Above: Looking north in the courtyard of Somerset House at the skating rink.
There is something about skating on ice that obviously appeals to people. Within the last few years, as a result of the Crossrail project, two bone skates were found deep in the ground near Liverpool Street Station, dating from as early as Saxon or medieval times.
When William FitzStephen wrote his account of London, in 1173, he described how Londoners went skating on polished bone skates on the Moorfields marsh when it froze saying ‘When the great marsh which washes the northern walls of the City freezes, crowds of young men go out to play on the ice. Some of them fit shin-bones of cattle on their feet, tying them around the ankles’. The land at Moorfields is now better known today as Finsbury Circus.
About 60 miles north of London, Fen skating is still a traditional form of ice skating in East Anglia, with their easily flooded meadows which form an ideal skating terrain. Skates for that purpose were introduced into Britain from the Netherlands or France in the 17th century. It is not known when the first skating matches were held but by the early 19th century they had become a feature of cold winters in that region.
In recent years in London, skating rinks using refrigerated areas, have opened for a few months over the Christmas season – from November onwards. Ice skating is to be found at Broadgate which is, curiously enough, only a short distance from the archaeological site at Liverpool Street Station where the ancient bone skates were found. There is also ice skating at Canada Square Park (at Canary Wharf), the moat at the Tower of London, the grounds of the Natural History Museum (at South Kensington), the skating rink in Hyde Park (which is the largest of all the rinks) and, last but by no means least, the courtyard at Somerset House.
Somerset House was originally built for the Duke of Somerset, Protector to Edward VI. The Tudor Mansion, built beside the Strand, had gardens extending to the side of the Thames. In 1770 William Chambers was the architect for an even larger building, constructed on the entire site which included the original house and its large grounds. By the 20th century few people had ever been into the enormous courtyard within the building because it was surrounded by the offices for the Births, Marriages and Deaths in England and Walls, along with a host of official buildings – all of them off-limits to the public.
Towards the end of the 20th century, all the government and other offices were removed and the premises were given a thorough make-over. In the courtyard were installed an array of fountains displaying 55 vertical jets of water rising to random heights. The public was then welcomed into the buildings which housed various public exhibitions and art displays, along with extensive tea-rooms.
It has now become the tradition to erect a skating rink in the courtyard each year and provide various additional attractions around the edge of the vast space. It is certainly an attractive venue and, being so close to the Strand and Covent Garden, it is guaranteed to be a popular place to skate or to just watch others making a brave effort on the ice.
A Happy Christmas to All Our Readers!