Ice-skating is not only the quintessential Dutch sport, it also underwrites the history, art and culture of the Netherlands. Perhaps most importantly a good freeze provides the Dutch (and their guests) with their one chance to discover a wilderness and an outdoor challenge within their own landscape. Slashed by rivers and canals, pocked with polders (low-lying reclaimed land) and lakes, and meshed in a web of interconnecting drainage ditches, the Netherlands is a skater's dream. Thousands of kilometres of routes carry the skater to the heart of a wild landscape, unsuspected and inaccessible except when frozen.
Though on average January and February are the likeliest months for ice, a freeze can come at any time in the winter, and there is little for the aspiring skater to do except be prepared and wait - like the locals. At the first scabbing of ice the Dutch, normally so earnest and responsible, abandon jobs and universities, uttering the traditional schoolchildren's demand of "We willen ijs vrij" - we want ice time.
In the Netherlands everybody skates. Speed teams, in tight lines following each other nose to buttock, legs pumping in powerful unison, set the ice whining and vibrating like the rails under an approaching train. Children on double-bladed tin skates push chairs ahead of themselves for balance. Punks and neo-hippies shiver past. And veteran couples in sensible woollen jackets, arms entwined, sway along like ballroom dancers.
When I first started skating I prepared by walking the art galleries of Amsterdam. Brueghel and Averkamp had painted skaters accurately enough to show basic ice technique, and I adopted the traditional skates that their medieval peasants used: Friesan doorlopers - metal blades set into wooden platforms that one strapped on over one's walking boots. They had two advantages. They were available in second-hand shops, and they gave the tyro-skater the possibility of unstrapping them and walking away if things were going badly.
My first venture on to the ice started on the banks of Delft's park lake, where I cinched my blades on, and listened to a friend's summarising of the Brueghel technique. "Blades upright, then push off with one skate away from the other ... at an angle of 45 degrees, more or less. Make a good long glide. Swing the back foot forward and do the same again but to the other side."
A small child swept by, following instructions to the letter. I stood up and launched myself from the bank, copying the child. And to my surprise it worked. I spent an hour charging up and down the narrow strip of ice, blasting through the clouds of icy breath that I blew ahead of me.
There was, however, much more to learn. Efficient skaters lean forward at the waist, hands held behind the back, legs lazily scissoring back and forth to notch up 15 to 20km an hour, hour after hour. This classic pose was a little more difficult than the arm waving and leg jerking I had perfected. And stopping, though an essential skill for avoiding disaster in crowded areas, proved even more challenging. I struggled to angle the blades into a snow plough, so I could skid to a halt without diving forward on to my nose in a painful shower of ice crystals.
Having put a few kilometres of duck pond under my skates, and the freeze biting deeper, it was time to get out into the country. Though purists would argue that the Netherlands' best skating is in the Friesland, the most waterlogged and least populated province, from my base in Delft I concentrated on the equal attractions of the canals and lakes of Zuid Holland. The Netherlands' small size and round-the-clock rail service makes it practical to set up base in any large town and sally forth by train and bus to reach the chosen skating grounds, returning after a day's hard blading to traditional skater's fare of pea soup - snert - and boiled wurst. To return to Delft and its snug bars became the metaphysical goal of my each day's skating.
For my first big outing I joined forces with Marten Klein to run the Amstel river, skating south from Amsterdam, via the waver, to the lake at Botshal. We were following a route famous among English "touring skaters" of the last century. C G Tebbutt writing in the Badminton Library series of sporting guides in 1891 describes exactly this tour, and also noted the egalitarian nature of Dutch life. He pointed out that in Holland you "must put on your own skates, even if you are a lady", conjuring up a vision of hip flasks, plus-fours and deer-stalker hats.
Serenaded by funeral bells and a mournful French horn, Marten and I strapped on our skates next to the graveyard in Ouderkirk, and cast off past the dark hulks of barges frozen into the ice. Within a few hundred metres my sang froid was shattered, literally, by a sudden explosion beneath my blades. A jagged crack shot through the ice and water gushed up in jets and spurts. I skidded back to the bank for some reassuring words on safety. The ice takes its strength from floating on the water, and cracks, crazing and sudden noises are all welcome proofs that the ice is safely under tension. "The danger comes," Marten explained, "when the water level drops under the ice, leaving it unsupported. When you hear nothing, but the ice bends under your weight, that's when you're in real danger, and you hope you can swim faster than you freeze."
We joined the stream of skaters swinging down the Amstel; then to avoid thin ice under a bridge, we kluned over the road to the Waver river. Klunen, the necessity of hobbling on one's skates across roads, up banks and around locks, is the skater's nightmare. It is the removal of one's wings, and a return to a toiling, every-day locomotion. On the more popular routes old carpets and rubber mats eased the ankle-snapping trudge from one ice sheet to the next, but kluning still felt like some sadistic and drunken party game.
Consulting our maps we spotted a short- cut and hobbled up to a raised aqueduct, and then skated above the fields as if riding some surreal conveyor belt. Tebbutt described a similar improvised route 100 years before: "We accepted the lead of Dutchman and his boy taking a barrel of schiedam on a sledge ... he gave us a gallop along ditches and drains and through farmyards for hours." In less than hours, Marten and I debouched into Botshol, a scrub-fringed lake mazed with reed beds.
