Ice Skating at the Tower

By TOBY PORTER

The hardest thing about ice skating is trying not to picture yourself falling over and a passing diva slicing off your fingers.

There are a lot of aspiring Tonya Hardings on the rink at the Tower of London, but thankfully, the marshals seem to keep them in check.

Or they are afraid of slicing people’s fingers off.

Most newcomers like me spend much of their half-hour session clinging to the sides as if tipping over would cause as much damage as a visit from an enraged Freddie Krueger.

Even those with a low pain threshold, though, are likely to have helpfully cushioned glutes to fall back on.

And for the muscle-bound macho men who boast little cushioning there – well, it’s your own fault.

South London is blessed with Streatham Ice Rink, which also hosts spectacular padded fist fights with referees and a league which is apparently classified as a proper sport resembling hockey.

But for spectacular views, there can scarcely be a more gob-smackingly striking or historic than the one in the dried moat of the Tower of London, which gets under way again on November 14.

It’s not a great idea to gawp at the sights while on the ice, but the walls of the tower and the sparkling crystal of the nearby office blocks do make it seem a little like a glittering Busby Berkeley set – though probably colder.

And here’s another unexpected bonus.

In London, at least pre-lockdown, commuters acquired a grey edge, like a Ready Brek anti-glow, through hours of bored travel packed into sardine-tin trains and smelly buses.

But on this ice, everyone seems to be friendly, like it’s the Blitz.

The Dunkirk Spirit, through which even the most passing acquaintance is a comrade-in-arms, permeates the atmosphere at the Tower.

Fall over, and someone will pick you up. Bash into the side and someone will ask if you are hurt.

Teeter ever-so-slowly around and you will acquire a couple of new buddies.

It’s probably an ideal spot for a date, albeit with slightly more risk than your average posh dinner because if you’re a beginner, you are pretty much guaranteed to end up on your arse.

It could be almost as much of a faux-pas as slurping spaghetti sauce all over your face.

So maybe third date material. And only after you have practised by yourself for at least two sessions beforehand.

Here’s the routine, for anyone contemplating dating danger, plus those who just want to glide near some of Britain’s most historic battlements.

Wrap up with lots of thin layers. I’m 6ft 2in tall so it’s further to fall than most, so I went equipped for a heavy landing, with knee pads, shoulder pads, motorcycling gauntlets and a crash helmet.

Actually, I made the last bit up. But if you’ve ever seen ice hockey players in action, you couldn’t rule a suit of armour as extra security for the hypervigilant. (Tip: don’t try to steal one from the Tower unless you want to end up like Anne Boleyn).

The rink will not be like the women-dominated sport of roller derby – where cat fights are almost required – but neither will it be a pink-themed sleepover with kittens and jim-jams.

The skates are part of the package and come in all sizes.

I arrived in boots which were easy to take on and off – ie a zip, not 15ft of snake-like laces – which felt like genius to me.

There was a bit of queueing, giving me time to attempt to balance on my skates.

Then plunge in – or, in this case, along.

I am yet to fall over after a total of 90 minutes on the ice, which I can only assume is either a vast fluke or my regular 20 minutes of yoga a day – balance is crucial if you want to stay upright.

I certainly didn’t break any kind of speed records, but glided along sedately, if slightly braced for an attack from a prima donna or a malevolent Tonya.

It was as close to low-level flying as a scaredy-cat can get.

The music choice, despite being corny and kitschy, was as inoffensive as middle-of-the-road tunes can be – ie no Crowded House droning.

Everyone, with the possible exception of the side-clingers, was sad their session was over.

But the tussle to switch back footwear was a benevolent scrum.

I still value my fingers, but I would go back in a heartbeat. Or a snap of those fingers.

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The Tower of London, the home of the Crown Jewels, was built as a crucial strategic fortress by William the Conqueror from 1066 and used as a prison from 1100.

It continued to be used as a jail until 1952 – its last inmates were the Kray twins.

But for most of its history it has been a grand palace and royal residence.

It has also been an armoury, a treasury, a menagerie, the home of the Royal Mint and a public record office.

From the early 14th century until the reign of Charles II, a procession would be led from the Tower to Westminster Abbey for the coronation of a monarch.

Under the Tudors, the Tower became used less as a royal residence, and despite attempts to refortify and repair the castle, its defensive systems lagged behind developments to deal with cannon-fire.

It became notorious as a place of torture and death – but only seven people were executed within the Tower before the world wars of the 20th century.

Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn – Queen Elizabeth I’s mother – was beheaded on a scaffold erected on the north side of the White Tower, in front of what later became the Waterloo Barracks and is now Jewel House.

Anne Boleyn in the Tower – Edouard Cibot (1799–1877)

Elizabeth I was imprisoned in the Tower while in disgrace under Mary I – or Bloody Mary – before she became queen.

Elizabeth herself imprisoned Jesuit priest John Gerard, who escaped on a rope strung across the Tower moat during the night of October 4, 1597 – despite the fact that his hands were still mangled from tortures he had undergone.

He even arranged for the escape of his jailer, who he knew would be held responsible for the jailbreak.

The cleric later became a mentor to the Gunpowder Plotters.

One of Elizabeth’s favourites, Sir Walter Raleigh was held within its walls after falling out with her successor James I.

Executions were more commonly held on the notorious Tower Hill to the north of the castle, with 112 occurring there over a 400-year period.

In the First and Second World Wars, the Tower was again used as a prison and witnessed the executions of 12 men for espionage.

After the Second World War, damage caused during the Blitz was repaired, and the castle reopened to the public.


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