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