Thamesreach on Ice

“…if the moors in Finsbury and Moorfield freeze over, children from London play. Some of the children have attached bones to their ankles, and carry well-worn sticks. They fly across the ice like birds, or well-fired arrows.”

That was how William FitzStephen described ice skating in his 12th century chronicle of London life.

Skating has long been a popular pastime in London and frozen ponds and fields would have provided plenty of opportunities to tie on the bone skates. The Thames itself freezing over hard enough to skate was a relatively rare occasion in the medieval period – but cold snaps in the Tudor period saw both royalty and commoners enjoying the river ice, a precursor to the great ‘frost fairs’ of the colder seventeenth century.

In modern times, outdoor skating in London relies on artificial rinks, including one which is set up each year against the spectacular backdrop of the Tower of London. That was where a bold party of Thamesreachers took to the ice in December.

Our previous ice experience ranged from one-off childhood visits to the rink to competitive figure skating, but it wasn’t long before everyone was making progress around the ice – letting go of the barrier, gliding and learning how to do lemons.

There were a few falls, which were a dampening experience, not least because it had been a warm and rainy day so there was a lot of surface water.

With the Tower’s mighty old walls looming to one side and the many-coloured evening lights of the City’s glass towers to the other, it was a spectacular environment in which to skate. William Fitzstephen might have found the modern scene strange and baffling, and the blue plastic boots a far cry from bone skates – but the skating itself is not so different from what he saw 800 years ago.