Ice skating has become such a quintessential festive activity that for many it wouldn’t be Christmas without at least one session ice skating with family or friends. Brighton is a great place for seasonal skating, with the Royal Pavilion Ice Rink a stunning and popular festive treat, worth taking part in if you are visiting. But you may be surprised by its origins.
Ice skates are thought to have originally been invented simply to make travel easier and quicker across frozen and watery landscapes. The oldest ice skates ever found are scattered across Scandinavia and Russia, with the most ancient discovered to be about 5,000 years old. Modern scientists believe that the first manufacturers of skates were probably living in what is now Finland. They would certainly have had use of them with extremely short winter days and more frozen lakes in the winter than any other part of the world.
Those first skates were merely sharpened, flattened bone strapped to the bottom of the foot. Skaters did not actually skate on the ice, but rather glided on top of it. True skating emerged when they began to be made with a steel blade with sharpened edges. This meant that skates now cut into the ice instead of gliding on top of it. The Dutch first made skate like this in the 13th or 14th century. In their basic features those first steel skates were strikingly similar to today’s blades. In the late medieval Netherlands skating was practiced by people from all walks of life, and it features in famous paintings from the era.
Ice skating was also practiced long ago in China, where it became popular among the ruling family of the Qing dynasty.
A king in exile: skating arrives in the UK
British King James II was briefly exiled the Netherlandsin the 17th century, and when he returned to England he brought ice skating with him! The ‘new’ sport was at first the preserve of the British aristocracy, but soon spread right across the social strata.
The first organised skating club was the Edinburgh Skating Club, probably formed in the 1740s.
Rink mania: smelly beginnings
Up until this point all skating had been conducted on naturally frozen bodies of water. But as demand for skating started to outstrip the availability of these, early attempts at the construction of artificial ice rinks were made. The period of 1841–44 was described at the time as a time of in the ‘rink mania’, but the technology for the maintenance of real ice did not yet exist. Hence these early rinks used a substitute. This consisted, strangely to modern ears, of a mixture of hog’s lard and various salts, meaning that for a short period in the 1840s it was technically possible to go bacon skating.
As you can imagine this is not reported to have gone well long term. By 1844, these venues are said to have fallen out of fashion, as customers grew tired of the ‘smelly’ ice substitute!
Thirty years later, refrigeration technology developed to the point that natural ice could finally be feasibly used to make rinks. The world’s first mechanically frozen ice rink was the Glaciarium, and opened by John Gamgee in a tent in a small building just off the Kings Road in Chelsea, London, on 7 January 1876. It later moved to a permanent venue nearby. Although plastics are occasionally used today, we have never looked back.