A Slippery Situation

A Slippery Situation

It is now mid-January, and in any other year my thoughts would be drifting eastward towards Ottawa. For some reason my family has decided that Toronto is not cold enough in winter, and that we have to take ourselves somewhere even colder to participate in an annual February festival called Winterlude. Ottawa boasts, among other things, the fabulous Rideau Canal (that’s for another post), which freezes in the winter and becomes a many-miles-long skating rink.

The ice rink on the Rideau Canal, Ottawa, Canada

 

This year, for obvious reasons, we are not going. But my mind still drifts to ice skating.

I will be honest here. I can skate. I have spent a great deal of time on the ice, with little metal blades strapped to the bottoms of my feet. I have skated the 8km length of the Rideau rink and lived to tell the tale. But I hate it. My feet start to scream in pain when I even look at a pair of ice skates, and I am old enough that I would rather enjoy winter from the inside of a warm building while drinking hot chocolate than from the middle of a frozen stretch of water. And still, I can’t stop thinking about it.

And so I started down the rabbit hole. Here are a few tidbits from what I found.

Bone skates were tied to the bottoms of boots with leather cords

It’s hard to pinpoint when people first took to the ice. In northern climates, moving across frozen lakes on some sort of blade was much more efficient than walking that same distance. Early skates might have been more like snowboards, requiring poles to propel the skater across the ice, and some of the oldest skates found, mostly in Scandinavia and Russia, are more than 5000 years old.

It is not known when skating first came to Britain. The first account of the activity in England was not recorded until 1173, when William FitzStephen wrote in his account of London life,

When the great fenne or moore (which watereth the walles of the citie on the North side) is frozen, many young men play upon the yce, some striding as wide as they may, doe slide swiftly (…) some tye bones to their feete, and under their heeles, and shoving themselves by a little picked staffe, doe slide as swiftly as birde flyeth in the aire, or an arrow out of a crossbow.

By 1250 the Dutch had developed metal blades to replace the bone of earlier years, and some design tweaks and skating technique gave skaters a great deal more agility and flexibility on the ice and dispensed with the need for poles to propel themselves along. These metal blades were attached to a flat wooden block. The skater strapped the entire contraption to the bottom of his boots and then could glide down canals and waterways to his heart’s content.

Lidwina’s fall on the ice by Johannes Brugman, 1498

By now skating was a source of recreation as well as transportation. Men, women, and children all took to the ice for pleasure and exercise. In 1395 the young Dutch girl Lidwina of Schiedam broke a rib while ice skating. She was 15 years old. The rib never healed properly, and she grew progressively more disabled. It is said that after her fall she could not take food, but fasted constantly, and soon acquired fame as a healer and holy woman. She was canonized in 1890 and is the patron saint of ice skaters.

Skating was a popular winter activity in Georgian and Regency-era Britain, as well as across the Continent where the weather allowed. The world’s first skating club was created in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1742, with a focus on figure skating. Indeed, the first book on figure skating was written by Robert Jones in 1772. Speed skating remained more of a Continental activity; the first known race was held in the Netherlands in 1676.

These skates from the late 18th century show the solid wooden platform. They were also attached to the skater’s boots with leather straps.

 

Here are a few drawings and paintings of Regency-era ice skaters.

January, 1820

 

Skating Lovers, Adam Buck,1800 (c)The Trustees of the British Museum

 

The Timid Pupil, 1800

 

The Skating Minister, Henry Raeburn, 1790s

Moving across the ocean, some stories assert that the modern game of hockey was invented in Windsor, Nova Scotia around 1800, when some students at King’s College took to the frozen pond with their skates to play a game of shinny. Another story suggests that British officers brought the sport with them from England. In 2002, researchers discovered two letters by Sir John Franklin, written in 1825, mentioning hockey being played on ice, although there is no mention of whether the players wore skates or just boots.

There is also evidence that games of ice hockey were played by British soldiers on Chippewa Creek in Niagara (coincidentally where my husband grew up) in 1839. Sir Richard George Augustus Levigne wrote about these games in his memoires (discovered only in 2008), that,

Large parties contested games of hockey on the ice, some forty or fifty being ranged on each side.

His memoires, unlike Franklin’s, are explicit in that the players wore skates.

To leave off, here is a lovely painting I found of ice skaters and other winter revelers in Toronto in 1835. The windmill in the distance is no longer there, but the area was soon to be developed into a huge distillery complex by James Worts and his brother-in-law, William Gooderham originally of Diss, England. The area is now a popular entertainment district, with buildings dating back to the 1860s, positively ancient in this part of the world.

Winter Scene on Toronto Bay, William Armstrong, 1835

 

Do you skate? Do you enjoy winter sports? Or are you going to join me in front of the fire with a mug of cocoa and a good book? I’d love to hear about your wintertime adventures.

Here is a short excerpt from my upcoming mystery, Death in Highbury, the second in my Miss Mary Investigates series.

