The worst seems to have gone and the possible horrors of a repeat of the 1963 winter of frozen discontent have all but abated. A couple of stories came to light which generated memories of that winter and the fact that ponds, large and small, some rivers and the sea in places were all frozen solid, remaining so for weeks on end. It was probably my first memory of skating across frozen water – a childhood thing – and we had at some stage taken up ice skating as a hobby at one of the local rinks.
This year frozen swathes of meadows, rivers or canals brought surges to the hearts of Fenland Racers and the hardened tour skaters in Holland. Wilma, who now lives in New Zealand, commented on my recent post that:
“I love the winter pictures and yet I am so pleased I am not living in a place where it can get that cold. In Holland they always get excited when it gets cold as every year they hope for a certain event to happen. It is the 11 cities skating event, where people skate from city to city, covering all eleven. The whole country is involved. It hardly ever happens though as it requires a continuous below zero temperature to produce strong enough ice that can carry the masses of participants."
So I had to find out more ..
The Fens, East Anglia -
on the Benelux map to the right,
Holland is depicted in stone-brown;
while the bump creeping in is East
Then the BBC mentioned that the Fenland Skating Centre hoped to stage some competitive speed skating events on the shallow flooded meadows in the Fens, as long as the temperature remained at or below sub-zero for a while longer, as had happened in the particularly icy winter of 1963.
Thousands of years ago the Netherlands and the Fens of East Anglia were joined but now both exhibit similar landscapes – hardly above sea level – water meadows, marshlands, lakes, canals and rivers with their rivulets; the Fens becoming a drained agricultural landscape; Holland with its extensive inland canal and waterway system, where any arable land is used for intensive agriculture, including horticulture and greenhouse agri-businesses.
Those cold winters so well recorded in the paintings by the Old Masters, as well as recorded in literature: both Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn recording seeing skating on the canal in St James’s Park in London during the winter of 1662. Pepys wrote: “... over to the Parke (where I first in my life, it being great frost, did see people sliding with their skeats which is a very pretty art) ...”
The Skater, 1782, a portrait of William Grant by Gilbert Stuart
It is thought that the Finns were first to develop ice skates some 5,000 years ago from animal bones – leg bones of horses, ox or deer, which were attached with leather straps. A pole with a sharp spike was used to propel the skater forward.
Early Fen skates came across from France or Holland in the 1600s and were called ‘fenrunners’ with the footstock being made of beechwood, then screwed into the heel of the boot, while three small spikes at the front kept the skate steady, with leather straps providing extra fastenings.
Fenskating became extremely popular in the regularly severe winters of the 1600s – 1900s – so much so .. that skating matches were held in towns and villages all over the Fens. In these local matches men (sometimes women or children) would compete for prizes of money, clothing or food – for example joints of meat being hung outside the village pub, to be skated for on the morrow.
In the late 1800s skating boots appeared and were adapted to the different disciplines, eg ice hockey boots, figure skates; tour skating uses special long blades attached, via bindings, to hiking or cross-country ski boots and are used for long distance skating on natural ice. The length of the blades makes touring skates more stable on uneven natural ice than skates with shorter blades.
Wilma’s mention of the Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour) as the world’s largest and longest speed skating competition and leisure skating tour, is held irregularly in Friesland, a northern province of the Netherlands. The tour, almost 200 km (125 miles) in length, goes along frozen waterways between eleven historic Frisian cities.
This rare event creates a huge buzz across Friesland, a northern province of the Netherlands, because since its inauguration in 1909 the tour has only been held 15 times, as temperatures do not fall enough to provide the required thickness (15 cm or 6 inches) of ice along the course.
About 15,000 skaters take part, amateurs and pros, cheered on by almost 2 million spectators, one in eight of the whole population. The winners are hailed as national heroes. In the mythical 1963 race, just 136 crossed the line out of 10,000 who set out in a raging blizzard – due to the extremely low temperatures (-18 deg C / 0.4 deg F) and a harsh Siberian wind.
Wilma’s description that the whole country gets excited, with a huge momentum of media attention – as only climate expectation really brings on .. the “will they be able to hold the event” .. or “not”? It looks unlikely .. but so near & yet so far for the Elfstedentocht 2010 .... I suspect we’d better put our bets on the certainty of this year's Winter Olympics in Vancouver from 12 – 18 February!!
Thank you Mr Postman - at least the weather has warmed up a little. My mother is ok, but has an infection of some description that we're trying to resolve - not easy with her condition: but she is just very tired and sleeps lots.
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories