Friday, December 20, 2013

The History of Curling in London, Part 2 - the Nomadic Years


In the first part of this history I looked at the development of curling in London from 1951 to 1980, the “Richmond” Years, a period when I was not involved and which was based on the minute book of the London clubs and the Province of London. What follows is what happened since then until the opening of Fenton’s in 2004 – it all started on a May Bank holiday weekend in 1982. My apologies if this history is interspersed with personal stories and recollections but hopefully they will not detract from the story.

Streatham 1982-1983

A short article in the Scottish Curler notified readers that curling in London would begin again at Streatham Ice Rink on the Sunday of the May Bank Holiday. This would be for a trial period of 6 weeks and, if successful, might be carried on into the new season. So it began – my involvement with English curling - and it was a shock to find that not only were the stones not on the ice when we all arrived but there were people down on the ice scribing circles on the ice with a nail-studded piece of wood!!

This was the way life would be at Streatham and it is not surprising that curling did not last there beyond the one season – games were on a Sunday evening after the ice hockey finished – which could mean starting at 1030 or 1100 on pretty heavy ice with warm stones and scribed circles. Amazingly there were ice dancers going on after us and we also held an England v Scotland International there.

One of the games in that International ended as 3-2 – must have been a high quality game you might think, but no that was all the stones that got into the house in the entire game – an end sheet with a vicious swing caused by years of skating made it very difficult to reach the house. One unfortunate incident that day led to the death of Othma Brunner, then President of the POL who fell on the icy car park after the games and later succumbed to the effects.

Peterborough 1983 – 1987

As curling petered out at Streatham, Sandy Blair, President of the ECA picked me up from my home in Bedford and we travelled to Peterborough with two outdoor curling stones and demonstrated curling to Paul French the manager there. From that initial visit ice time was allocated on a Saturday evening at 6 pm to curling and a new club was formed under the presidency of Donald Barclay, formerly of Paisley.

In addition to the Province of London stones which were transferred there, 4 sets of brand new stones were purchased from the Billingham Ice Rink in Sunderland. These had been bought when that ice rink was first built but had never been used seriously and were in “as-new” condition. In addition two further sets of reconditioned stones were purchased from Kays.

The venture was supported by London curlers and lasted for 4 years until the ice rink decided that it wanted the time for more profitable activities and at the end of the 1986-87 season Paul French suggested that the curling should transfer to Chelmsford – this was managed by the same company and Paul was going as interim manager. There were a couple of final sessions in 1987-88 at Peterborough.

It should be noted that two Internationals between England and Scotland were held at Peterborough in 1985 and 1987 with sponsorship from Avon Insurance who did a lot of work with farmers and who were introduced to the club by George Gilmour, formerly of Hamilton and who had been involved at the very beginning of the Lanarkshire Ice Rink.

As an interesting sideline there were three trophies which were played for at Crossmyloof Ice Rink in Glasgow when it was operating – the Sandy Miller, the Alexander Blair and the Arthur Gilmour – all named after relatives of people who became very much involved in English curling – Connie Miller, Sandy Blair and George Gilmour.

Another notable feature of Peterborough was the enormous wooden cupboard complete with shelves and doors which was built by George’s son, Arthur to store the 96 stones – I wonder what happened to it.

Chelmsford 1987 - 1993

One morning in September 1987 I was interviewed for a job at Essex County Council, based in Chelmsford, and then met with Robin Gemmell, the POL President and Paul French and discussed curling beginning at the Riverside Ice Rink there. Both interviews were successful and I was now living within 5 minutes drive of my curling rink!!

Curling at Chelmsford followed the same pattern as at Peterborough with one session per week at 6 pm on a Saturday evening. Being closer to London it attracted a lot of the London curlers and a local club was formed, chaired by yet another Scot, Ronnie Scott. There were now sufficient stones to supply two ice rinks with 10 sets at Chelmsford and 8 sets at Peterborough.

For two seasons a healthy programme of events was held with very often 4 full sheets and a fifth sheet being used for coaching. A new manager, Martyn Girvan, a former British international hammer thrower and still the holder of the British record, took over and was enthusiastic about the sport, but even he was powerless when the management decided that ice hockey was going to bring in more people and for 1989-90 ice time was transferred to a Sunday evening, when it was available, and the numbers travelling out from London dropped off immediately, especially as the time was also moved to 10 pm. In the end only 7 sessions were held that season.

