“ Attraction: Seasonal Ice Rink in London / Address: Strand London WC2R 1LA / Tel: +44 (0)20 7845 4600 „
I've done it in Dubai. I've done it in Cologne. I've done it in Mexico City and Manchester, Brussels and Blackpool.
And, now, London. I love skating, especially outside. An outdoor ice rink is almost as good as a cable car and you know how great they are. I missed the snow this year, and returned to a freezing UK without the pretty winter wonderland landscape. While you can't control the weather, there are some other ways to make the most of the chilly season, and so this week we decided to go skating at Somerset House. Unlike most of the country's temporary ice rinks, this one is still going strong post-Christmas, and doesn't close for the season until January 23rd.
The Somerset House ice rink runs timed 1 hour sessions starting at 10am and going on into the evening, but you need to check as they're not hourly (the one after us started at 11.15am, for example). We booked in advance on Ticketmaster and the confirmation included advice to be there 20 minutes early. We dutifully set off, getting off the Tube at Embankment and then walking along the river past the Sphinx and Cleopatra's Needle. We found Somerset House easily enough, but the entrance eluded us. Surprisingly there are no signs pointing the way, but it's on the Strand which is the other side of the block it occupies, and the entrance to the rink is where you go into the galleries. The ticket office is a portacabin to one side, and we queued up as we weren't sure if we needed to exchange our printed paper tickets for card ones. Either because it was early, or because the season is winding up, there was only one person serving and the lady in front of us seemed to have a complicated query, so we waited a while. When he was free he told us that we didn't need to go there anyway, and could proceed directly to the rink entrance.
By this time it was 9.50am - we'd wasted 5 minutes walking round to find the entrance, and another 5 waiting pointlessly at the box office. The rink entrance, another temporary structure, was roped off as they weren't open yet - useful to know if, like us, you book the first skate of the day. We took our bags in to the bag drop which is nearby. It costs £1 for up to 2 bags which seemed reasonable. There's no alternative, though, since bulky bags are not allowed on the ice.
By this time, they were undoing the barrier and letting us in. We went to get our skates and leave our shoes, and then looked round bemused to note we were the only patrons. Dot on 10am they opened the doors to the rink and we were off. For half an hour we had the entire thing to ourselves which was surreal, zipping around while an ice monitor hovered in the distance in case we fell. I'm just sorry we're not better skaters. Put me on a stage solo and I'll happily dance around and lap up the attention, but I'm just not that good at prancing on ice.
After half an hour a large school group arrived. They had their own booking outside the public session times, and we were glad they'd come at 10.30am, not at 10am when we started. By this point we were whizzing around if somewhat inelegantly, and there's nothing like hearing some juniors gawk an admiring "Wow" to make you feel like a pro skater.
The ice rink is in the courtyard of Somerset House, and they have decorated the surroundings. While the Christmas tree is no longer there, they have left the letters of SKATE high up on one of the buildings, and there are pretty blue lights shining on the rink. The whole venture is supported by Tiffany and Co, and there is an onsite shop in the shape of an iconic blue Tiffany box but disappointingly this wasn't open when we were there. The website doesn't list its opening times, so we expected it to be open at least by the end of the first session of the day. There's also a small on site shop selling the more mundane / less-sparkly things: hats, scarves, gloves etc in case you've forgotten your own.
There is a bar / cafe alongside the rink where non-skaters can watch from the comfort of a walled and roofed structure while enjoying something to eat or drink. There are a few tables and chairs that I think anyone can sit on, but these are outside at the north side of the rink and pretty chilly I imagine.
In addition to regular skating they also run special sessions. In December they ran two wheelchair sessions, and they still have their Friday night discos running (final one this week). They also run lunchtime dance workouts with teachers from the English National Ballet. These are running every lunchtime this week and cost the same as normal sessions. While we were skating the background music was generic classical tunes that really added to the serene feeling of floating around the ice and was a welcome relief from the lively and loud dance music some other rinks play.
There were lots of staff present while we were there. Once the school group arrived additional ice marshals skated out onto the ice to help, and there were lots of people inside too, sorting skates and shoes, scanning tickets, doling out wristbands etc. I couldn't help but think that they could have done with someone sorting out the rink prior to the first skate, though. While it was clean, it was also a bit wet. By this I mean there was clear evidence that it had rained over night. The barrier edge had a flat top and this was still covered in little puddles. Because this is what you hold onto if you're nervous, and/or go crashing into when you lose your balance, it meant we quickly got quite soggy gloves and the sleeves of my jumper also got heavy and damp. If a member of staff had just dried it off with a towel before it opened it would have made all the difference, as it then didn't rain for the rest of the day. The ice also had a few puddles but none deep or wide enough to be of much bother, and you only noticed the difference in texture if you were really unlucky and skated through one. The staff we encountered were all lively and friendly, and once the school kids arrived the on site Medic quickly had his hands full.
In some ways this rink is no different from any other temporary one that pops up over winter. It's no larger and no fancier, but somehow the setting really adds to the ambience and enhances the experience. I've skated in lots of towns and in lots of countries before, but never has it been quite like this. I'm glad I can tick it off my list of things to experience in life because it is that, an experience, and even if you're like Bambi on ice, it's recommended as something to do at least once.
Tickets cost from about £11 upwards, with daytime cheaper than evenings. This is only slightly more than, say, the Manchester rink, because no ice rinks in the UK seem cheap these days. For London, it didn't seem too bad, and an hour was definitely long enough.
The rink only shuts with awful weather, i.e. massive snow storms. If it's spitting, you can still skate (and won't get a refund if you don't)