January 11, 2010 / 4:44 PM / 8 years ago

Ice racing fever grips England's frozen fenlands

BURY FEN, England (Reuters Life!) - It's cold. It's fast. It's one of the rarest honors in outdoor speed skating and it just might happen this year for the first time in more than a decade ... if the weather holds.

A prolonged cold snap in southern England has raised hopes that the amateur speed skating championship of Great Britain could be held this year on the fens near the southern English city of Cambridge.

The King Edward Cup is part of a tradition that stretches back to the 17th century, but was last contested in 1997 because it has to be held outdoors in the country's eastern counties where the milder weather has made it increasingly rarer.

The marshy lands drained for agriculture in the 17th century near Cambridge called the fens are the traditional proving grounds for British speed skaters and have frozen over enough in the last week to hold some preliminary racing.

"We've been praying every night, holding seances, whatever it takes," fenland farmer and chairman of the fenland speed skating race committee Malcolm Robinson told Reuters.

He and his fellow committee members -- surrounded by dozens of skaters, sledgers, ice hockey players and a host of onlookers -- were out on the ice in Bury Fen to check whether it could be fit to hold the championship in the next few days.

The committee is charged with ensuring the safety of the ice for racing and giving three days' notice of their intentions to hold the championship.

Speed skating enthusiast David Smith from the nearby village of Sutton, who won Saturday's sprint race for locals within a 40 mile radius said Bury Fen was the traditional and spiritual home of British speed skating.

"Football (soccer) players consider Wembley their mecca, Rugby players have Twickenham and for speed skaters it's Bury Fen," he told Reuters, standing on his skates just off a track marked out on the ice with cuts of wood.

Speed skating was brought to the fens by Dutch engineers in the 17th century who were employed to turn a swampy inhospitable wilderness -- one which had frustrated the Romans and sheltered the Saxon rebels against the Normans -- into rich farmland.

Once the bug bit, the fenland folk began to establish first local and then national outdoor speed skating races.

"We've got enough cups to hold races for the next three weeks," Robinson said.

By the latter half of the Victorian era British speed skating had come to be dominated by famous fenland skating names such as William "Turkey" Smart and his great rival William "Gutta Percha" See.

The National Ice Skating Association was originally formed in Cambridge in 1879 and in 1905 King Edward VII presented a cup for the amateur speed skating championship of Great Britain to Albert Tebbitt and declared that it was always to take place outdoors in the eastern counties.

Robinson and his committee hope to be in luck this coming weekend if the freezing temperatures continue, but for now the locals are enjoying a rare crack at the kind of winter pastimes their great-grandparents took for granted.

In the old days, skaters often wore "Fenland Runners" made out of sharpened metal blades affixed to wooden blocks that were screwed to the bottom of your boots.

This past weekend skaters in top of the line speed skates and kitted out in lycra glided gracefully matched in speed and elegant skating style by farmers in boiler suits wearing vintage leather skates and woolen hats.

Ice hockey players stormed up and down a makeshift rink and some people appeared to being playing bandy, an ancient version of ice hockey played with a ball and a stick which was also developed on the fens.

Andre Chadwick, brought her two children and her 82-year-old mother out to Bury Fen on the weekend for the kind of outings she hasn't enjoyed since she was a youngster.

"I haven't been on the ice like this in 20 years, it's just amazing," Chadwick said.

Although her mother was too elderly to strap on a pair of skates, Chadwick said that seeing the children shoot across the frozen fens brought back a flood of memories from winters past.

"Her parents met while ice skating and they were really good ice dancers," she said.

"They used to dance in the middle while the children learned to skate pushing a wooden chair around the edges."

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