Get your skates on for next Olympics

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Blogger Trish Burgess writes for the Free Press

Did you notice how well the Netherlands did at the Winter Olympics?

A country which is as flat as South Holland and lacking snow managed to chalk up 24 medals to take fifth place in the table.

But then 23 of the 24 were for long track speed skating – a sport at which the Netherlands has always been strong.

If Holland is able to dominate the sport of long track speed skating, shouldn’t South Holland get in on the act too?

Historically the people of the Fens, like the Dutch, were famous for their skating talent. It began as a mode of winter transport: skating along the dykes was a useful alternative to negotiating rutted and muddy roads.

As a sport, fen skating reached its peak in the second half of the 19th century.

National and international championships were held at locations including Thorney, Vernatt’s Drain and Cowbit Wash.

Fen skaters were athletic, strong men, mostly labourers keen to gain financial reward as the prizes could be quite significant. One of the most famous champions was William ‘Turkey’ Smart, the first of a dynasty of skaters from Welney in Norfolk. He raced for many years, often against his closest rival and brother-­in­-law William ‘Gutta Percha’ See.

In one month’s racing in 1855, Turkey Smart’s prize money was £15 5s and a leg of mutton – the equivalent of about two year’s earnings for an agricultural worker.

When the National Skating Association was established in 1879, their first one­-and­-a-­half­ mile British Professional Championship was held in Thorney.

According to the current National Ice Skating Association (NISA), a field of 32 took to the ice, including Turkey Smart and Knocker Carter. The final was won by ‘Fish’ Smart whose cash prize was given as an annual salary in instalments to encourage him to ‘keep himself temperate’.

Champions more local to us included Walter Pridgeon. In a letter sent to the Spalding Guardian last year from GB Plowman of Spalding, we heard that Walter used to skate from Holbeach St John’s to Cowbit Wash, using his familiar long stride on the frozen dykes.

The creation of the Coronation Channel in 1953 effectively put an end to regular flooding of Cowbit Wash and therefore our local, outdoor ice rink was lost.

In Sochi this year, the UK has seen its best result at a Winter Olympics for decades. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to build on this success and start to make a name for ourselves in long track speed skating again?

NISA is trying to do just this in co­operation with the Netherlands. It seems very fitting that we should be working hand in hand with the nation with whom we have co­operated and competed for nearly 300 years.

Can we produce a new Turkey Smart or Walter Pridgeon? Come on South Holland, get your skates on!