It was not Alexander Lyons whom she met on the lane leading to Highbury, however, but rather, Frank Churchill. He stepped out of the front door at Randalls just as she was approaching the part of the lane where the short drive diverged from it, and she wondered if he had been watching from the window in anticipation of her arrival.

The thought was both troublesome and appealing.

“Walking towards the village, Miss Bennet?” he executed a deep and elaborate bow, twirling his hat not twice but three times before resetting it upon his perfectly coiffed head. 

“As you see, Mr. Churchill.” Her curtsey was simple and quick. Then, careful not to give offence, she added, “The weather is fine again today. Is it always so fair in Surrey? I have seen hardly a cloud in all the time I have been here.”

“‘Tis you who have brought the sunshine, Miss Bennet! For I cannot believe the clouds would dare show their faces when you are present.” The man certainly was a master of flirtation! “But in all candour, I cannot speak much of the climate when you are absent, for I myself have been but little in Highbury. I was raised by my aunt, as you certainly know, and can be away only when she can spare me. How fortunate that she and my uncle have taken a house so near, that I may ride here almost every day.” He gestured down the laneway in a silent supplication, and Mary accepted by taking the offered arm. 

She strove to seek some topic safe and suitable for light chatter whilst they walked, and quickly decided that the weather would serve as well as anything. “The clouds do not seem perturbed by my presence in Hertfordshire,” she spoke lightly. “We very often will have a succession of four or five days of rain, with little interlude in which to take some air. It is less taxing in the cold of winter than in summer, for one may walk in the snow if one wears suitable boots, but to walk in the rain is seldom a pleasure.”

“Ah, the snow! At Enscombe, where I was raised by my uncle and aunt, we saw a great deal of snow. Do you enjoy it, Miss Bennet? Do you, perhaps, skate upon the ice? I can picture you now, wrapped in a warm cape of the finest white cashmere, a pink winter bonnet upon your head… no, not pink.” He peered closely at her, until she felt herself growing as pink as the imagined hat. “You could never look anything but lovely, but green, rather, would better suit your colouring. Yes, a beautiful pine-green winter bonnet. But we may trim it with pink flowers, should you desire! I can see you gliding across the ice with a skill rarely seen, making figures and moving with grace and ease. And upon your feet, pretty fur-lined black boots made especially to keep you warm in the cold air, and over your hands, the largest ermine-fur muff that ever you have seen!”

Mary could not stop the bubble of laughter that this image occasioned. 

“My dear lady? Do you object?” Frank’s beam betrayed his jest.

“Only at the muff, sir! I have often seen ladies carrying such large ones that I believe they might crawl inside and fit their entire bodies within! A nice pair of gloves will do very well instead.”

“As you command, Miss Bennet!”

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12 COMMENTS
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darcybennett
January 21, 2021 10:37 AM

When I was young I used to ice skate with my siblings and cousins on a neighbor’s pond. Never was very good at it although my family managed to play ice hockey as they were much better.

carylkane
carylkane
January 18, 2021 7:34 PM

Fun post! These photos are awesome!

Ginna
Ginna
January 15, 2021 11:07 AM

I could have written this: “I can skate. …….. But I hate it. My feet start to scream in pain when I even look at a pair of ice skates”

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
January 15, 2021 10:23 AM

I have never ice skated. Our weather was too mild for that. They do have a rink in a town near us but at my age… I dare not do anything that might endanger my bones. This was an interesting post. In their youth, I can just see Fitzwilliam Darcy and his rambunctious cousins playing on the ice on one of the ponds at Pemberley. Your excerpt makes me question the behavior of this Churchill… what is he up to? ‘Inquiring minds want to know.’ LOL! Blessings on all your hard work. Stay safe and healthy.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
January 15, 2021 5:56 PM
Reply to  Riana Everly

Plot bunny… woohoo! Enjoy… I hope you can use it sometime.

Marie H
Marie H
January 15, 2021 9:23 AM

Enjoyed this! I’m from Canada too. The first pair of skates I donned back in Toronto at age 4 were boys’ hockey skates, and thus learned to first skate like a boy. When I tried skating “like a girl”, I hated it! That was many decades ago. I never loved skating or the cold. I’m more the hot chocolate, fireplace and a good book-type of gal. I’m in NB now on the Northumberland Strait and prefer the beach to snow and ice, even though we get lots of that here too. Looking forward to to your next book. Seeing Teaching Eliza on stalemates me remember I want to read it again. It still remains my favourite of your books.

Marie H
Marie H
January 15, 2021 9:27 AM
Reply to  Marie H

Ugh.. autocorrect changed “on sale” to “stalemates “!

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
January 15, 2021 7:51 AM

Great excerpt! I used to love to go to a place we had around me in Pennsylvania and ice skate! I haven’t skated in years now so I would probably end up on my fanny!lol I like the picture of the timid pupil they look so sweet together!

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