Holidays on ice: The cool guide

So we only get snow at Christmas in Richard Curtis films? Humbug! The open-air ice rinks are changing all that. Adrian Mourby charts their irresistible rise

Then everything changed. Suddenly, despite global warming, we had open-air ice-skating in Britain. Like a lot of people, I only realised this in 2000 when walking past Somerset House with my children. To our amazement, we saw people gliding to and fro in the old Inland Revenue car park. We abandoned our Christmas shopping immediately and piled in on hired skates.

Until then, I'd never skated in Britain before. Our local rink is a den of iniquity with loud disco music and blood on the ice. But open-air rinks are something altogether different and the British have seized on them with yuletide glee. We may only have snow at Christmas in Richard Curtis films but now we can all go ice skating from November to January.

There are now about 25 of these temporary structures in Britain. Cardiff builds its Winter Wonderland, complete with ferris wheel and merry-go-round, on vacant lawns opposite City Hall. Edinburgh ices Princes Street Gardens and even the Eden Project in Cornwall, the warmest place to spend a British Christmas, creates ice in front of its two glass biomes. The Tower of London will also provide a spectacular backdrop for a rink this year for the first time.

The whole thing began simply. In the mid-1990s a UK company called CRS realised it had a cash-flow problem. CRS stands for Chiller Rental Services and it was only getting work in the summer months. So the company directors started looking into ways of getting people to hire out facilities in the winter.

Taking its inspiration from the Rockefeller Center in New York, the company went round the UK offering outdoor ice rinks to various British cities. In 1996, Manchester took the bait with one of the UK's first open-air rink in Albert Square. To get people to come along, the Manchester Storm ice hockey team staged demonstrations and schools were given free lessons.

Skating out of doors in Britain has since taken off, but it wasn't until November 2000 that it hit the headlines with the transformation of Somerset House's courtyard.

"Location is a crucial factor," says Mark Nelson, whose company, Ice Events & Promotions, builds and runs the Somerset House rink each year.

"This to me is the market leader in the UK: this is our Rockefeller. It's a great location and the rink is a beautiful structure," says Nelson. Some 120,000 skaters every year - each paying £9.50 an hour - obviously agree.

While not all the UK's temporary rinks are constructed yet, it's likely that the 20 or 25 erected in Britain this winter will bring in more than £6m of revenue by the time they're defrosted next spring. The visual spectacle is getting more and more impressive as cities compete for the skating pound.

Rinks range from simple £100,000 structures in shopping centres to mega-spends, like the Temperate House rink at Kew Gardens, that can cost up to £600,000. Other interpretations include a traditional German Christmas market rink at Cribbs Causeway near Bristol to Birmingham's "Street Ice" in Centenary Square which has been designed by T-mobile to give a contemporary feel to the world of British ice-skating.

"Why did we want an ice rink?" asks Birmingham's councillor John Alden, cabinet member for leisure, sport and culture. "We looked at Glasgow which has brought 80,000 to 90,000 people into the city centre with theirs. We thought that if we can get 60,000 skaters into Centenary Square that will really fix Birmingham in people's imaginations as one of the best Christmas experiences in the country.

"The one problem with Centenary Square was that we have this big fountain, so what's been built, in effect, is two ice rinks linked together, round the fountain, by an "ice street". There'll be disco lights, a plasma screen and artwork underneath the ice which will shine through when people are skating."

Innovation is the keyword with rinks this year. Several have incorporated Father Christmas grottoes, Bristol has brought in local heroes Wallace & Gromit and Canary Wharf has brought in 1980 Olympic figure skating gold medallist Robin Cousins. Further up the Thames, the Tower of London is converting its moat into an ice rink. Norwich will be using 30,000 lights to create the effect of stars over its Forum and Chester is building a Victorian Christmas market round its rink.

"There's no limit to what you can do," says Mark Nelson, "although we did have problems at Hampton Court. I was hoping we'd be able to build in one of the Tudor courtyards, like Base Court, but in the end it was decided that the Victorian drains that run underneath wouldn't stand the weight. It's not just the ice pad. When you're constructing these things you have to bring in cranes and heavy machinery. So we've sited that one on the lawns outside. It's still a stunning backdrop."

Temporary ice rinks are a particularly British phenomenon. Of the estimated 85 to 90 rinks that will be built across Europe this year, two-fifths will be in Britain. Nevertheless Berlin, Bruges, Hamburg and Paris have all impressed winter tourists in recent years, the French entry being constructed on a platform inside the Eiffel Tower.

"You keep coming back to location," says Mark Nelson. "One of the best we've ever done was at Curwen Park in Workington. We built in the grounds of a house that had once been the property of Mary Queen of Scots. Beautiful."

The impact of these temporary structures on indoor rinks has been beneficial.

"There's no falling off in December when a temporary ice rink opens in the same city as a permanent rink," says Mike Petrouis, the managing director of Planet Ice. "And we find that ticket sales actually go up in February and March - above the normal seasonal increase.

"Outdoor rinks take people back to the idea of skating. They like the romantic idea of skating underneath the open sky and then afterwards - when the temporary rink finishes - they want to continue for a while."

What is certainly true is that outdoor rinks have given us new ways of looking at Britain's architectural heritage, and given us a taste of the white Christmas we've always wanted. Ever since Mr Pickwick went skating in Chapter 30 of The Pickwick Papers, ice has been associated with a Dickensian Christmas. Now we have it.

This winter's top skating rinks

Birmingham

With the emphasis on contemporary rather than Christmas, the complex includes two rinks linked by an iced street with chill-out igloo and the chance to have your mobile phone pictures projected on the plasma screens above.

Admission: £7 adult, £5 child. T-Mobile Ice Street, Centenary Square (0121-767 4141; birmingham.gov.uk/ christmas).

Manchester

Old Trafford's East Stand provides the backdrop to this rink, which is housed under a clear dome. But you don't need to be a fan to enjoy the ice here.

Admission: £9 adult, £7 child. Man Utd Ice Rink, Old Trafford (0870-060 1789; manutdicerink.com).

Cardiff

It may be Christmas but in Cardiff they are emphasising the health benefits of skating. It's said one hour on the ice burns 493 calories, so not a bad way to ease your waist back into shape.

Admission: £7 adult, £5 child.

Winter Wonderland, Civic Centre (029-2023 0130; cardiffswinterwonderland.com).

Glasgow

Take to the ice beneath the City Chambers. And, should you wobble, don't be surprised if a skating Santa comes to your aid.

Admission: £7.50 adult, £5 child. Glasgow On Ice, George Square (0870-169 0100; glasgow-on-ice.co.uk).

Eden Project

Go skating in a subtropical rainforest? You almost can at this rink, which has been constructed on the covered stage area outside the famous Biomes.

Admission: £4 for 40 minutes on top of the entry price, £12.50 adult, children under 16 free during A Time of Gifts.

A Time of Gifts, Eden Project, Cornwall (01726 811972; edenproject.com).

Somerset House

Probably the most photographed ice rink in London, this year they've added an ice wall, and there's a climbing team at your service to show you the ropes.

Admission: £9.50 adult, £6 child and £27 family. Somerset House, Strand, London WC2 (0870-534 4444; somersethouseicerink.org.uk).

Tower of London

It's been used as a royal palace, fortress, prison, arsenal, mint and menagerie. Now the dry moat beneath the North Wall is playing host to an ice rink.

Admission: £10 adult, £7 child. Tower of London, London EC3 (0870-602 1100; toweroflondonicerink.com)

All admission costs include skate hire. Advance booking recommended.

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