struck Levin's prowess as a skater as a metaphor for passion as he vainly attempts to woo Kitty at Moscow's Zoological Gardens. The hero of Tom's Midnight Garden escapes the drab loneliness of his boyhood, skating down an enchanted River Ouse with his companion, the unhappy orphan Hatty. And who can forget the sheer drama of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean's performance at the climax of Ravel's Bolero during the Sarajevo Olympics.

Cities and towns across Britain are exploiting the romantic allure of the sport by freezing the courtyards of their famous buildings and central squares. As the outdoor skating season gets under way in earnest this week, they are expecting to attract a record number of people to the ice this winter.

In London, the Natural History Museum became the latest national institution to join the craze. Madonna's daughter, Lourdes, MTV presenter Donna Air and cellist Julian Lloyd Webber were among the celebrities who took to the ice amid the Victorian splendour of the museum's gardens last week.

The rink follows the success of skating at Somerset House, now in its sixth year, which has become one of the capital's most popular winter destinations, attracting 100,000 a year to its courtyard on the Strand. The Somerset House rink opens this Thursday and is popular as a corporate night out, especially with City firms .

Donna Gately, the manager of the National Ice Centre in Nottingham, is in no doubt about the appeal. "It is the sense of speed and the feeling of freedom to be able to move at speed. The ability to do something different on ice," she said.

But the sport has other benefits too. While testing on the ankles, is an excellent way to keep fit. It is being taken up by women, particularly those aged between 50 and 60, looking for a new and interesting way to burn off calories. Alexandra Palace, a long established indoor ice rink in north London, has been offering special classes for the age group.

According to Ms Gately, learning the basics is easy, although to get even close to the standard set by Torvill and Dean requires years of unyielding dedication. "You can move safely across the ice after one session, and most people find they have a reasonable balance without tuition," she said.

The first skaters took to the ice more than 1,000 years ago in Scandinavia, using animal bones to propel themselves across the frozen ground. By 1600, the Dutch had perfected the manufacture of iron skates. The innovation spread across Europe, which at that time was in the middle of a period of prolonged cold weather that was to last from 1400 to 1900.

During this so-called Little Ice Age the Thames regularly froze over and, in 1683-84, the ice reached 11 inches in thickness at some points along the river. Londoners celebrated with an annual frost fair at which large numbers took part in bull-baiting, puppet theatres and heavy drinking. As temperatures warmed and technology improved, ice skating in Britain became an indoor activity, with the notable exception of the winter of 1963, when major lakes and rivers froze solid for several weeks.

In an unlikely twist, Britain dominated skating at the Olympics of the late 1970s and 1980s. John Curry, Robin Cousins and Torvill and Dean became national celebrities, amassing six gold medals between them. While British skaters are unlikely to be among the medals in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, the sport will receive a boost when Torvill and Dean host a new series, Strictly Ice Dancing, modelled on the successful BBC 1 ballroom dancing show.

Natural History Museum, London

New this year, a 1,000m-square ice rink is set in the gardens of the world-famous museum. Skaters can also shop for unusual gifts at the museum's Christmas fair. Open: 16 November to 22 January. See: www.nhm.ac.uk

Warwick Castle, Warwick

Beneath the awesome towers and turrets, a feast of ice and snow awaits, illuminated by twinkling lights and flaming torches. Open: 3 December to 8 January See: www.warwickfrostfair.com

Clifford's Tower, York

Against the backdrop of Clifford's Tower in the centre of York, a 600metre-square ice rink is centered on an illuminated oak tree. Open: 26 November to 8 January. See: www.theicefactor.co.uk

Edinburgh

Set beneath the skyline of Scotland's most famous castle, East Princes Street is transformed into a winter world of ice.

Open: 25 November to 9 January. See: www.gildedballoon.co.uk

City Hall, Cardiff

At an outdoor ice rink on City Lawn, the Christmas events season includes performances by professional skaters. Open: 25 November-9 January. See: wwww.cardiffswinterwonderland.com/

Old Trafford, Manchester

This rink is housed within a clear dome in which skaters can enjoy views of the skies above and a backdrop of the East Stand. Open: 26 November to 8 January. See: www.manutdicerink.com/

Millennium Square, Leeds

Now in its sixth year, the UK's largest outdoor ice skating rink comprises over 1,200 square metres of real ice. Open: 14 January to 27 February. See: www.leeds.gov.uk/icecube/

Hampton Court Palace, London

Within the royal grounds, this ice rink is on the west front of Henry VIII's red-brick palace. Onsite café serves snacks and warm drinks. Open: 3 December to 15 January. See: www.hamptoncourticerink.com

Kew Gardens, London

Skate surrounded by natural beauty and in front of the stunning Temperate House. This is the largest outdoor ice rink in London. Open: 26 November to 15 January. See: www.rbgkew.org.uk

Somerset House, London

London's original outdoor rink returns for the fifth year, set in the courtyard of this magnificent 18th-century building. Open: 24 November to 29 January See: www.somersethouseicerink.org.uk

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