Six miles away from central London's Trafalgar Square, Hampstead Heath is one of the UK capital's most famous and storied landmarks. The park is arguably the most famous open space in London, spanning roughly 790 acres and dating back as far as 1086 when it appeared in the Domesday Book. In addition to being one of the major settings of Bram Stoker's 'Dracula', the park was also one of the favourite leisure spots for legendary socialist philosopher Karl Marx and also features some of London's most extensive outdoor recreation and sports opportunities. Whenever snow starts falling, Hampstead Heath is unquestionably the most popular spot for Londoners to lace up their ice skates and dust off their skiing equipment and in 1950, the Ski Club of Great Britain joined with the Oslo Ski Association to put on an event which would see North London stage its own miniature version of the Winter Olympics. Travelling back in time to the 1950s, we check out one of the more curious and unusual stories to have emerged from the winter snow of London's iconic Hampstead Heath.
In March of 1950, builders and craftsmen began construction on the skeleton of a ski jump on Hampstead Heath which, when finished, rose 62 feet into the air, was made from standard scaffolding, featured a bamboo track which ran downhill for 30 metres and was modeled on Oslo's famous Holmenkollen Ski Jump.
The ski jump on Hampstead Heath was especially built for a team of Norwegian ski jumpers who were invited to compete against some of their UK counterparts on the weekend of March 24th and 25th. A total of 25 Norwegian skiers competed at the event, including multi-medal winning ski jumper Sigurd Taraldsen, and their opposition was a team made up of students from Oxford and Cambridge.
Ski jumping needs snow and with spring and the beginning of April just around the corner in London, the Norwegian team even brought their own snow with them. 45 tonnes of fresh Norwegian snow was packed tightly into wooden boxes and insulated with dry ice and shipped across the North Sea before being transported to Hampstead Heath by a fleet of trucks and lorries. 45 tonnes of the white powder turned out to be insufficient to cover the ski jump when it arrived and so an improvised piste was made by spreading a narrow channel of the snow along the middle of the ramp. At the end of ski jumping competition an Oslo businessman named Arne Hoel was declared the victor after a winning jump of 28 metres.
The press also latched onto the event, with one Aberdeen journalist commenting on the skiers' death-defying jumps: "Down a frightening erection of steel scaffolding that looked like a fairground giant dipper, on skis and over a meagre carpet of rapidly melting Norwegian snow, the sportsmen hurtled at breakneck speeds — up, up into the air, then down again and headfirst into a crash barrier of snow." So popular was the weekend ski jumping event, that over 100,000 spectators descended on Hampstead Heath over the course of the the two days, traffic in the area was brought to a complete standstill and the nearest London Underground station was unable to cope with the sheer volume of people.
The event was such a success that organisers quickly drew up plans for another edition of ski jumping on Hampstead Heath the very next year and the event was even expanded to host two ski jumping competitions, the 'London Challenge Cup' and the 'Universities Cup'. In their excitement they overlooked the fact that the early spring sunshine had begun melting the Norwegian snow spread on the piste so extremely that steam began to rise from it. Despite 15 tonnes more snow being brought for the return in 1951, and Arne Hoel smashing his previous best jump of 28 metres with an effort which saw him clear 35 metres, the second event was plagued by bad weather from the outset and the snow rapidly turned to slush due to torrential downpours. Bizarrely, water was even taxed before the 1951 edition could get underway as a UK border control officer imposed a 10 per cent customs duty on the Norwegian snow which was being brought into the country.