Skaters of all ages and abilities love having a go at gliding across the ice. Steven Hastings joins a party of revellers at the rink.
British ice-skating champions Torvill and Dean and Robin Cousins made it look so easy. Swishing across the ice with grace and verve, they did more to inspire thousands to don a pair of skates than a decade of Holidays on Ice.
As well as balance, co-ordination and fitness, ice-skating gives less obvious skills such as co-operation, teamwork and determination an airing. The sport dates back to medieval times when skaters strapped pieces of animal shinbone to their feet to race across frozen lakes. Anyone who wants to try their luck nowadays has 70 ice rinks to choose from around the country. Many, such as Planet Ice in Birmingham, have been going for 30 years. Although somewhat dark and a little dingy on arrival, Planet Ice is thriving. Ice skating is enjoying something of a resurgence - aided by the popularity of ice hockey - and on a Tuesday afternoon in December the rink is packed with over 150 skaters, including two school parties.
It's chaotic at first sight. Skaters weave in and out, avoiding prone bodies and veering at the last minute to stop themselves thudding into the crash rails. The pace is frenetic enough to keep maintenance engineer Ian Milligan on his toes. The ice-skating equivalent of a groundsman, his task is to provide a smooth - and therefore safe - surface on which to skate. "When you get lots of skaters on the rink, they leave big divots. You have to be on the lookout all the time. And after every session you need to resurface with a fresh layer of ice. If it cuts up badly, then it causes accidents."
A team of red-fleeced stewards are on patrol, keeping order and skating to the rescue when people fall over. "We tell people to get their hands out of the way if they fall down, so no one skates over anyone's fingers. It's rare to geta serious injury - mostly it's abit of a bruise and hurt pride," says one.
Not that there's any shame in hitting the deck a few times. The fact that everyone seems to take a tumble - even the most proficient skaters - means that no one is afraid to give it a go. Wobbly beginners are coaxed away from the side and given a hand by more experienced skaters. Friends skate arm in arm, lending moral and physical support. Indeed, there's more spontaneous teamwork taking place here than in any contrived "group-bonding" exercise.
"I really like the way everyone helps each other," says Stacey Vaughan, a Year 11 pupil from nearby Kingsbur school. "It's fun because the people who are good at football or netball aren't always the best at ice-skating. And girls tend to be better than boys - maybe because we do dance and gymnastics, so we have better balance."
Although good balance is useful, Ian Milligan has a more practical piece of advice - make sure your boots fit. "Your ankles need proper support," he says. "Kids rush in all excited, desperate to get on the rink, and take the first boots they're offered. It's hard to skate in boots which are uncomfortable or too big."
Planet Ice arranges coaching sessions and many schools opt for this, followed by free time on the rink. For younger children they can also organise "ice games" using cones, hoops and balls.
"Ice-skating is about confidence," insists Milligan. "Children take to it better than adults - they're less inhibited." It's true that after 20 minutes the only skaters still clinging to the side are the Kingsbury members of staff. "It's easier to supervise from here," is the general excuse.
Eventually most of them give it a go, including one teacher who decides to risk his expensive-looking suit. "I wasn't going to skate so I didn't come prepared," he explains. "But in the end I couldn't resist."
Planet Ice offers tempting deals for schools - on the assumption that once children have given ice-skating a try they'll come back for more. Teacher Al Earle has brought a group of Year 9 children from George Dixon school in Edgbaston for an end-of-term treat. "It's popular with the children, but as the head of physical education, I also have a hidden agenda," he says. "Ice-skating is fantastic exercise and because they're having fun and chatting to their mates they don't realise how much energy they're burning up."
Indeed the beauty of ice-skating is that the more incompetent you are, the more exercise you get. The best skaters glide effortlessly across the ice with little more than a flick of their heels, whilst others huff and puff, legs flailing frantically. Plenty of people are in T-shirts despite the cold, which stands testimony to the effort expended.
Shortly after 3pm the teachers head home. But many of the children stay on the ice for the rest of the afternoon.
"It's just brilliant," says one pupil from Kingsbury. "Itmakes you feel free, like you'reflying. I'm staying till they throw me out."
For details about about ice rinks around the UK, the National Ice Skating Association, 114-116 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3AH. Tel: 0207 613 1188; www.iceskating.org.uk