Skiing all the way home

Is the site of a disused mine in Sheffield about to be the new ski Mecca?

Brace yourself. Nothing gets skiers more excited than a new winter sports destination, and this week I bring you a resort so new that its chalet holidays do not start until the 1997/8 season. It is in a country which has not offered such holidays before. And it offers views the like of which you have never seen before from a ski slope.

This is not some obscure long-haul destination but "Europe's largest all-season ski resort". The cost of getting there is neither an arm nor a leg, because it is in England. Pause on its hellish black mogul run, look down across the car park on which eight chalets will be built - and there, beyond the gas holders, is a splendid vista of the city of Sheffield.

Sheffield's Ski Village was built on the site of a disused mine in 1988. The original owners went bust in 1991, and it was then taken over by the Blue Boar group (diversifying from running motorway service stations), which extended the skiing area and facilities. Last year it was sold to its management, who have ambitions way beyond those for your average dry ski slope. "It has always been our aim to turn it into a full ski resort," says the marketing director, Christopher Clarke. "You've got shops here; you can buy winter sports equipment, and learn to ski or snowboard; you can eat Wiener Schnitzel and drink gluwein; and, soon, you'll be able to go back to your chalet afterwards."

Ambition is written all over the Ski Village's piste map. It shows the green, blue, red and black runs, the snowboarders' quarter pipe, a toboggan run and two drag lifts. Also marked is the route of the planned snowboard run. Down at the bottom of the slope is The Lodge, with facilities for eating, drinking, shopping and workng-out, and alongside it an artist's impression of the "Proposed Chalet Holiday Village".

The Ski Village already attracts 250,000 skiers a year, and makes a profit of about pounds 200,000 on a turnover of pounds 1.5 million. But Christopher Clarke knows there is a market still to be tapped: holidaymakers. Hence the chalets. "In the season we do weekend-break packages, and they're very successful," he said. "We do them with the Holiday Inn, and for 40 quid you get one night's accommodation with breakfast and a full day's skiing. We get up to 300 couples a year taking them, so there's a market already there."

Work will begin on the eight new chalets next April, and some at least will be available to weekenders in the following season. Positive though Clarke is, even he doesn't believe that skiers will book in for a whole week's holiday; but he has a plan for weekdays. "There's a shortage of cheap, Travelodge-type business accommodation here, and we feel we can probably fill the chalets with business people during the week."

Obviously 250,000 skiers can't be wrong, and Sheffield Ski Village has a lot going for it. But what stops it being an ideal holiday destination for me is the skiing surface - the 35-year-old "Dendix" technology of the threadbare doormat, which isn't slippery and doesn't take an edge. It brought back many unhappy memories, and added some more for later. But the Ski Village is working on that problem - or, rather, Brian Thomas is. Down on the nursery slope I found him lying on sheets of a white, nylon-like material, fitting them together on a two-inch-deep foam underlay to create a new, forgiving ski surface. The material was covered with dense, upturned spikes: it looked like an industrial scourer - or, perhaps, a training mat for apprentice fakirs. This was Snowflex Virtual Snow, invented by Thomas, who is managing director of Briton Engineering Developments in Huddersfield.

Snowflex is far from being his first contribution to the British skiing business. He discovered the sport in 1968 following a snowfall in the Pennines, and became so enthusiastic about it that within two weeks he had built his first "tow-lift", powered by an old cement mixer. (A subsequent model, based this time on a scaffolding lift, is still used by an entrepreneur in Halifax when there is sufficient snow). In 1979, he launched the Britonlift, a portable drag lift of which more than 300 have been sold around the world, including to Cyprus and Greenland.

His company now specialises in dry ski slopes, and since 1993 he has been working on Snowflex. He wanted a better skiing surface, "slippy, but grippy" (to enable skis to edge) and softer to fall on; and he also wanted to remove the hazards of Dendix, namely the metal ties that hold the surface together - often protruding above it - and the "voids" between the bristles. Beginners tend to get their ski poles caught in the voids: Thomas says that he knows of eight cases where poles have caused puncture wounds, two of them to skiers on drag lifts.

The answer was his spiky mat, made of a polyester called PBT. He tested it on a rig using one ski and a strip of Snowflex: the material had enough lateral flexibility, he says, to permit carved turns. It is far more expensive than Dendix, but will last 10 times as long - with an eye to the export market, Thomas currently has a strip of Snowflex lying in a desert to test its durability for hot weather areas. His small prototype patch appeared briefly on Blue Peter and then moved to the ski slope at Calshot Activity Centre in Hampshire. But the 900-square-metre nursery slope at Sheffield Ski Village is Snowflex's proper debut.

Since it was still being laid, I couldn't test Brian Thomas' claims for Snowflex. But if it is a success, it will be installed on the Ski Village's pistes - and then maybe Christopher Clarke's scheme of "creating an Alpine resort in Sheffield" won't seem quite so "eccentric" (his description). Anyway, the skier's thirst for new resorts does throw up some eccentricities. When I asked Clarke how far people travelled to visit the Ski Village, he smiled and said: "Well, we did have three students from Norway here during the summer".

Sheffield Ski Village (0114-276 9459) is open every day except Christmas, 9am-10 pm; access to the slope costs from pounds 10 for two hours (adults), pounds 7 (under-16s).

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