Skating rinks sprout in and around Britain

This year, Christmas in London is going to be a holiday on ice. For the city's museums and palaces, the must-have festive attraction is an ice rink - and skating enthusiasm is spreading across the country.

Modern-day Londoners don't normally welcome ice; the mere hint of freezing weather has been known to bring the city to a halt. But it was not always this way. In the 1500s, when the Thames River regularly froze over, city inhabitants embraced their mini ice age by holding fairs on the river.

And it's in the spirit of frosty nostalgia that the Tower of London is inaugurating a Christmas ice rink on its (former) moat. Once the Tower's sewage and rubbish receptacle, the moat was drained and filled in the 18th century. Now an 11,000-square-foot ice rink sits atop a manicured lawn with enough room for 250 skaters to pirouette against the backdrop of the 1,000-year-old tower.

A short hop down the river by Waterloo Bridge, an ice rink glistens in the 18th-century courtyard of Somerset House. Decorated with lights and a giant Christmas tree, one writer dubbed it last year "the most beautiful ice rink in the world." This year, a 26-foot ice wall is being added to let would-be mountaineers scale its heights under the watchful eye of instructors.

Two of London's Royal Palaces - Greenwich and Hampton Court - are bringing back ice rinks for a second year. In addition to its unique Tudor setting, Hampton Court has a Victorian carousel and Elizabethan-style Christmas decorations. At Greenwich, the rink sits in view of the river Thames, between Christopher Wren's Naval College buildings.

A newcomer to London's skating mania is the Natural History Museum with about 11,000 square feetof rink as well as a junior arena for younger skaters.

"We are spending over a million pounds [US $1.8 million] on the rink," says Jen Dalglish from promoters IMG. She notes that the ice will be illuminated by 76,000 lights, and there will be an Alpine market featuring 28 chalets selling handcrafted Christmas presents. A lounge and bar is also available to patrons.

For tourists visiting outside London, other rinks await. In the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, Princes Street Gardens, with its magnificent castle backdrop, is the setting for a German-style Christmas with a Ferris wheel and an ice rink to skate on during the exuberant Scottish New Year celebrations.

Meanwhile in the north of England, the glamorous Manchester United soccer team may be slipping up, but hopefully visitors aren't as they enjoy an 8,000-square-foot rink.

Most of these rinks are run in collaboration with promoters, the idea being that people who may not normally visit a museum or palace will take their first steps into these historic buildings. Safety is important, with ice marshals keeping an eye on skaters. The Natural History Museum even provides free wrist guards.

With weather forecasters predicting a very cold winter in London, skaters may even take to the Thames again.

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