Hard weather brought hard times, but snow and ice could be fun, too, and our grandparents certainly knew how to enjoy themselves in the cold; and what better time than Christmas week to recall the romanticism of moonlit skating parties, or the fun of ski-ing down Helvellyn on a crisp winter's afternoon.
Old people are quite certain that the winters of their youth were far colder than anything we experience today, and we've only got to look at the faded old photographs of skating parties on Windermere in the 1890s to see that they are absolutely right. We don't have to be more than middle-aged to remember that the last winter when Windermere was frozen and safe enough to skate on was 1963; and that was no less than a quarter of a century ago.Yet fifty or seventy years ago, hard winters came in succession, one after another, and skating on the lakes was a regular winter treat.
Even the hotels in Bowness re-opened in January several years running in the 1890s to cater for the skaters; and by all accounts, there were similar winters around the early 1900s, and again in the mid-'20s, before the more famous 1940 and 1947 winters.
Because it used to be far more common for the lakes to freeze over, skating itself was a very popular sport for everybody from errand boy to earl.
Skates acquired from rummage sales were cobbled together, and the smallest frozen playground puddle was pounced on for a few practice slides. Lily Tarn on Loughrigg was a popular place to start:
"Toss a halfpenny up in the air - who'd be the first to try skating? My brother won, on went the skates, wobble wobble on the hard ground and then on to the ice. So far so good - then on his back, down he went, legs all over the place, three times! We were black and blue by the end."
But by the third cold winter in succession the brothers were expert skaters:
"Our parents gave us permission to stop late some nights when Rydal was skateable and we were grateful because it seemed that people came from all around, Ambleside, Grasmere, Langdale and beyond for the skating at night. It was moonlit, stars shining, ice a foot thick. Somebody took a gramophone, dancing, skating, and chestnut roasting on a big brazier - you hadn't to forget to keep it moving or the heat would melt the ice! I think it must have been on a Saturday night that the lake was crowded with dancers, skaters, people on bikes, people having picnics and then it happened - CRACK! The ice was parting, people rushed for the shore, people shouting for friends and relatives. Nobody was hurt because the cracks were not too wide, maybe just a few bruises tripping over the cracks. I think I remember the brazier went for a burton through the ice because it was left standing there.
"The ice came again in February 1927, for six weeks and even Windermere was right for skating, ice hockey, races, cycling, anything that could go on the ice was there. Lights were rigged up for night skating, dances and parties and everything went smoothly day after day, night after night. One incident did occur on Windermere Lake. A couple fell in but they were near an island that was in Pull Woods Bay. They were lucky, the water was not too deep and they pulled themselves out."
When the ice was thickest and the cold spell lasted for some weeks, people were delighted to use Windermere as a short cut; the stones that were used to build Wray Castle in the middle of the last century were reputed to have been hauled by the cartload across the ice one cold winter, and several people recall the wood waggoners sliding across, fully laden:
"They even ferried trees across, woodwaggoners came across the lake. You see, the old folk all used to be able to skate. That's why I think the winters now are less severe. People were brought up to skate, every household had skates....I've seen us go up to Burnmoor from Boot, go up and skate on Burnmoor, lovely winter's day, go up and skate and then come home, its so remote and lovely!"
Another person recalled what his mother told him:
"She said she was on Windermere Lake when it was frozen up in 1895, she was just over two years old and they let her walk on it. And they used to go across with coal carts and I think there were quite a few carriages went across. But it must have been a terribly hard frost that year and you don't get many times in a lifetime where its as hard as that, and I think everyone took advantage of it on the weekends in particular and the nights.And there was always the odd one or two drowned, because Windermere Lake has currents coming in and becks and some parts of the lake doesn't get the same chance to freeze."
The Lake District Ski Club was founded in 1935:
"I was at the original meeting, and at first it was purely family to begin with, just my husband and I used to go and join one or two of our friends who were also early members of the Ski Club. We had very little equipment, just our skis, ordinary skis and hazelwood sticks with basketwork rings on the bottom of them, and off we went, the best boots we could find for the job, very comfortable for walking on mountains as well. They made them for both, really, in those days."
The couple had just one free afternoon a week:
"We used to hop off on Wednesday afternoon and rush to the top of Helvellyn, we walked to the top carrying our skis,it was lovely as a rule. We had to get pretty high for the snow to be nice and even."
"The first pair I had was a very old wooden pair that belonged to my Granny, which ended its days by one of them flying off my foot on the top of Helvellyn and sticking into some bracken below, and the end coming off, but we weren't deterred by that because we got a brass plate to hold them together and we went on!"
Although almost all Lakeland children were brought up to skate, ski-ing tended to be something that only the better-off attempted, many of them influenced by ski-ing holidays in Austria and Switzerland which became very popular in the 1920s and 30s. But, once bitten, many enthusiasts skied the slopes of Helvellyn and Kirkstone throughout their lives:
"The joke is, I've been given a pair of skis for my 80th birthday, bit of a joke, but still, I've always wanted a smaller pair because my old skis would be very heavy compared with everyone else's now.!"