Having moved to London in the heart of winter—when the gray skies cast their eternally dull pallor on the city and it’s dark before the evening commute home—I leapt at an invite to spend a day in the British countryside, curling. Yes, curling, the Scottish sport that is something akin to shuffleboard on ice.
My German friend Susi, a die-hard enthusiast for the Olympic and Commonwealth Games, organized a foray into southeast England to visit the country’s only dedicated curling rink. But before we hit the ice, we took a tour of Scotney Castle (that’s basically what one does in England: visit castles). Here I learned that you should only ask the volunteer guides, who are incredibly eager to share their glut of castle-related information with anyone who will listen, a question if you have forever and a half to listen to the answer.
Having fulfilled our culture-n-history requirements for the day, it was time for the pub. My fellow travelers, London professionals from all over the world, including Ecuador, Israel and Romania, gathered around the bar for a few pints, which somehow struck us as necessary prep for the icy adventure that we were facing, before lunch. A poster in the bathroom beckoned me to return for an upcoming event featuring England’s “best Madness tribute band.”
After a twisty taxi ride on country roads lined with barren bushes and pastures as far as the eye could see, we arrived at our principle destination: Fenton’s Rink. The unassuming building lies in the middle of farmland with sheep and tractors. We made our way inside and gathered around the TV to watch the instructional video. Eye of the Tiger played as a grandfatherly man glided across the screen. I couldn’t tell you what he actually said; we were too distracted by the anachronistic soundtrack.
I was feeling a little buzzed after lunch, hence my relief that curling does not require ice skates. However, it does call for a specific kind of shoe—chunky, stylish for the nursing home set. So, with my orthotic sneakers tied and my bright pink gardening gloves on (I had forgotten to bring gloves, but the gift shop at the castle was having a sale on floricultural accessories), I was ready.
The only other group on the ice, a mix of middle-aged folks and young adults, was celebrating a birthday. According to the staff, most of the groups that come curling are from corporations. (In the States, an offbeat company outing might be laser tag; apparently curling is the London equivalent.) Another lady in the lounge told me that curiosity had simply gotten the best of her after driving past the rink a number of times. And curling is something of a gender-neutral sport—ladies’ teams “compete on equal footing to the men,” according to Fenton’s website. But despite Britain’s strong performance in curling at the Sochi winter Olympics (the men won Silver and the women won Bronze), the sport remains a relatively niche hobby.
My original ambition had been to make use of the lounge bar and drink while I was playing, but I ended up having too much fun to bother ducking out for booze. The two-hour lesson flew by, leaving me reminiscent of the feeling I had as a kid after a good sledding session.
First things first: grab a broom. Curlers use a broom to scrub the ice to help the stone move quicker. It was the first and last time in my life I was excited to scrub. The goal of curling is to glide the 40-pound granite stone from one end of the rink into a bulls-eye at the other end of the rink (easier said than done). The namesake of the sport comes from the circular motion, or curl, the stone makes as it sails down the lane. For reasons that escape me, the proper way to warn someone that they are in danger of being hit by a stone or suffering some other calamity is to shout “ice!”
While you don’t need a lot of strength to send the stone to the other end of the rink, it’s difficult to gauge how hard to push. We got off to a slightly embarrassing start as no one on either team was able to place the stone in the scoring area. I grasped the general concept, but my understanding ended there. I wasn’t even quite sure what accounted for the final score. But I do know that I managed to knock the other team out of the bulls-eye and place both of my stones in scoring position.
Clearly I’m a natural, and it only took a quick trip out of town to realize it.
Eliza Krigman is a journalist based in London. She writes frequently about culture and her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and Marie Claire Magazine, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter: @ekspectacular.
Images via Google and the author.
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