Christmas may be over, Hogmanay cancelled, Burns & Beyond “postponed”, theatres gone dark, but outdoor attractions have so far survived the Scottish government’s Covid restrictions that came into force yesterday. One of those still standing is "Lidl on Ice", part of Edinburgh's Christmas celebrations, although you will need to get your skates on if you want to pay a visit.
Since the turn of the millennium, an outdoor ice rink has been one of the main attractions of Edinburgh’s official Christmas celebrations. Each festive season a rectangular rink would be erected on the lawn of East Princes Street Gardens under the Scott monument. I remember conditions on the rink were sometimes a little sloppy, probably because it had been warm and wet, but at a time of year known for excess and over-indulgence, a little bit of damp was a small price to pay for healthy, outdoor exertion in Edinburgh’s historic city centre park.
In 2014, Edinburgh’s Christmas organiser Underbelly introduced an oval-shaped ice rink in St Andrew Square garden, creating a novel and memorable experience where skaters circled the towering column of the Melville monument and a round, pop-up cider bar.
Underbelly said over 80,000 skaters took to its so-called “elliptical” rink at Christmas 2018, but it did not return the following year. Essential Edinburgh, the organisation that runs St Andrew Square garden, called time on the popular attraction due to damage to the garden it caused, in particular to tree roots.
Three years later, the Christmas ice rink is back in a new configuration at the other end of George Street. Constructed on a long platform on the block of George Street between Charlotte Square and Castle Street, Edinburgh’s Christmas ice rink 3.0 is more of a straight track with kinks in it, to create what looks almost like a ripple.
Where at St Andrew Square’s oval ice rink skaters moved in one direction, in a continuous loop around the monument, on George Street skaters go back and forth the length of the ice. Skaters stay right and move in an anti-clockwise direction.
Our group of five (three kids, two adults) went to the rink for the 5.30pm slot on the Monday before Christmas day. Given the popularity of skating at this time of year, and heightened Covid fears around meeting in enclosed public spaces, the ice rink was busy. Weather conditions were also favourable for skating - dry and cool.
We arrived 15 minutes or so before our pre-registered slot and, e-tickets in hand, joined the queue at the steps up to the “boot room” at the Charlotte Square end of the facility. At our allotted time we entered in a fairly disorderly mass up the stairs, where shoes were swapped for skates at the boot bar and the previous session of skaters were piling out.
Most of the skates are made of a hard plastic. They’re not that comfortable (I could feel the bottom boot buckle against my socked foot), but they do provide firm support for the 45 minute duration of the skate. If you have your own skates you can bring them (although speed skates are not allowed).
Once buckled up, we hobbled eagerly through the door from the terra firma of the boot room to the hard slipperiness of the ice.
Lidl on Ice is open to all skating levels and ages, and in our session there were many tentative skaters who wobbled gingerly along the track, some hand in hand, and others holding tightly onto the sideboards. I don’t count myself as a particularly elegant or experienced skater, but as I moved in and out of the traffic from one end to the other, I felt like I had the spirit of Reverend Robert Walker upon me.
What was lacking in skill on the ice was more than made up for by a general air of nervous enthusiasm, no doubt stemming from that gleeful sensation that you get when learning a new form of mobility. Even the sight, as we arrived, of an injured kid disappearing into the medic’s backroom to be attended to, seemed to heighten the excitement.
The Lidl on Ice track is relatively narrow for two-way traffic, so you have to time it well when overtaking skaters who are two or three abreast, otherwise you could end up meeting someone in the middle coming in the opposite direction. For those who are shaky on their skates, this can be disconcerting.
However, I found there was enough width to the track to ease in and out of the slower skaters and maintain a good flow. When skaters do become too bunched up to pass, you can put on the brakes and appreciate the wintry vibe: gliding along the rink’s raised platform with its unique views down George street and the Christmas beats pumping out over the night air.
For spectators, the footbridge over the track provides some of the best views of the skating and opportunities for photo ops. Looking east, you can see down the length of George Street, and, as you skate west, the large green dome of West Register House in Charlotte Square looms ahead.
In keeping with the previous ice rinks, a large part of the custom-built platform incorporates rinkside food-and-drink stalls for those who want to spectate and adding to the Christmas buzz, festive animations are projected onto the facade of Tigerlily alongside the rink.
I enjoyed the 45-minute skate and would have happily skated for another half hour. It was also a good opportunity for the youngest in our party to find her skating legs, particularly with so many other people around her at the same level. However, the consensus among our group (of relatively inexperienced skaters) is that the ice track would be improved by being wider, so you don't have to worry about skating into oncoming traffic. There's a reason why rinks are typically rectangular.
The quality of the ice itself was dry - no puddles here, the ice brushed off easily when you fell. But the surface of the ice could have been a tad more groomed at the start of the session, to iron out some of the bumps.
Finally, some might be put off by the cost. Tickets range from £6 to £13 and include the hire of the skates but not the plastic trainer chairs which are another £2.80. Certainly, compared to Edinburgh’s permanent ice rink at Murrayfield, that may seem a little on the rich side. But then, Murrayfield’s ancient facility has been shuttered due to the pandemic since last year and there are risks attached to setting up and running an outdoor ice rink like the one on George Street. Previous operators of the Christmas ice rink, hit by extreme weather, have made a loss.
When it comes to wintry activities skating is hard to beat. While Lidl on Ice can be improved on, in the midst of a pandemic, where so much is being closed down, it’s good to see the return of the rink after a two year absence.