What is Fen Skating?
Fen Skating, is literally exactly what the name suggests, skating out in the Fens.
Ice skating, or Fen skating has been a big part of the tradition of the Fenland area of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. Fen skating only happens when a series of weather conditions coincide to create large areas of natural ice, on open fields, flooded fields and meadows.
When did Fen Skating start?
Animal bones were flattened and strapped to the feet of travellers, and a long stick was used to push the traveller along, much like a punt is pushed along on a river.
The drainage system created by this plan created two man made rivers, running almost parallel from Earith in Cambridgeshire to Denver Sluice in Norfolk. Between these two river is a flood plain, which was designed to take the excess water from Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire, out to the wash near King's Lynn.
During the winter months the area between these two rivers frequently floods, as it was designed to do, and if the weather conditions are right this shallow water freezes relatively quickly to provide a safe skating environment.
As the Fenland area is also, historically, predominantly a farming area, if the weather was suitable for skating, i.e. very cold, the farmland would have been frozen so the farm worker could not do any work on the farms, and in the 1800's, if you didn't work, you did get paid. So the farm worker could not work, but they could strap their bones on their feet and at least keep warm skating. The Victorian improvements in metal working, meant the end of bones, and a steel blades was set into a wooden sole plate creating the "Fen Runner", which was again strapped to whatever shoes or boots were available, but these Fen Runners had a big screw in the heel, to keep the skate in place, which made for big improvements in speed and control.
Legend has it that races began between farm workes trying to proove who was the best.
Races were organised, with prizes of a loaf of bread or a piece of meat, which if you were a farm worker, who couldn't work, and had no money coming in, were prizes well skating for.
Many of the trophies we races for today were donated at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Back in the late 1890's skaters such as Turkey Smart and Gutter Percher See, were the top of their sport, and crowds would gather from miles around to watch competitions where they were skating.
As technology changed and more modern materials became available, the quality of the steel used and welding techniques made speed skates, similar to what is used today, these were known as "Norwegians", as they were imported into the Fens from Norway, with a purpose made leather shoe, already attached to the blade. This did not change much in basic design from the 1930's until the 1990's, when great leaps in advancement have been made, and the top skaters now use hinged skates, known as "clapskates" and carbon fibre or heat mouldable compound shoes, custom made to the individual feet of the skater.
Where Can I Skate?
There are a few areas where over the years it has been found that both the water level and the frost combine to make good skating conditions:-
"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.
All these places are flood plains or flooded fields, and under normal conditions, the depth of the water is between 30 and 90 cm, 1 to 3 feet, and as a consequence, are relatively "safe" to skate, when the conditions are right!!
What do I need?
This is very simple, all you need is a pair of skates, good health, and a sense of adventure, there is nothing quite like skating on a frozen field, on a crisp frosty morning, with the nature around, the piece and quiet, except for the other skaters, and the friends you will either meet up with, or make.
Any one of any age can have a go, whether a beginner or an expert, whether on an old pair of fen runners or a modern pair of clapskates.
What do I need to know?
There are several things that you need to take advice about for new fen skaters:-
Take notice of any notice boards and signs, warning of deep water or thin ice, skating is, by it's nature a dangerous sport, with the risk of twisted ankles etc, so if a sign has been put up, it is there for your safety.
Take notice of any advice given to you, the local people or Fen Skaters, usually know what is best, if they tell you not to walk on a certain area of ice, or to gain access by a different route, they are probably telling you for a reason, and don't be afraid to ask for advice.
Never skate by yourself.Even experienced skaters can fall over from time to time, and it is nice to have somoeone there to assist, if the need arises.
You will be skating amongst the nature, so don't expect too many creature comforts, there will be no toilets, no cafes, no warm changing rooms, just the cold,bleak beauty of the frozen Fens.
Follow the Country Code, do not leave any litter, and make sure you do not damage any of the nature there, this includes hedges,fences and gates.
Remember you will be in the home of nature, and especially birdlife, they do not necessarily like the ice in the same way we do, so respect this, and keep to areas where skaters are already skating, do not go off exploring, the birds will have got used to the skaters being in one area, they do not need to be disturbed by straying skaters just out to find out how far they can skate. Stay in the same area as everyone else, this is for your own safety, as well as for the well being of our feathered friends.
Where can I get some skates?.
This one of the most common question nowadays, in years gone by, most families would have a pair or two stuck away in a shed or garage that would come out and get dusted down whenever there was any ice, even if it meant wearing 2 pairs of socks if the boots were too big, or cramping your toes up if they were a bit tight.
There a very few shops in the fens, now that actually stock any skates, but sometimes charity shops have some, or car boot sales, these palces are a good source of cheap skates, but obvioulsy, not necessarily when you need them.
The Welney Skating Asociation do have a very limited number of pairs of skates available for loan, but these tend to get taken out as soon as skating is possible, but worth a try, contact Roger Giles through www.gileslandscapes.co.uk
If you want to buy new skates, unfortunatley Holland is the best place to look, as skating is their national obsession. Some good websites are:
www.skate-dump.nl this website has what mighty be called clearance skates, of all types, from top of the range clapskates down to basic strap on skates, similar to the old fen runners, if you don't mind having last years model, or have uncommon size feet, this is great place to start your search.
www.haicobouma.nl this website/shop has a wide range of skates, and the shop is owned and run by an ex professional marathon skater, who was one of the top skaters in Holland until he retired, only a few years ago.
Any of these websites and shops will be very good for advice, e-mails do not need to be in Dutch, as they all speak excellent English.
haicobouma and fabersport are both very close to Heerenveen, and as the 3 skaters from the Fen skate in Thialf Heerenveen on a regular basis, normally once a month from November through to February, so if you need anything asking, collecting or returning, there are possibillities.
For some good footage, got to BBC I player for Countryfile broadcast 17/01/10or Inside Out broadcast 18/01/10The Guardian website and search for Fen Skating.For information about fen skating, please contact : info @fenskating.co.ukIf you have any comments, video clips, photographs, newspaper clipping or anything that you think will be of interest, and are happy to share with other skating entusiaists, please e-mail us at the firstname.lastname@example.org address, we will contact you to arrange "collection".We are trying to build up a comprehensive history of Fen Skating, in pictures and video, maybe with the possibillity of creating a DVD of skating on the Fens.With the spread of video technology, and the increase of personal video cameras, there may be some small clips of ordinary people skating and enjoying themselves out in the Fens.Of particular interest is the 1980's, when we had 3 consecutive winters of good skating weather, I am hoping to get a collection of video and photos together for what could well be called as the Golden Decade of Fen Skating, when more racing and more skating took place than almost any other decade in living memory.Any Memeories are good memories, and if you are happy to share them, we would be happy to hear them..
The 3 local skaters who still go to Holland racing can be seen in action in the link below, a clip filmed by one of the Dutch spectators and put on youtube, but it does show very well what we get up to in Heerenveen, north Holland.
As a matter of interest, Dave Smith, is the bald headed skater in dark blue with yellow shoulders and gloves you can easily pick out after aboout 14 seconds, Malcolm Robinson, can also be picked out in the crowd, wearing a suit with black legs, white body and light blue arms, he eventually finishes second.
FOR LOCAL INFORMATION CHECK: www.gileslandscapes.co.uk
FOR THE "EXTREME" SKATING ENTHUSIASTS GO TO: www.weissensee.nlfor those who do not speak Dutch, you can translate the page into English.this website is for The Alternative Elfstedentocht ( Alternative Eleven Cities Tour) on a frozen lake in Austria .The skating goes on until the end of January, events organised for all levels of skating every day.
for some excellent archive footage, please follow these links: