#Unearthed: An Evening On Dutch Skates

When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time. Today's gem, entitled "An Evening On Dutch Skates", originally appeared in "The Badminton Magazine Of Sports And Pastimes" in 1898. It was written by Ethel Brilliana Tweedie, a prolific British travel writer and historian.


In the cities of Holland more people probably skate at night than during the day. This, of course, does not apply to country districts where frozen canals form the chief highways through the skating months, and where the people naturally convey their goods to the nearest market while daylight lasts.

In the towns this is different; night skating is for pleasure and not for business. Thousands of young folk who are employed all day in shops, warehouses, post-offices, etc.: free in the evening to enjoy themselves to the best of their ability; to take as much exercise as they can, accompanied by amusement; and therefore it is that after eight o'clock the frozen waterways are a teeming mass of human life. They become, in fact, one huge fair. Chattering men and joyous maidens, elderly fathers and fat, round mothers, small children who for the nonce are allowed to stay out of bed, all wend their way, skates in hand, to the canals and enjoy an hour or two of healthful exercise in the dim light of evening before returning home for the night.

The scenes are gay and animated, and most marvellously picturesque. Here and there a booth has been erected whereat tea or steaming potatoes and sausages are sold, or a 'kop' of coffee, thoroughly stewed, as all Dutch coffee is, temptingly invites the passer-by to partake of light refreshment. This booth is lighted by various blazing beacons placed in those iron stands which we in this country politely designate 'devils.' The booth itself is often a very primitive structure, made with four poles thrust into the ice, covered with brown canvas, and adorned perhaps by a little paling, so that it looks more like a gipsy's tent than an ordinary booth at a fair. The table inside is very unpretentious; but the planks on trestles serve the purpose of holding the boiling urns and the cups and saucers. A few chairs placed round the fire give a cosy look to the interior ; and as the skater flits past, the effect of light and warmth, merriment and joy, emitted from the tiny shed is very pleasant - the lurid glare from the blazing fire casting a rosy hue on the occupants whose forms throw quaint shadows on the canvas walls.

Here and there at intervals along the ice other fires are kindled, not so much for warmth, perhaps, as to shed a shimmering glow of light upon the frozen surface; for so many skaters flying hither and thither in darkness, at the terrific speed they practise in Holland, would be very dangerous but for these flaring beacons.

The charm of Rotterdam is not its museums or its pictures, but its waterways, its queer corners and endless bridges. Leaving the hotel on the quay, designated by the awful name of Do Boompjes, which literally means trees - for there are some small specimens planted along its edge in the form of an avenue - we sally forth to skate. It is a strange thing to find the best hotel of the town standing on a quay, literally in the midst of the docks, before which steamers of all kinds are held fast in the ice, while on the embankment are piled up cases of goods, with here and there enormous cranes such as denote shipping life. Yet this is the most fashionable part of Rotterdam. There are some fine private houses on De Boompjes besides hotels, and it is altogether the aristocratic as well as business quarter of a town where it is the custom for families to live over the office.

Standing at sunset on the main bridge spanning the Rhine, and seeing the busy quay with miles and miles of shipping enveloped in the rosy hues of evening, reminds one vividly of a Turner picture. There is that rich warmth of colouring, that wonderful clearness of detail mixed with those hazy effects, so characteristic of Turner in his early days. Indeed, on a fine sunset night no scene could possibly be more beautiful than that spread before the visitor who stands on the bridges of Rotterdam. Big ships can go up the canals leading from the main waterway; two or three times a day the bridges divide in the middle and are drawn straight up into the air by chains, while a little procession of
vessels passes through. All the traffic of the town is stopped for the time, but even commercial people in Holland do not hurry themselves : they have that slow, solid determination and that not easily disturbed temperament of the hardy Norsemen, which nothing excites. As we pass on to the skating ground we watch the train running along the whole length of the town overhead, as it does in New York, and under part of a bridge of this mounted railway we get a peep at the market. The Groote
Market, the enormous cheese market with its terrible and awful smells, and the hall where fish is sold, are worth a visit; they are intensely Dutch, these fat women in short skirts made so full at the waist that the wearers appear broader than need be, while the pretty muslin caps studded with golden pins seem the very essence of a living Dutch doll. All these kindly, round-faced folk are, alas no better looking than they were in the days of Gerard Dow, Van Ostade, Teniers, etc. Strangely enough, in all the pictures of that time the Dutch women, even when out of doors, generally appeared gowned in low dresses!

The fish at the market are complacently swimming about alive in huge tanks placed in rows, our idea of dead fish shops being considered by the thrifty Dutchman simply ridiculous.

We had arranged to skate from Rotterdam to Gouda; but before doing so we decided to have a trial trip with Dutch skates on the canals of the town. It is a delightful journey from Rotter-dam to Gouda, and from Gouda to Amsterdam. Leaving Rotterdam one skates over the ice through the Hague, Leiden, Haarlem, to Amsterdam; or from Leiden to Utrecht by the Rhine. Man proposes, God disposes/ however ; and although we arranged our plans and made everything ready to skate to Amsterdam the thaw came, and that particular expedition was frustrated.

For any length of journey, it is absolutely necessary to use Dutch skates. These are from sixteen to twenty inches long, and the turn-up of the toe allows the blade to skid over the ice, instead of hitting it. These Dutch skates are made of wood and are very shallow, the feet being raised little more than an inch from the ice. The funny part of them is they are not secured to the boot at all, but are merely attached by cord, which stretches from the heelstrap across the foot, and is tied in a big bow over the toe. The cords are generally bright yellow, and give a fantastic appearance to the foot-gear. The reason for wearing things so easily adjusted is to be found in the fact that when skating great distances one often has to cross a tract of land or walk along a bit of road, when it becomes necessary to stoop down, untie the bow, and, skates in hand, trudge along to the next piece of ice. Therefore in the country one often sees the market folk bend down, untie their cord, kick off their skates, and march along for five or ten minutes till they reach the canal they want, when they slip their feet back into position and in a moment are skating away again. When it is a matter of merely crossing a road or walking a short distance, they do not take off their skates at all.

This, to a figure skater, must sound dreadful and most disrespectful to the art, because sharp blades are absolutely essential to his- performance ; but the reader must remember that figure skating is almost unknown in Holland, where, as in Norway and Russia, long-distance skating is the rule, and speed the end to be attained. This arises from the fact that in these countries they have such severe and continued frosts that the whole country is often icebound; consequently such a thing as swept
ice is almost impossible, and the large tracts of frozen waterways become very rough by reason of the wind, which blows the newly formed ice into little ridges, and the snow which collects upon its surface into small hummocks. It is because of this roughness on the surface of the ice that these long bladed skates are necessary, for they will carry the wearer over anything, cracks included.

Having reached the canal we stepped down a wooden plank on to the ice, where a friendly Dutchman fixed our skates. Fixed? Loosely bound them on would be a more appropriate expression; but as he assured us that was quite enough we proceeded on our way. It is very easy indeed to skate on Dutch blades, and we sped quite happily. What a delightful scene met our eyes! The funny old flat-bottomed barges frozen to the sides of the canal, the gay coloured articles of washing hanging out to dry in the
frosty night air, the old women with baskets of bright-skinned oranges, and those delicious shades of red and brown that seem to pervade everything in Holland.

Small boys were running races, for someone on the bridge was throwing pennies for them to scramble for, and a tremendous scuffle was going on, in spite of the lads being on skates instead of
their own feet. We almost wondered that the turn-up toes of the skates did not upset them; but they seemed to take to the blade as the duck takes to water, and they yelled and shrieked and laughed and made merry and tumbled about in a regular football scrimmage, and picked themselves up again, the victorious one speeding away with his coin while all the other shrieking young rascals followed behind. What a helter-skelter crowd it was! No one seemed to tumble down, partly from the fact that the Dutch learn to go on blades when they are babies. The only danger appeared to lie in the extraordinary fashion in which people skate. Form, such as we know it, is an unheard-of art, as
everyone tries to tear along as quickly as he or she possibly can, their arms going like windmills. It is not a graceful style of performance, but it serves the purpose, and the ice on which they skate practically prohibits outside edge and suchlike artistic performances. We were quite alarmed by some of the gymnastic feats of the youngsters, and, after a sudden and unexpected blow from a whirling arm, panting and gasping we hired a chair, and sat down free from the hustling of the seething crowd, in order quietly to regain our breath, and quietly contemplate the passers-by. That they enjoyed themselves there is no doubt, for never did youth seem more gay.

Suddenly, from under the bridge in the dim light, we saw a long, black, dark, moving mass emerge: it might be a walrus or a whale ; it might be the great sea serpent itself, as it swayed from side to side, skidding over the ice at frantic speed. It was only a party of students out on a little pleasure tour. Among them they had a long skating pole, and having singled out the best performer, and put him in front, all his companions held on to the pole, one behind the other, until the whole dozen were
arranged like onions on a stick, when away they wildly flew, their feet moving in unison as the great black mass tore from canal to canal, or rushed madly under and out of bridges. We learnt that this peculiar style of entertainment had arisen in consequence of the frequency of east winds in the Netherlands in winter. Had all those people been skating abreast each would have had to contend with the blast. As matters were, the first one only had to withstand the piercing wind, the others sheltering behind him and each other. As the lead is, therefore, more anxious and tiring, members composing the party change now and again, the one who was formerly in front being put for a change behind.

The excitement was infectious, and we felt we should like to follow this queer crowd. So up we got and started behind them; but they soon distanced us, for, not being particularly good skaters at any time, the novelty of Dutch blades made us somewhat less proficient than usual, and, in a few moments, the pole and its adherents were far, far away. Ah! What was that noise? Music? Yes, undoubtedly music, and in the starlight - for the stars were now shining brightly - we could see a whole party dancing round a fiery beacon. An old fiddler was playing a tune, and the young folk
were having no end of a time dancing in their skates. Uncommonly well they did it, too, finally going through a kind of quadrille to the bowing of the one-eyed old musician. The music seemed to
cause much excitement, and for a while the fun became fast and furious. Even a very stout old Dutchwoman, with a basket over her arm, joined the crowd, and, having looked on for a while, she could apparently stand the temptation no longer, for she bounced off into the midst of the dancing throng, where, alone with her basket, she performed queer antics in the middle. She was so tremendously stout, her face was so round and bonny, and her enjoyment so keen, that everyone laughed and applauded her movements. The old lady seemed much gratified; and the more the onlookers laughed, the more she danced on her skates, and the more hilarious she became. But presumably her feet must have slipped, whether on an odd piece of orange peel or a cabbage leaf history relates not - the dear old lady came down bump, and, in her endeavour to save her somewhat unwieldy form, her basket slipped from her arms. Shrieks of laughter resounded across the ice, as the poor old woman sat, the very picture of surprised misery, surrounded, and more or less smothered, by broken eggs ! Great was the fall of the mighty. She who a moment before had been exultantly joyful was now sitting an egg-besmeared and bespattered mess, while little boys were running off with her pats of butter or wickedly playing ball with them. The good body was in a sorry plight ; but, after the
first bursts of amusement on the part of the bystanders, they were very kind to the old soul - picked her up, put her on her feet again, and did what they could to restore the shattered fragments to her market basket.

It was certainly a quaint evening's entertainment for us, as well as a cheap one. Beyond paying twopence to have our skates put on, it had cost us nothing. Occasionally we came across parents trundling in front of them box-like perambulators containing little rolled up bundles of humanity; or sometimes we saw a baby, enveloped in a woollen hood, sitting in a common wooden box, attached to a string, and dragged along by a young brother or sister.

Judging by the old Dutch pictures, the ladies in former times used to be rolled over the ice in a sort of armchair sledge by the men, but only once did we see one of these old-world sledges in use, and then it was being propelled by a gorgeous man-servant. The lady looked very warm and comfortable in
her furs, her knees enveloped in an enormous bearskin rug, and the servant was pushing her along in a most marvellous fashion, keeping her perfectly straight, although one would naturally suppose that the chair would wobble from side to side in unison with his legs. Not so, however; the Dutch know
how to push their burden in front of them, and it is wonderful to see the little sledge, laden with milk cans, carcasses of meat, tubs of flour, or the hundred and one things used in commerce, propelled perfectly evenly over miles and miles of frozen waterways, dammed up by those wondrous dykes, many of which were made three hundred years ago. These dykes are peculiar to Holland, for they are merely sand piled up against a well-driven wooden paling over which a rough sort of grass is grown - a kind of bent, in fact, such as one finds by the sea shore in Scotland, which the Highlanders plait into mats and baskets.

