Magic mountain

Janette Wolf

A mix of chemical and engineering wizardry creates the artificial slopes of SnowDome, where you can learn to ski or snowboard on real cold white stuff.

A perennial problem for anyone booking a skiing holiday is deciding, on a balance of probabilities, what is likely to make the most snow-sure resort.

Like any sport that depends on the clemency of the weather to produce certain conditions, this is very much a lottery, as anyone who has been skiing in Austria over the past couple of weeks is probably all too aware. Trying to second-guess nature has a dismal success rate. There is no such thing as guaranteed snow.

Or is there? In probably the best-kept skiing secret this side of the Alps, the little-known resort of Tamworth, outside Birmingham, has year-round white stuff to ski and board in, whatever the weather.

The SnowDome is a colossal, hangar-type construction, which juts out of an unremarkable wasteland of dual carriageway and urban parkland. It contains within it a slice of piste, bracing alpine air, bars, an Ellis Brigham equipment shop - in fact, everything to make you imagine you are somewhere pictured in the pages of an Inghams brochure.

The "piste" would constitute a respectable blue run in most resorts and is a triumph of chemical as well as technological engineering. Its bending, undulating contours are covered in snow. Well, it isn't real snow - it hasn't fallen from the sky - but it melts in your hand, you can throw snowballs with it, and you can certainly ski on it.

For schools which are planning skiing trips, or those who feel used and abused by the unforgiving matting of dry ski slopes, this is one of those utter godsends that seem so simple, you wonder why no one has thought of it before. You can learn everything here, from snowploughs and stem turns, to free-style snow boarding and racing techniques. What is more, the nature of the snow means that it can be groomed to imitate conditions in the mountains: you want moguls - humps in the snow caused by many skiers passing - you've got moguls.

And if it all goes horribly wrong, a face-plant on this will hurt a lot less than on a dry slope.

Snowdome has two lifts and a slope capacity of 180, although the close proximity of boarders and skiers even in off-peak hours made it look uncomfortably crowded.

The British Snowboarding team and the British Youth Ski Team both train here and Woodhouse School, Tamworth, is one of many whose pupils have discovered that you don't have to be an expert before you start, but you might become one after a bit of practice.

Ted Kirkby is one of Woodhouse's senior teachers. He has been escorting groups on skiing holidays for some years and, thanks to the school's extensive modular studies programme, he now accompanies pupils to SnowDome on Friday mornings for skiing or snowboarding sessions. These are subsidised by the school, although contributions are welcome from participants. No one is prevented from participating in what can be a highly expensive pastime through lack of money.

"We never have any shortage of people for this module," he says. "They find it very motivating. We used to use a dry slope but this is nearer, it's more pleasant and the pupils much prefer it."

His only regret is that Woodhouse girls don't seem to want to ski or snowboard, although they outnumber boys on the skiing trips. "We did have one girl who attempted boarding, but she found it too hard and went back to skis. She couldn't put up with all the falling over."

Not only does SnowDome give Woodhouse pupils a chance to practise their turns before joining the school's annual ski trip, for some it represents nothing short of a career prospect. Chris Orchard, Russ Heenan, Matt Maltby-Russell and Adam Gendle are snowboard fanatics. For the past two years they have been part of the group which comes to SnowDome during modular studies lessons and have progressed from raw beginners to national indoor boarding champions, and all without ever setting foot on real snow.

They would not, however, be seen dead near a pair of skis, proving that the gulf between the two disciplines could not be more pronounced.

"They all want to snowboard," says Mr Kirkby. "Skiing has become associated with the older, more boring generation." For the boarders it comes down to something more fundamental: "There's no thrill in it," explains Russ, who is now the country's Indoor Junior Champion at freestyle boarding. This means that he launches himself into space from a ramp to perform complicated aerial manoeuvres. The results are spectacular. But it was Adam who pipped him to the first sponsorship deal. A board manufacturer saw him in action at the Dome and offered him a contract.

Instructor Peter Hair, who is responsible for the schools' programme, feels that SnowDome offers an unparalleled training facility for all ages and abilities. "It has all the qualities of real snow, it is such a friendly surface and comes so much closer to what you would experience in the mountains. It is much easier to learn the movements here and the level of skill will be greater."

For this reason, he is busy trying to encourage more primary teachers to take to the slope, for there are few areas in which the old maxim "catch them while they're young" applies so truly as skiing. So while he may not be able to guarantee a gold medal at some future winter olympics, the weather forecast is a fairly safe bet.

SnowDome is open all year round from 9am-11pm. Rates for schools, FE colleges and youth groups are are as follows: skiing (group size 10) and boarding (group size 5, minimum age 12) pay Pounds 5 per pupil, October-March, Mondays to Fridays, 9am-6.15pm only, or April to September all day. For higher education students the rate is Pounds 6, April to September, Monday to Friday, 9am-6. 15pm.

These rates include lessons or practice sessions and all equipment.

SnowDome is at Tamworth Leisure Island, River Drive, Tamworth, Staffs B79 7ND. Tel: 01827 67905 for information and group bookings

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Janette Wolf

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