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Fen skating

For the last few years, the council has arranged to have a mobile ice-rink in Cambridge city centre and yesterday I finally took advantage of the opportunity.

As I was flailing my way across the ice, trying to avoid the far more capable children (it really was embarrassing how much better than me they were), I remembered a photograph I’d seen in the Folk Museum of people skating on a frozen field in the 19th century. Afterwards, I decided to do some digging and start posting some of the history of East Anglia on the blog.

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Fen skating

Fen skating started in the seventeenth century, after Charles II returned from Holland with an enthusiasm for ice skating. The fens often freeze during the winter (three days of temperatures minus six or below is enough to freeze the floodplains nearly solid), and skating became a common form of transport and recreation, with the first organised race taking place on frozen canals in 1760s.

Amateur skating championships newsreel

After the drainage, landowners would flood fields for the purpose of skating; two-man races took place over a course of 660 yards (3/8 of a mile), with the start and end points marked by barrels with flags in them, and the centre line delineated by sods of earth or snow. Racers Photograph of Jame Smartskated down one side of the course, rounded the barrel and back up the other side of the course. Most of the racers were agricultural workers, unable to work due to the weather, competing for a first prize of a joint of meat, bag of flour or ¬£10 – equal to six month’s wages¬† – for the men (slightly less for the women’s races), although gentlemen also skated for trophies.

English skaters developed their skills very quickly, and often beat visiting competitors from the continent and competed in international championships. William Smart, a Wisbech man who raced under the moniker ‘Turkey’, was the creator of the current speed-skating pose – head down with arms trailing behind like wings – and his nephews, ‘Fish’ and James were well-regarded skaters in their own right. ‘Fish’ remained unbeaten for two years and won the National Skating Association (now the National Ice Skating Association)’s one-and-a-half-mile British professional championship three times. James and his cousin George See (son of Turkey’s brother-in-law and rival, William ‘Gercha Putta’ See) set world records for the 3100 metres and one mile races; James Smart is still Britain’s only speed skating champion.

Although the first skates were imported from the Netherlands, local designs – fen or Whittlesey Photograph of a Whittlesey runnerrunners – were made of beech and have a screw in the heel,so that you can attach the skate to an everyday workboot, and three prongs in the front to steady the skate; by the late nineteenth century, skaters had switched to Norwegian-style skates – boots with integrated blades, that were stronger than their English counterparts.

In addition to racing, skaters also played bandy – a form of ice hockey played over a larger area – and cricket on the ice. The Bury Fen Bandy Club published the game’s rules in 1882, and played the first international match against Haarlem in 1891 , and the sport was introduced to Sweden in 1894 by a Bury player, where it was first played by the Swedish royal family, barons and diplomats.

Contemporary fen skating:

It turns out that the practice of skating on the flood meadows is still going strong, with societies and clubs dedicated to finding the safe spots and organising events.

Places to skate, from fenskating.co.uk:

  • Bury Fen, between the villages of Earith and Bluntisham, on a flooded flood meadow
  • Mere Fen, between the villages of Swavesey and Over, near to the MG owners Club
  • Sutton Gault, on the washes between the two rivers, near to the Anchor pub
  • Welney wash, on the washes between the rivers
  • Whittlesea wash, on a flooded field, north of Whittlesea on the B1040
  • St.Ives, on a flooded meadow, near the Dolphin Hotel

Fen skating on FaceBook

Fen skaters on Twitter

Photos at Raddays.com

Photos at guardian.co.uk

Other sources (no particular order):

Suite 101 – revival of English ice sport

Wikipedia – Fen skating

Giles Landscapes

Photos (one contemporary, one from 1959) and history at Flickr – fen_snapz

American Bandy Association

Wikipedia – Bandy

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