Holland is all sand, or the poorest of land; but the Dutch are such thrifty, practical, hard-working people that they have redeemed the sea and dyked it up, and by some wonderful process turned vast districts into fair pasture. So painstaking, indeed, have they been, that towns like Monnikendam and
Edam are absolutely built on shifting sand, as is very evident from the leaning appearance of many of the houses. Indeed, whole streets possess rows of houses out of the perpendicular, and props from the ground to the house wall are quite common. To a stranger the sight is alarming, for the angle is sometimes as great as that of the famous tower at Pisa, which makes one giddy to look at; but the Dutch do not mind, and dwell in slanting homes as happily and contentedly as we do in our straight ones.

Iceboat sailing and skating are the two amusements which rouse a Dutchman to the greatest enthusiasm, but while money is required for the first, one and all can enjoy the second - and they certainly manage to do so.

There is no doubt about it that a very indifferent skater may have a good time in Holland when the canals are frozen; for once there comes a frost, the ice generally lasts for some weeks, and, provided the east wind is not too strong, Holland may then practically be traversed from end to end on skates.

It is not necessary to be a grand performer on blades, to be able to cut figures or do outside or inside edges, for such things are not required ; and, indeed, many persons who find skating extremely tiring in this country, from the weight and height of the usual English skates, can without fatigue do
double and treble the distance on the long, low Dutch blades.

Travelling in Holland is not expensive; in fact, in some of the out-of-the-way places, and especially in Friesland, it is cheap. But there is one drawback to seeing the country by this means: this is that not a single soul outside of the towns can understand anything but Dutch, and the natives do not show great adaptability at jumping at conclusions or comprehending the gesticulations of the unhappy traveller.
With a good map much may be done, and, indeed, the entire route planned before leaving the chief hotels. Still it is worth mentioning the fact that some difficulty may be encountered in connection with the language; for several times, even in our small way, we came across instances of dense stupidity on the part of the natives. At least, we thought so - perhaps it was our own dullness and inability to make ourselves understood.

One lad, more enterprising than the rest, replied to some inquiry, 'Oui, Madame,' whereupon we repeated the question in French, when he again answered ' Oui, Madame.' This was so satisfactory that we asked for further information. ' Oui, Madame,' replied the grinning lad. His manner was a little exasperating, but we still persevered. ' Oui, Madame,' he persisted. The little wretch had not understood another word. ' Oui, Madame ' was all he knew in any language but his own !

In little out-of-the-way hostelries in the smaller villages there is one great recommendation, and that is their wonderful cleanliness. The Dutch are a nation of washers! They are always scrubbing or cleaning something; and even in quite little inns clean rooms and spotless beds are always to be found, so that many might do worse than pack up their traps, and be off to Holland with the beginning of the frost; for they will probably have a good time, see much that is interesting, and thoroughly enjoy themselves at a small cost.

We had skated miles. It was almost midnight ; people were dropping off one by one to their homes, and we felt thoroughly tired, so, leaving the ice, we sought a cab to convey us back to De Boompjes. The horses' ears were enveloped in little bags, for it is a common idea in Holland that they easily become frostbitten ; probably only an idea, as in many colder countries they do not cover up these organs at all, and yet the horses do not lose them, possibly because they have sufficient instinct to move them constantly, and so keep up the circulation...

Almost every house we passed as we drove borne had looking glasses at the sides of the windows to enable the inhabitant see who was passing along the street. Does this imply that Dutch are a very curious people, or that their lives are so as to make them herald any little excitement with joy ?

The thaw began that night, and a couple of days later the ice was very much cracked and covered with water. Luckily we had no spills, which would have meant a veritable bath.

Day and night the ice of Holland is quite gay with skaters. Everyone seems good-tempered and jolly, and bent on enjoying him or her self; and even the old people skate with the assurance acquired by practice. But a thoroughly graceful skater is a rarity. Style apparently counts for nothing against speed - the swinging arm and well-kicked-out leg are considered correct form... If they arc not graceful skaters, they are very practical, and they take advantage of the ice to pay visits to distant friends, or to convey their goods long journeys. Ice, indeed, is a vast boon to the people of Holland, who are
not slow to take advantage of its advent, and make every possible use of it, both for business and pleasure, as long as it lasts.

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