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Chill out;The Big Picture

(Photograph) - When winter's chill begins to bite, it's time to wrap up warm, build fires and stay indoors. But in the Netherlands, when the mercury falls it is time for rejoicing - and for skating. Around this time of year, sub-zero temperatures transform the watery landscape into a skater's playground. Mile after mile of shallow canals, ditches and dykes become a network of frozen thoroughfares, home to all kinds of activities.

As this winter scene, painted by Hendrick Averkamp in the early 17th century and now hanging in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, illustrates, the phenomenon is as old as a pair of Friesan "doorlopers". These centuries-old contraptions - metal blades set into wood and strapped over boots - are a trusted means of transport to thousands of weekend skaters.

Netherlanders revel in the extremes of the season, and the colder the weather the better. When it turns particularly severe, excitement mounts among the country's legions of marathon skaters as the likelihood of their favourite event taking place increases.

The Elfstedentocht, or 11 towns race, has been held only 15 times this century, when the waterways along its 200km route have been able to support its 17,000 competitors. In England, similar contests are sometimes organised on the East Anglian Fens, but social occasions such as the one depicted here have not been seen for more than 150 years.

During the Little Ice Age - a period of inclemently cold weather that lasted from 1550 until the mid 1800s - "frost fairs" were frequent wintertime attractions on the frozen River Thames. The last one took place in 1814. And for the time being, global warming has put paid to any repeat performances.

Harvey McGavin


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