When Hampstead Heath had its own 18m ski jump
- Credit: The Sphere, April 1, 1950, British Newspaper Archive, British Library
With the opening of 2022, many of us are hoping to put staycations behind us, and get back on the slopes.
The skiing industry has particularly taken a hit over the last two years, and although north London is hilly, it is not the Italian Alps or the rolling valleys of Norway.
But in 1950 Hampstead Heath showed that it could be exactly this – well, almost.
That March, as a joint venture between the British Ski Association and the Oslo Ski Association, an 18m high ski jump was built near the Vale of Health.
It certainly wasn’t the eighth wonder of the world, but thousands flocked to the Heath to see it.
Much like today, snow in London could not be guaranteed, even in 1950. As a result, 45 tons of snow was imported from Norway in boxes lined with dry ice.
This was the last time real snow was imported into the UK for a skiing event, and as the Heath was the place that allegedly gave CS Lewis the inspiration for the land of Narnia, it was an apt choice.
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The sight of the jump was daunting to some, with one commentator comparing it to the sort of structure one would see at a fairground (as we do in the summer).
The competition ran for two days, March 24-25. On the first day, 25 Norwegian ski jumpers competed.
As well as taking part, the skiers were tasked with promoting Norway as a travel destination. On their return, I wonder how many of them promoted Hampstead and the Heath as a destination to friends and family?
On the second day, Oxford and Cambridge university teams competed against each other, with Oxford coming out on top.
Despite the Heath’s beauty, its slopes aren’t steep enough for skis and the artificial jump itself was a little crude.
It was less than half the height of most modern ski jumps, and piles of straw were laid at the bottom to soften the crash landings. Presumably, this was to stop the jumpers flying into trees, or worse, into East Heath Road.
The BBC at the time commented that the spectators were generally more interested at the sight of legs with skis on sticking from piles of straw than the jumping itself.
Despite the popularity of the event, with public transport overwhelmed and traffic brought to a standstill, it did not become a sporting tradition.
They tried it again the following year, but the severe rain washed the snow away. But one cannot help but think that rain ruining gatherings on the Heath, overwhelmed public transport, and gridlocked roads sounds very familiar to us who come to Hampstead on a winter weekend.
Will Coles is from The Heath & Hampstead Society.