Heather Fell: Snow-free skiing

PUBLISHED: 09:00 21 February 2014



© sghaywood photography

It may seem unlikely but the world’s oldest functioning dry ski slope is in Devon, as modern pentathlete Heather Fell discovers. Photo by Steven Haywood.

This might not seem like the best time of year to be visiting the Devon Riviera but with the Sochi Olympics just around the corner there could be something of surprising interest. Torquay is one of the mildest places in the country yet it boasts the oldest functioning dry ski slope in the world that has just celebrated its fifty-year anniversary.

Interest in winter sports is growing fast with the build up to the Winter Olympics. We have a variety of medal winning potential in curling, speed skating, bobsleigh, bobskeleton as well as the newer downhill events such as freestyle and ski or board cross. All of the aforementioned sports have won medals for Great Britain on the World stage including a recent promising performance from the men’s bobsleigh team who won Silver at the Lake Placid World Cup; the first British podium finish in sixteen years.

As a Modern Pentathlete I understand the difficulties associated with a minority sport: funding is always a challenge and there is the added issue of finding facilities. For my sport you do need a variety of facilities although I think finding one suitable venue for most winter sports is considerably more difficult. From training at Bath University I have become well acquainted with some of the potential Sochi Olympians. A push track was built in 2002 and combined with the world-class support team based at the University it is a medal winning formula as proven by Britain’s sole medallist in Vancouver who came through this system - hopefully there will be more to follow this time around.

Historically the majority of athletes representing Great Britain in winter sports seem to be from Scotland. Our stunning hills on Dartmoor do not quite lend themselves to a ski run and our supposedly milder climate does not provide us with regular snow. We do, however, have one significant factor to our advantage: strong military links. Thanks to British military support to winter sports Devon can proudly claim Major Andrew Clarke RA - an international telemark skier and chairman of the International Ski Federation who is helping to develop this World Championship level event.

Some of my earliest memories are tobogganing on Dartmoor include an uncontrolled tandem run into a gorse bush; luckily for me my sister was in the front seat. I also distinctly remember my first skiing experience on the somewhat less picturesque Plymouth dry slope. Most of our European neighbours would laugh at us donning our snow attire to ski or snowboard down a few hundred metres of an off-white plastic bristled piste. We are unlikely to compete with their downhill skiers but with the introduction of the more artistic ski and snowboard events where snow domes and water parks can be used to practise, Britain is not far behind. Sport England is beginning to invest more funds including the recent initiative “go ski go board” launched to encourage more people of all ages and abilities to make the most of the facilities on offer in the UK.

In our area we are spoilt with artificial ski venues in Exeter, Plymouth and Torquay. There are ski and board sessions held everyday of the week for all ages and all abilities. With half term coming up there are kids days available as well as party packages. At the other end of the spectrum these facilities offer everything from coffee mornings and social evenings through to race training sessions as well as adaptive skiing opportunities.

We have Devon’s Sir Fred Pontin and the harsh winter of 1962/3 to thank for all of the artificial ski slopes across the UK. Apparently the people of Devon were so impressed by the snow throughout that winter that Sir Fred decided to build an artificial slope at his Torquay holiday camp. This was the first permanent slope in the UK and created a model for others to follow including a temporary 240ft run erected inside Alexandra Palace for an international tournament. Whether you want to try skiing for the first time, have some lessons to refresh, get fit before a holiday or you’re simply feeling inspired by the Winter Olympics; as a result of a Devon holiday camp supremo you can do all of the above without leaving the county.

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