It got worse the next season and no sessions were held until January and even then it was now a Monday evening at 10 pm and it was a loyal band of local curlers who kept the game going. And in fact it survived another two seasons but by the end of 1992/93 it was obvious that it was not worthwhile carrying on – the numbers had dropped to 5 to 8 per night and 5 sessions were lost because there were not enough players or the ice was too bad to play.

Alexandra Palace 1990 to 1997

One of the factors which helped to bring about the demise of Chelmsford was the opening up of curling at Alexandra Palace in 1990. Martyn Girvan and Dave Loudfoot (the ice man at Chelmsford) transferred to AP and encouraged the curlers to go with them. Curling began there in June 1990 after the stones had been brought down from Peterborough by Gerald Biggs, one of the stalwarts of the Peterborough club, in a trailer behind his Land Rover!

Curling was played at AP for seven seasons but eventually the ice was so bad that the Province decided that it would not continue beyond the end of season 1996-97 as it was losing money paying for ice which was not being used. By this time Martyn Girvan had moved on and taken his enthusiasm for the sport with him.

However, there were many good times at AP and the club prospered with a variety of ventures being launched. The London Double Decker tournament was played for two seasons, attracting teams from across the World – the USA, Russia, Swizerland etc and the final was actually shown live on Sky TV – I have a copy if anyone wants to see it!! The 3 Nations (Scotland, England and Wales) International Weekend was held there in 1992 and a Corporate Cup was launched whereby members were able to introduce their work colleagues to the sport with the hope of winning a trophy.

While the origins of the name of the London Double Decker bonspiel might seem obvious, it did in fact derive from the content of a letter written to the Scottish Curler by Mike Hay, famous Scottish curler and later head coach of the British Olympic team in 2002. He had complained in the letter about the standard of play in the smaller countries in Europe who only had enough curlers to fill a double decker bus and yet who got the same voting rights at the Federation meetings as Scotland!

Aldershot 1990 to 1992

At the same time that curling began at AP, the ice rink at Aldershot also decided that it would experiment with curling and once again stones were moved around the country. In the winter of 1990 I had travelled up to Glenrothes in Fife to collect 96 assorted curling stones which had been used at the ice rink there for curling for a short time.

They were stored in a barn at Great Dunmow belonging to Chelmsford members Chris and Dawn Trembath and when I collected them they had to be cleaned to remove the evidence of animal occupation! 64 of these were transferred to Aldershot and a good club set up got underway. Many of those who played at AP also played at Aldershot but there were two distinct groups also. Of course in 1990-91 Chelmsford was also still operating and I did manage to play at all three rinks that season, at one time in one mad week!

Peter Welsh who later became the secretary of the Province and a great enthusiast for taking people abroad to bonspiels was the hero of the hour the next year when he had to rescue the curling stones from under the hands of the receivers who had moved in when the Aldershot rink went bust!

And there the story of curling in London and the South rested until Ernest Fenton opened up his rink in Kent in 2004. And that is surely a third part of this story which is yet to be written.

It is a tribute to the members of the Province of London that they managed to keep the spirit of curling alive through the barren years between the closure of AP and the opening of Fenton’s. The one trophy which links all the history of the Province of London is the Fleming Trophy which has been played almost every season since 1958, and this was played at various venues in Scotland through the turbulent years – the search for good ice on which to play in the South of England ended in 2004 and there have been many changes to the set up of club curling. There is still, however, a London club with a history back to 1951 and hopefully it will continue to flourish.


And, before anybody points out my omission, there is one other ice rink in London where curling has been played in the last 27 years – in October 1984, Coutts Bank held a curling day for its staff and customers at Queens Ice Rink in Bayswater in London. The curling stones were transferred from Peterborough to London and two or three sheets were scribed out on the rink which had not been melted for a very long time – the story was that if they melted the ice the barriers around the rink would collapse as they were only being supported by it. The ice was diabolical as it was not flat at all and the stones went everywhere.

And there’s more – in 2001 or 2002 a small temporary ice rink was set up in Covent Garden for winter skating and we were invited to demonstrate curling – as the rink was about 15m from corner to corner you can imagine that we were pretty restricted in what we could do. We were sharing the ice with figure skaters who did the most amazing jumps in such a confined space.

And how about curling at Center Parcs – in 1998 we were asked to provide curling equipment to the Center Parcs complex at Elvedon in Norfolk for the summer!! They had erected a temporary ice rink (under a tent) and wanted to offer curling to their clients – again it was shared with skating and I am not sure how many people ever played it – the rink was again not long enough and because they had erected a half size ice rink, they drew the circles at half size as well!! Unfortunately we only had full size stones – I think they played target curling – throwing from one end only.

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