Britain is home to England’s triumphant cricket team, decent rugby and soccer sides, and world-beating darts players, but winter sports have long suffered a chill. Team GB won just one medal at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 (in women’s skeleton). Its best-ever haul, a meager four medals, was way back in 1924.
Geography is the culprit. With few tall mountains and less than 30 days of snow settling each year, even in the chilliest realms of Scotland, few resorts can build up a decent snowpack before spring arrives.
Despite this, fanatical British skiers and snowboarders are fighting to keep their sports alive – and they want you to join them. Incredibly, there are more than 75 real and artificial ski slopes in Britain, spanning everything from luxury gondolas and gnarly half-pipes to backcountry runs where you won’t see a soul (apart from some confused sheep).
As you might expect, the best skiing in Britain is usually in the Highlands of Scotland. Here, majestic mountains tower above scenic valleys, and the open moorland transforms — most years— into a smooth winter wonderland. The ski season typically runs from mid-December to early April, but always check before you travel: Piste conditions can vary considerably, sometimes at very short notice.
Glenshee in the Cairngorms National Park has 22 lifts and nearly 25 miles of groomed runs over four mountains. Its 2,100-foot-elevation resort boasts snowmaking equipment to keep runs open during borderline conditions, plus tubing and snow sculpting for the family.
Head farther north to Lecht, about 115 miles north of Edinburgh, for a smaller, family-run operation with a well-equipped snow park for boarders. Cozy touches here include heated rental-ski racks and high-speed wi-fi to upload run footage and surprise folks back home.
Just outside Fort William in the remote northwest of Scotland is Nevis Range. Nestling in the foothills of Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, Britain’s only resort with a mountain gondola rises to over 2,000 feet. Eleven lifts give access to a variety of routes, including more than a dozen challenging red (intermediate) and black runs. There’s also a transceiver park to practice your backcountry and avalanche skills.
Glencoe Mountain nearby has just 7 lifts but claims the longest and steepest runs in Scotland. Handily for visitors, Nevis Range and Glencoe Mountain can even be reached easily by public transport from London. The famous Caledonian Sleeper train clatters romantically overnight from Euston station in central London to Fort William, at the base of the mountains, six nights a week. Then just jump on a bus and you should arrive in time to hit the slopes.
There are natural ski areas in England, but they tend to cater to the more adventurous skier. Take the Lake District Ski Club at Helvellyn, for example. While this area is most famous for Wordsworth’s hosts of golden daffodils in spring, it can get enough snowfall in winter for some lovely, if very primitive, skiing. Its single towline is about an hour’s walk uphill from the parking area (bring a map and compass), and facilities are limited to a heated hut with an electric kettle — so don’t forget a bag lunch, either.
Yad Moss, also in Cumbria, has two tow lifts and some great intermediate and advanced runs, all maintained entirely by volunteers. Come with all the gear and provisions you need and be prepared to dig out a parking space for your car. The good news? There is at least a warm stone day lodge and composting toilet on site.
It will be more realistic for most travelers to visit one of England’s world-class indoor ski centers. Xscape has three branches across Britain. All of them have 550-foot slopes covered in thousands of tons of real snow, as well as rock-climbing, skate parks and other adrenaline-pumping activities. The Snow Dome in Tamworth, near Birmingham, has a similar-sized real snow slope plus separate areas for kids’ lessons.
Finally, if you’re stuck in London and are just flat-out missing the cold, try a visit to the coolest venue in town. The IceBar just off Regent Street is the UK’s only permanent bar built entirely from ice. It’s maintained at a frosty 23 F all year round.
Snow joke: Britain’s world of winter sports
* A team from Britain has attended all of the 21 Winter Olympics but has won a total of just 22 medals. That’s fewer than Canada, Germany, the US and Norway each earned at the 2010 Vancouver Games alone.
* In 1988, Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards became a global hero after terrible performances in the 70m and 90m ski jumping events. The IOC subsequently toughened the entry requirements to exclude the worst competitors.
* At the 1984 Winter Olympics, British ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean were awarded the highest scores of all time for a single figure skating program. They received 12 perfect 6.0s and six 5.9s.
by Mark Harris
Top: Nevis Range ski resort overlooks Scottish hills and valleys (Photo by Charne Hawkes, courtesy of Nevis Range)
Right: Resorts in Scotland often have snow even when the valleys below are clear. (Photo by Steven McKenna, courtesy of Nevis Range)