At its peak in the 19th century, skating was widespread across the Fens. Valuable rewards were to be had – a joint of meat from a sponsor, or prize money and entry to national races.
Competition is as fierce now as ever – Fen pride has always inspired competitors to race at breakneck speeds in order to beat records or out-race contestants from across the North Sea.
Legendary champions such as Turkey Smart, a speed skater from Welney who reigned supreme in the 1850s, are spoken of still.
Today, when fields ice over at Earith, Welney or Whittlesey, word travels the Fens like lightning. Skating is limited to a few places, but fields are kept flooded in readiness for a freeze.In recent years, mild weather has denied skaters, but the big freeze of early 2010 brought a return. In order for the skating to safely go ahead, there needs to be several days of hard freezing, and the ice is then shaved of grass whiskers for a smooth surface.
The distinctive stance with upper body forward, hands clasped behind, is now mainly for traditionalists. High-tech boots have replaced strapped-on blades, and spandex has taken over from cord breeches – but the emotions and exhilaration are the same.
Take to the ice
Formal racing is organised by the National Ice Skating Association, but everyone can enjoy a leisurely glide beneath the great dome of the Fenland sky. If you don’t fancy taking to the ice yourself, you can always soak up the atmosphere of an official race in a picnic chair with a blanket and flask of tea.
1 Frosted fens
This walk follows ancient trackways and droves, and explores a landscape of frosted furrows fields and pollarded willows silhouetted against the sky – a winter scene in which generations have skated.
Park near The Three Pickerels in Mepal. Cross a stile to reach the bank of the massive cut, engineered by Cornelius Vermuyden around 1650, which takes water from Earith to Denver Sluice. The building diagonally opposite is a pump house, built when peat levels fell lower than the rivers. In the distance lie the vast Washes.
2 Ancient vista
After ¼ mile, turn right on a meandering track alongside a water course, skirting Widdens Hill and its ancient Rushway on your right. In spring waterfowl nest here. Cross over a small road, then after a mile, turn left at the crossing of droves. The tree-lined track bends left to the hamlet of Wardy Hill, site of an Iron Age fort. Turn left on to the tarmac village road to Jerusalem Drove.
3 Roman remains
Stay on the verge. The Roman helmet in the British Museum was found in this pre-drainage hythe. At the dog-leg, turn on to the farm track. Climb the bank ahead for great views of The Wash. Go left to return to the start point.
HOW TO GET THERE
Mepal is 20 miles north of Cambridge on the A10 to Stretham, then the A1123/A1421 to Witcham Toll. Turn left on the A142 into the village. The nearest train station is Ely. The X9 bus to Mepal takes 22 minutes and runs hourly.
FIND OUT MORE
Fen skating takes place at Earith, Welney and Whittlesey. Skate at your own risk and only in areas used by experienced fen skaters. Fen drainage ditches are extremely deep and any ice will be a thin crust.
The Three Pickerels
Bridge Road, Mepal CB6 2AR
Set on the banks of the New Bedford river, this village pub is popular with locals and walkers.
The Anchor Inn
Sutton Gault, Ely CB6 2BD
A cosy 17th-century inn, highly regarded for its food.
RSPB Ouse Washes
The reserve has plenty of hides in which to shelter and view the winter spectacle of migrating birds. Free entry.