The festive season, with all its sparkle, is soon to be upon us. But rather than become swept up in the chaos and commerce of it all, we have stepped away to look at the new rituals that are entering our twenty-first century lives. Rituals that involve snow, ice and stars – deep winter elements that we all long for at this time of year. We began with stargazing. Here we look at ice skating...
If you reduce ice skating to its most basic elements – a hard, frozen rink and sharp blades on your feet – it might seem a little odd that it has become one of our favourite winter rituals. But this would be to reckon without the exhilarating feel of gliding through bracing air, with your heart beating fast. Ice rinks now pop up each winter at landmarks such as Somerset House and the Tower of London, as well as in more unusual settings. Last year, the upper deck of a Thames river cruiser was repurposed for skating, and from this November, London’s Tobacco Dock will feature the capital’s first rooftop rink.
Much of the appeal of skating centres on the surroundings in which it takes place. The world’s most famous rinks are often found in or around historical buildings – New York’s Rockefeller Center or Vienna’s ornate Rathaus, for example – as if only the most atmospheric setting could match them for magic and charm. But ice skating was not always just a picturesque pastime. In the beginning, it was all about survival.
Some historians believe that the earliest skaters took to the ice over 3,000 years ago in Finland, a country dominated by lakes and harsh winters. Frozen wastes made it hard to get around and find food, so the resourceful Finns strapped flattened bones to their feet and propelled themselves across the ice with long sticks. It was not until the 13th century, in Holland, that skating was adapted for recreational purposes. The development of metal blades that helped people speed across the ice made it fun as well as practical.
The climate lent a helping hand, too. During the so-called Little Ice Age, which lasted from the 17th to 19th centuries, temperatures plummeted across Europe. Lakes and rivers froze to such an extent during the cold winters that a tradition of ‘frost fairs’ sprang up, with food and drink stalls, puppet theatres, games and sleigh riding all taking place on the thick ice. It is these events that are depicted in the ice scenes painted by Dutch masters such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Hendrick Avercamp, and which the English diarist John Evelyn described as ‘carnival[s] on the water’. Virginia Woolf included an ice scene in her 1928 novel Orlando, whose eponymous hero falls in love with an elegant Russian skater at an Elizabethan frost fair on the Thames.
After King James II caught the skating bug while exiled in Holland during the English Civil War, the sport acquired fashionable status in Restoration Britain. An 18th-century periodical described the pursuit as ‘graceful and manly’, although members of the first skating club, in Edinburgh, were required to prove their worth in somewhat undignified style by leaping across hats piled up on the ice (elegance being the prime motivation for skating at this time, it was regarded as essential to be able to jump and twirl without falling over). However, as the Little Ice Age drew to a close and winters grew milder, opportunities to skate en plein air dwindled. The first artificial rinks (‘rink’ comes from a Scottish word meaning ‘course’) appeared in the 1840s, unleashing a craze known as ‘rink mania’; the Victorians never did things by halves. These early rinks can hardly have been as enticing as a frozen lake. Developed by a certain John Gamgee as part of his research into refrigerating meat, the first purpose-built venue was made of an odoriferous mixture of salts and pig fat. It wasn’t until 1876 that an ice-based model was achieved, with cooling agents pumped through metal pipes to freeze the water in place.
An updated variation of this pipe-based system remains in use today, with a few cosmetic improvements. We have found a way to create the illusion of gliding across natural ice: by painting the concrete base layer blue or white, it is made to look just like the real thing. Atmosphere, as we said earlier, is everything.
Here are five ice rinks to try out this year, each one in a picturesque setting.
1. HAMPTON COURT PALACE ICE RINK
Flanked on one side by the majestic Tudor palace and on the other by the Thames, this open-air ice rink recalls the spectacle of an Elizabethan frost fair. Go after dark if you can, when the palace’s huge Christmas tree is twinkling and the palace façade is illuminated by coloured lights. 24 November-7 January
2. BRIGHTON PAVILION ICE RINK
As if John Nash’s Regency landmark weren’t extravagant enough, the addition of an 880-square-metre ice rink gives it fairytale allure. It’s as eco-friendly as it is pretty, powered entirely by hydro and wind energy, and boasts a rink-side Bar & Kitchen serving stone-baked pizzas, cider and 14 different types of gin. 4 November-14 January
3. SKYLIGHT AT TOBACCO DOCK, LONDON
In summer, this former carpark in Wapping was the setting for lawn sports such as croquet and bowls; now, the grass has been replaced by London’s first rooftop ice rink. Its, modern, urban atmosphere will be complemented by street-food stalls and impressive views of the capital’s skyline. 2 November-6 January
4. ST ANDREW SQUARE ICE RINK, EDINBURGH
Edinburgh was home to the UK’s first skating club in the 1740s, so it feels appropriate that its skating rink should be set in the 18th-century St Andrew Square, dominated by the neoclassical Dundas House and the Melville Monument (Edinburgh’s answer to Nelson’s Column). The rink wraps around the Monument in a graceful oval, with a bar at the centre serving warming drinks. 17 November-6 January
5. WINCHESTER CATHEDRAL ICE RINK
Protected by a pitched roof but open at the sides, Winchester’s ice rink has picture-perfect views of the city’s Gothic cathedral. It also sits right next to a bustling German-style Christmas market, so you can do a little gift shopping while you’re there. 20 November-7 January
6. LAC DE JOUX, SWITZERLAND
When the Lac de Joux, in Switzerland’s Jura Mountains, freezes over each winter, it forms Europe’s largest natural skating rink (it’s around 10km long, and completely free to use). You could almost imagine yourself to be in a Bruegel landscape: food and drink stalls set up on the ice and quaint old gabled buildings wind around the lake’s edge, with the snow-capped mountains in the background. The best time to go is February, when the freeze generally lasts all month.
Words by Amy Bradford
Main image by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap, c.1565