I soared off across the misty ice with a feeling not of walking on water but of flying silently above it. My silent passing disgruntled gloomy herons slouching along the bank, and startled the grebes and coots fussing around in the centre's ever-contracting pool of water. And beneath my skates lay the bizarre sight of perch and chub frozen into ice so glassy that I could see the peaty brown bottom a metre or two down.
To get the most out of any freeze, however fleeting, skating clubs throughout the Netherlands are ready to rush into action. They lay mats at kluning points, mark off dangerous spots with Beano-style wooden "Danger - Thin Ice" signs, fearlessly drive old cars converted into snow ploughs across the lakes to clear tour routes, and then run those same tours. The most famous of the Netherlands' tochten is the Friesan Elfstedentocht, the "eleven towns race", run only in the coldest years when the ice is thick enough to support anything up to 17,000 competitors skating the 200km course.
But Zuid Holland has its own traditional tochten. Confident skaters can set off from Gouda with a clay pipe tied to the back of their trousers to prove, if it remains intact, that narry a fall was taken en route to Rotterdam. Or bladers can strike off from Wateringen, bound for Vlaardingen to collect a handful of ijsmoppen, a particular and elusive type of biscuit that should be carried back to one's household in one's socks. The Dutch take pride in the eccentric Dutchness of their tours, and with growing experience I joined a group to zig-zag around the Kagerplassen in a flurrying snowstorm, with the aim of skating to all the lake's surrounding windmills on the 30km Molentocht.
Stalls, slowly melting through the ice, provided koek en zopie - cakes and hot drinks. Dour men shuffling cold feet in hay-filled clogs sat in small booths and stamped our tour cards, completion of which allowed us to claim a small medal at the end of trip. Less than legal entrepreneurs had set up speakeasies in the dense rush beds to sell welcome shots of beerenburger and jaegermeister to frozen ice warriors.
For 10 days of ice the country was transformed into a landscape painted by a Dutch master. Small villages, hayricks, gloomy barns, steaming dung- heaps and frost-blasted trees poked from the snow in stark black detail. Russet-cheeked farmers stumped past windmills pulling sledges. Moreover, there was an inspiring chasm between the knowledge that factories and towns lay only a little beyond sight and the bleak feeling that the primeval cold and the gyring of the freezing fog had wiped away all civilisation. And there was little to beat the pleasure of rediscovering that same civilisation; clumping into a bar, shedding layers of clothing in the snug heat, one's fingers, feet and ears numbed after hours spent gliding across pallid landscapes scribbled with reeds and distant spires. The heart was warmed by exercise and hot rums.
A freeze never outlives the enthusiasm of the Dutch to skate, and even as the ice began to melt, I was struggling, along with a small band of die-hards, to finish a 70km tocht. A film of water rainbowed from our blades, and there were gaping holes in the ice, lapped by wavelets. Skating finishes like that: damply and in a feeling of anti-climax.
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines has numerous flights daily to Schipol (close to Amsterdam and Rotterdam) from Heathrow, Southampton, Bristol, Birmingham and Cardiff. Contact travel agents or KLM direct (tel: 0990 750900). Midweek return flights from Heathrow in January cost pounds 89.
The most suitable areas for long-distance skating and touring are found in the provinces of Friesland, Nord Holland and Zuid Holland. Amsterdam, Delft, Gouda and Leiden make good bases from which to skate.
Ice is unpredictable and skateable ice can appear and disappear overnight. Contact with somebody in the Netherlands is the surest access to news of skate conditions. Otherwise watch the weather maps for hard freezes without snow.
There are a few important safety tips to keep in mind. Do not skate alone or too far away from other skaters. Skate on recognised routes or follow a tour. Learn how to stop effectively. Avoid ice under trees or bridges, near locks, weirs, or factory and sewage outfalls. Carry enough clothing to cover temperature drops or cooling after exercise. Frostbite and exposure are possibilities - know the symptoms and treatments.
In season, all large towns have skate specialists (often in bicycle shops). New strap-on doorlopers cost about pounds 30, and serviceable second-hand pairs from junk shops cost between pounds 5 and pounds 15. All blades, whether new or second- hand, will need sharpening before use and whenever they lose their bite. Do not buy boot-style rink or ice-hockey skates. Modern long-distance skaters use Noren skates - but they are difficult to master. You will also need a good breathable waterproof jacket, gloves, hat and scarf. Plenty of thin, loose warm layers can be stuffed into a small day-pack when not needed. Always carry extra warm clothing. Doorlopers need to be strapped over a pair of walking boots. Use two pair of socks. A large scale map, a drink, energy snacks and a whistle are all essential kit.
The local tourist board, the VVV, which can be found in all towns, publishes excellent 1:50,000 scale maps. It can also book local accommodation, and give bus and train information.
The Netherlands Board of Tourism, PO Box 523, London SW1E 6NT, (tel: 0891 717777, premium and cheap rates per minute) has information on travel, accommodation and skating tours.