Jumping for joy with 60 tons of Norwegian snow

HAMPSTEAD Heath is not generally a thrill-seeking destination and romping walks and chilly dips in the ponds are more its style – but an old film has re-emerged of an extreme sport few would ever expect to have seen there.

Two British Path� films show how, for two years in a row, a full-size ski jump was constructed on Hampstead Heath complete with real snow, an international ski-jumping competition and 50,000 delighted spectators.

Visitors to the Heath on March 25 and 26 March 1950 and March 30 and 31 the following year – exactly 60 years ago this week – were treated to the astonishing sight of an 80 metre high ski-jump covered with 60 tons of snow brought in from Norway.

The event was run by the Central Council of Physical Recreation, with the Ski Club of Great Britain and the Oslo Ski Association.

A team of 25 Norwegian skiers brought the snow with them from their rather chillier home. The tons of snow were packed in wooden boxes insulated by dry ice to ensure they reached Hampstead intact.

The jump was created from a 60ft tower of scaffolding which gave skiers a 100ft run-up to the jumping point.

The film of the astounding feat, which can now be viewed on the British Path� website, shows the construction of the ski run, the snow being unpacked from its crates and spread with rakes on the run.

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The films also show skiers getting ready to ski the run, climbing up the scaffolding and zooming down towards the huge crowds to watch the event.

The 1951 event featured both an international competition and another between Oxford and Cambridge university skiers who had spent two weeks in Norway preparing.

The Oxford team captain, Douglas Mcintosh, crashed out at the bottom of the slope prompting the commentator to declare: “If he wasn’t dark blue before, he will be now,” in a jocular reference to the traditional colours of the Oxford team.

Despite the impressive ski-ing talent on show, the spectators seemed more interested in how deep the skiers fell into the pile of straw that awaited them at the bottom of the run, rather than the ski jumps themselves.

The jump started at the Viaduct Pond and the landing area stretched as far as the site of today’s Peggy Jay memorial playground.

Radio producer Piers Plowright, who lives in Well Walk, was 11 years old when the ski-jumpers arrived on the Heath.

He told the Ham&High: “I was telling this story to my grandchildren recently and they didn’t believe me.

“You have to remember that this was really just before television and we certainly didn’t have one in our house.

‘‘I went along with my sister Susannah and I had never seen anything so exciting in my life before.

“It was terribly dramatic. I remember thinking those people were heroes. The jumpers came swooping down from the Viaduct Pond and launched themselves into space. I remember looking up into the blue sky and watching them soar through it like birds.

“We went every day it was on. We didn’t even go home for lunch.

“All the jumpers looked the same in their goggles and with their brightly coloured numbers on their chests. I thought they were like astronauts. It was simply the biggest thrill of my life at that age.”

An official said of the 1951 event: “This exhibition has been such an unqualified success that we are very much hoping it will become one of the country’s major sporting features.”

However, his hopes were dashed as the ski jump construction was never repeated, perhaps after organisers realised that carting tonnes of snow halfway across the continent in the middle of spring was not the most cost-effective sporting pursuit.

o To view the films, visit http://bit.ly/heathski1950 and http://bit.ly/heathski1951.