Travel: Downhill all the way - to the A20

Determined to cut a dash on the piste, Cathy Packe practises her parallel turns on some drier slopes in Britain

I've seen chalet girls who don't ski any better at the end of the season than they did at the beginning - and that's after 20 weeks of skiing every day." Even allowing for a skiing instructor's jaded attitude towards chalet girls, Mark Quinn was making a good point: skiing a lot, without actually practising, doesn't necessarily make your skiing any better.

Mark was talking to a group of beginners at a dry-ski course organised by the Ski Club of Great Britain at Bromley in Kent. Some of them had had a dry run once before, others had tried the real thing at some point in the past, but they all wanted to find out if they would ever get the hang of skiing. By the end of the day most of them had: everyone had got to grips with a snowplough, and half the group was attempting parallel turns, although some turns were more parallel than others.

The Ski Club places a great deal of emphasis on proper tuition. The holidays it organises are all accompanied by experienced guides who know the resort well, and who lead groups of skiers who prefer not to ski unaccompanied. Beginners' holidays include tuition from a qualified instructor. The club is also running a series of day-long courses at various dry slopes around the country; some are aimed at specific groups - beginners, children, over-50s - and others, the FAST courses, cover fitness and skiing technique for people who can already ski. The aim is for skiers and would-be skiers to put in some practice before they get out their passports and put on their thermals.

At Bromley, the group of 20 was divided into two after everyone had been kitted out with skis and boots. Dry slopes can be harsh on skis, so it is better to rent than to use your own. The cost of ski and boot hire is included in the cost of a session. Plenty of time was taken to make sure everyone was comfortable, and to explain what boots and bindings are there to do. In my experience, this rarely happens in mountain resorts. Once everyone was happy, they were led out on to the nursery slope for a warm-up session, lifting legs, jumping or stepping from side to side, so that everyone could get the feel of their new equipment before trying out the first gentle slope.

Dry skiing is no substitute for the real thing, but then no one claims that it is. A dry slope is nothing more than a hill covered with what appears to be a wiry carpet or matting, made from either Dendrex or Snowflex, but known in the trade as plastic. This can be unpleasant if you fall, so instructors insist that everyone should wear trousers, long sleeves and gloves as protection. Most dry slopes consist of a nursery area, and one or more main slopes, with two or three drag-lifts going up the sides. Scenically they don't compare with the Alps or the Rockies: the Bromley slope would end up on the A20 if someone hadn't thoughtfully put in a barrier at the bottom. The exception to this is the Snowdome in Tamworth, where the skiing is on "real" snow, the sort they use in ski resorts to supplement the stuff that comes out of the sky. Paradoxically, it is the only dry slope that is indoors.

Chris Marsh and Sean McCarthy are reps with the Ski Club. They are in no doubt about the merits of dry skiing, and reckon that anyone who is serious about making progress on the snow should consider skiing once a week from September to January on plastic. Even a few refresher sessions can ensure that at the very least you will take up where you left off, without spending a couple of days relearning old techniques; and at best you might progress to a higher level. Unlike mountain skiing, most people don't go for a whole day to a dry slope. Sessions are booked and charged by the hour, and because of the relatively limited selection of slopes, two or three hours are likely to be enough.

Chris and Sean point out that apart from providing an opportunity to practise manoeuvres, dry sessions can also be a way of saving money. Lessons in many resorts can be expensive, while most dry slopes offer a couple of hours' group tuition from around pounds 10 an hour, although this may involve paying a nominal membership fee to use the ski centre. And anyone who has never skied before has the chance to find out whether they like it, before making a serious investment in mountain clothing.

On the beginner's course at Bromley, Mark was keen to point out that everyone has their own way of learning. Listen, watch and feel were his words of advice: some people do as they are told, others learn from seeing a demonstration, but in the end most people get to grips with skiing by accidentally getting it right and then trying to repeat the sensation. One of the advantages of dry skiing is that you have the chance to practise without the added terror of a steep, icy slope stretching out in front of you.

The success of the course could be measured in various ways, and not just in the smooth shapes of everyone's parallel turns. Most people agreed that there are benefits in having an instructor who speaks English, which is often not the case in many European resorts. By the end of the day, most of the group had decided to go ahead and book a holiday in the mountains. And many thought that a few more lessons on the dry slope wouldn't do any harm.

That was a feeling echoed by the receptionist at Bromley. "People think they have got the hang of it, but sometimes when they come back again, they realise that they just aren't safe." A few lessons on a dry slope can certainly ensure that you will ski better when you finally get to the mountains.

DRY-SKI SLOPES

GETTING THERE

For details of dry-ski courses, contact the Ski Club of Great Britain (tel: 0181-410 2022). The next FAST course will be held at the Tamworth Snowdome, Leisure Island, River Drive, Tamworth, on 14 November. The prices are pounds 47 for Ski Club members and pounds 52 for non- members. The next course at Bromley Ski Centre will be held on 5 December. The prices are pounds 36 for Ski Club members, pounds 41 for non-members.

The Bromley Ski and Snowboard Centre, Sandy Lane, St Paul's Cray, Orpington, Kent (tel: 01689 876812) is open seven days a week. One hour on the slopes costs pounds 7.50 for adults and pounds 6 for children. Two hours costs pounds 10 for adults and pounds 8.50 for children. Prices include the hire of skis and boots.

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