Just the place to brush up on your curling

It's much more than 'housework on ice'. Simon Heptinstall tries one of Scotland's favourite winter sports

I couldn't help noticing the mysterious circular motif repeating across the carpet in the hotel reception. The strange pattern continued along the corridor to my room at the North West Castle Hotel. Why was a flying saucer featured all over the hotel's floor? Or was it a doughnut? Only later, when I walked back, did I see the motif the right way up. It was a curling stone.

I couldn't help noticing the mysterious circular motif repeating across the carpet in the hotel reception. The strange pattern continued along the corridor to my room at the North West Castle Hotel. Why was a flying saucer featured all over the hotel's floor? Or was it a doughnut? Only later, when I walked back, did I see the motif the right way up. It was a curling stone.

I shouldn't have been surprised. This 73-room, four-star hotel in Stranraer, Wigtownshire, Scotland, is a shrine to what the Scots call "the roaring game", after the noise that a curling stone makes as it skids across the ice.

If you're still wondering, curling is that sport a little like bowls on ice, where two sweepers frantically brush the ice in front of a granite stone as it slides toward a target. It is played by 30,000 people in Britain, almost all of them Scottish.

Curling appears to have been played for around 500 years - but got a big boost when the British women's team won gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Millions watched on TV as British captain Rhona Martin gracefully curled the decisive stone on to its target. Luckily, no one was watching me when I tried to copy her at the North West Castle.

A door next to reception leads to the four-aisle indoor rink, overlooked by a bar and restaurant. The hotel's walls are decorated with portraits of top curlers, paintings of ancient curling scenes, curling banners, and lists of trophy winners. The hotel also has its own shop, selling, of course, curling equipment and souvenirs. By the time I sat down to dinner in the AA rosette restaurant, I was almost expecting to get my seafood whisked across the shiny floor on top of a curling stone.

I'd travelled to the south-west of Scotland to sample a special beginner's curling package in what is claimed to be "the first hotel in the world to have its own indoor curling rink". The first of many? Who knows? But it was a chance to try a completely different sport that looked particularly easy yet potentially good fun.

I though I might be rather good. This enterprising Englishman would show them how it's done. After all, it looked easy on TV. Some armchair critics described it as "housework on ice". My first hint that it isn't as easy as it looks came when instructor Jim Young handed me a pair of curling shoes. One has a slippery sole, the other has a grippy one. Curlers have a unique way of moving around the ice - skating on their slippery shoe, while pushing with the other foot.

When Jim moved across the ice it looked balletic. When I tried, I looked like a drunk walking on hot coals. Forget trying to make an accurate throw ... staying upright was the first problem.

Throughout the winter Jim and his team teach local schoolchildren every week. But an overzealous, unco-ordinated beginner from south of the border presented a whole new challenge. Well, Scotland's curling teachers will have to get used to us. The hotel welcomes beginners - and you could easily end up in an aisle next to Rhona Martin. She plays here too.

Hopefully the newcomers will find a teacher as good as Jim, for within half an hour I was standing up and moving. More importantly I could now launch myself from the starting block called a "hack". This is done with a brush in one hand - for balance - and in the other a 44lb granite stone. Note the weight. You can barely lift the stone off the ice. The trickiest bit is knowing when to let it go. Too soon and it hurtles over the target and into the back wall. Hold on too long and you slide down the rink alongside your stone looking marvellously ridiculous.

That silliness is where curling starts becoming fun. We were soon roaring with laughter at my mistakes. If I'd been part of a gang of pals, with drinks and an evening stretching ahead of us, it would have been hilarious. Nevertheless I ended up punching the air as if I'd won my own Olympic medal when I sent a stone down the 30-metre track to land close to the bull's eye, or "house". Was this my inherent ability revealing itself ... or a fluke? Jim neglected to tell me.

My final lesson was in the technique of brushing. I'd never understood why Britain's winning shot was accompanied by a couple of team members apparently cleaning up the ice in front of it as it slid towards victory. Jim explained that vigorous brushing can make a difference of up to 12 feet to a shot's length. The experts scrub so hard that they melt the ice. Unfortunately my brushing was too dainty. And when I tried to brush for Jim's shot the stone ended up hitting me and stopping dead halfway down the track. I probably just need a few more lessons.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

North West Castle (01776 704413; www.northwestcastle.co.uk) is 86 miles from Glasgow and 55 miles from Prestwick airport. The hotel is within walking distance of the Stranraer port railway station. Driving from the south take the M6 and then the A75. Curling weekends cost from £120 per person for two nights full board, and a minimum of three games of curling. In December special curling tuition packages are available, with prices from £53 per person per night including a daily coaching session covering all aspects of the game.

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