Sporting Life: The joys of Fen skating, the great 19th century sport that you’ve probably never heard of

The near-forgotten sport of Fen skating was once a huge draw, with thousands of spectators and making celebrities of the fastest men on the ice.

A few decades ago, I was tasked by my GCSE English teacher with reading The Go Between by L.P. Hartley.

I only remember two things about it. The first is that the author’s initials on the jacket of my copy had been defaced, becoming J. R. Hartley, in deference to the unforgettable Yellow Pages advert.

(N.B. For any millennials reading, the Yellow Pages was how we used to find shops, garages and plumbers before Google existed. Their TV ads were great – here’s a link to the one I’m talking about)

The other thing I remember about the book is its the opening line:

The past is like a foreign country; they do things differently there.

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Truth be told, I got no further than that. Then again, nor does anyone else since the first line is the only thing that’s famous about Hartley’s novel.

That’s not faint praise, though, since it’s a humdinger – one of the finest in English literature – and I found myself thinking of it when looking at the images of ice skaters whizzing across the Fens in the 19th century. Just as hare coursing was once Britain’s most popular sporting event, so Fen skating, now largely unknown to all but a few, was once a mass spectacle on a grand scale.

The images – part of a new exhibition at the Palace House in Newmarket, home of the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art – show the sport at a time when it was a hugely popular pastime, attracting thousands of fans and making stars of the likes of Charles J. Tebbutt (pictured top), William ‘Turkey’ Smart (so called for his arm-flapping style) and Walter Housden.

Turkey Smart and William Housden (Pic: Cambridgeshire Archive)

Turkey Smart and William Housden (Pic: Cambridgeshire Archive)

There was big money at stake for those fastest around the 660-yard circuit: prize funds at a regular meeting were often around £10, equivalent to six months’ wages for an East Anglian farm labourer at the time.

The sport was imported to the area from the Netherlands, and the exhibition also includes images by the Flemish Old Masters portraying the people of 17th-century Flanders having fun and going about their business on the frozen waterways, including Cornelis Beelt’s Skaters on a Frozen River (1660), on loan from Colchester and Ipswich Museums.

Victorian paintings, such as Lees’s Skaters on Duddingston Loch by Moonlight (1857) and Skating on Linlithgow Loch (1858), complement the icy scene, together with 20th-century photographic portraits, antique skates and early Pathé film footage.

‘Skating’ runs until April 28, 2019 – see for details.