Retro: When winters really were winters

Sledging in Coneygears Field in the 1930s
Sledging in Coneygears Field in the 1930s

Skate back in time to when winters really were cold...

In the opening chapters of Love for Lydia H E Bates gives a wonderful description of Northamptonshire people skating on the frozen flood waters of the Nene Valley, and even on the river itself.

He describes how people were falling down, shrieking and laughing, and how they skated long into the winter evening by the light of fires and the headlamps of cars and by the light of the white, bitter moon.

This was not simply Bates at his creative best, he was recording what had, in fact, been an annual pastime for several generations.

As early as January 1881 the Northampton Mercury was informing its readers that the continued frost had frozen the Nene, both the river itself and the adjoining meadows which are daily thronged with sliders and skaters.

Ten years later organised speed skating competitions were regularly held here and reported on in the York Herald, Taunton Courier & Western Advertiser and even the Pall Mall Gazette.

A carnival was held on the frozen river at Peterborough, and exhibitions of bicycle and tricycle riding on the ice were given, while on the Birds’ Pit at Irthlingborough a full cricket match was played between two teams representing the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Ancients wore tall hats (not all of the latest fashion) and were disposed of for 51 runs with their captain, A Dunmore, scoring 17 runs and A W Loveday 13.

The Moderns failed to reach the target by one run – Sparrow having scored 18 runs and Rappitt 13.

Major Hill and Major Downing acted as umpires.

The scene was made more picturesque by the erection of a scarlet dressing tent.

Refreshments were provided at one’s own expense.

A very large and enthusiastic company watched the proceedings from a large marquee erected neat the bridge.

The best of order prevailed and the amusing occasion passed off without incident.

The cold was so severe that year that two men who set out from Northampton at 7am were able to skate along the river as far as Wansford, near Peterborough.

It was only the falling of darkness, they believed, which prevented them from reaching Peterborough.

The winter of 1893 was equally bitter with 23.5C of frost being recorded locally.

Because of the popularity of the sport, and the fact that the village had a number of skaters such as Perkins, Robinson, Asbery and Templeman who had all won competitions, the Irthlingborough Skating Association was formed that winter.

The aim was to rent a suitable meadow, flood it and let it freeze in order to provide the ideal competition venue for the area.

Success soon followed. In the Amateur Championships of Northamptonshire Skating Association the favourite, T Goodey, met his match in Percy Perkins of Irthlingborough who surprised everyone present by his style of skating.

He completed the one-mile course in 3 minutes 21.5 seconds.

The year of 1895 was described as a winter of success for Northamptonshire skaters who made good use of the excellent opportunities afforded for practice.

The Northampton Mercury recorded that Irthlingborough has produced some excellent performers on the ice.

In one week no less than five Irthlingborough men took prizes in competitions in the county.

One cannot help but sympathise, however, with Percy Perkins who, in February 1900, represented Irthlingborough in the Amateur Skating Championships held at Littleport, in Cambridgeshire.

He completed the one and a half mile course, with five bends, in the meritorious time of 5 minutes 57 seconds and thus qualified for the final.

Unfortunately, his only means of getting home was by train, and as the last train back to Irthlingborough left before the final began he was forced to pull out.

The Wellingborough News was adamant that had he competed he would have rendered a good account of himself.

The late Hilda Surridge who was born in 1907 gave members of Irthlingborough Historical Society a wonderful description of skating in the valley before the First World War.

She said that one year they skated for a whole month – everyone skated, both young and old, usually with strips of metal fixed to the soles of their boots – and local traders even set up stalls, but on the frozen ground, not on the ice!

Stories abound of skating in the valley which H E Bates knew so intimately and described so well, stories of competition successes, of tragedy which inevitably happened, of fun and of accidents.

In February 1895 H Massom and P Warren were among the large number skating on the river.

They were going in opposite directions when they crashed violently into each other, sustaining nasty gashes about the head.

They were assisted up the hill to Dr Robb’s house where they were immediately stitched up – even though it was a Sunday!

Grateful thanks to Irthlingborough Historical Society archivist Jackie Morton for her help with this article.