It's always winter here

It may be only early October but, on the rarefied pistes of alpine Buckinghamshire, ski fanatics are already carving through the snow

The temperature hit minus six degrees centigrade late on Sunday in Milton Keynes. A blizzard whipped up by freak winds raged through the night. But the conditions were highly localised: the snow - which, by 9am on Monday, had reached a depth of 40cm - fell only on an area 170 metres long and 60 metres wide.

The temperature hit minus six degrees centigrade late on Sunday in Milton Keynes. A blizzard whipped up by freak winds raged through the night. But the conditions were highly localised: the snow - which, by 9am on Monday, had reached a depth of 40cm - fell only on an area 170 metres long and 60 metres wide.

This wasn't real weather, of course. The microclimate was artificially created in one corner of the huge Xscape leisure complex, in preparation for the opening at the beginning of this week of Europe's newest and (by the management's estimate) largest indoor ski slope, the Healthland Snozone. And what covered the slope wasn't real snow, either - or at least, not really real.

The term "real snow" is a contentious one in the world of indoor ski slopes, a world which extends from Amsterdam to Singapore and encompasses 37 "snowdomes" either open or under construction, according to the Snow24 database. In the early days of indoor snow-making technology - when the only rival snow-substitute was the upturned-scrubbing-brush surface offered on dry ski slopes - pretty much anything that was cold and white counted as "real snow". At the Tamworth Snowdome in Staffordshire, the term was used to describe a substance not unlike the frosting that gathers on old, forgotten packets of beefburgers in the back of the freezer. True, it provided a much better skiing surface than that of a dry slope, and continues to do so today; but it is nothing like the soft, fluffy stuff that has fallen on Milton Keynes.

The Snozone uses a different technology (in case you are wondering, the "Healthland" name belongs to a fitness club of which the ski slope forms an unusual part). Its snow-making machinery, developed by the Birmingham-based Acer Snowmec company, resembles that used outdoors in mountain resorts.

The great blowers in the roof of the "indoor real snow centre" at Milton Keynes look like turbofan jet engines; they are the sort of air-conditioning device that residents of Miami would kill for in August. They pump out a fine mist which, when the thermostat is set to the night-time temperature of minus six, turns into a snow-shower. The result is clearly a step up the snow chain; nevertheless, what these machines produce is known in mountain resorts as "artificial" or "man-made" snow, to distinguish it from the stuff that falls out of the sky.

Everything is relative, and the Snozone's surface is relatively real snow. Imagine a nursery slope in a low-lying Alpine resort where a poor season's meagre snowfall has been husbanded carefully through consistently cold weather, and you'll get some idea of the piste conditions in Milton Keynes at the end of the day. Not exactly powder, but better then anything else you could ski on in England in October.

The fact that it falls from up in the roof allows the snow to create something of an Alpine atmosphere, clinging as it does in the day-time temperature of minus two degrees to the cables and pylons of the pair of Poma drag-lifts. The resort ambience is rather compromised by the Snozone's fierce, stage-set lights: they give the impression that something dramatic is about to happen, and it did. The woman who fell at the top of one of the lifts - on, I fear, her first ascent - added a little more authenticity to the scene by being stretchered off the slope on a "blood wagon".

The slope is divided into three pistes, separated by the lines of columns that support the building's roof. The main piste, and the slalom track alongside it (with a jump for snowboarders), are each served by a drag-lift, and both run the full 170m length of the slope; the beginners' area is shorter, and has a moving-carpet ride up the side. Unlike the L-shaped slope at Tamworth, the Snozone is a strictly up-and-down affair - which means that you get to the bottom fairly quickly, no matter how many turns you put in. I timed one circuit and found that a 114-second ascent gave me 31 seconds of skiing, a "snowdome ratio" of 3.6; in a similar calculation made a few years ago at Tamworth, which has slower lifts, it took 4.7 times as long to go up as to come down.

Being used to more attractive surroundings with more challenging terrain, I found £20-worth of skiing at the Snozone more than enough: I didn't even wait to find out whether, as promised, the ski-pass would cease to operate the turnstiles when my hour was up. True, the lift up the slalom piste, with its view through the windows of Milton Keynesians pumping away in the fitness centre, was diverting; and the snow surface was very impressive. But there's a limit to the number of times one can go up and down the same slope.

Finally, a word of warning to anyone who ventures up to Milton Keynes - as I did - to ski in the evening: don't believe those who tell you that it's easy to find a cab outside the Xscape complex. On Monday night it certainly wasn't. In a city designed for cars, it's irritating to be without one, especially when you are carrying a pair of skis. I would have had to tramp the two miles to the railway station, had it not been for a kind Independent-reader who picked me up about a mile down the dual-carriageway. Thanks again, Brian.

 

Healthland Snozone is at 602 Marlborough Gate, Central Milton Keynes (01908 230260), open 9am to 11pm every day. Adults £20 per hour at peak times, £15 off-peak; juniors (3-15 years), £14/£10

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