Considering the fact that we both took the trouble to obtain flu shots before we left Canada, it would seem only right that those responsible for the spread of such diseases would see that London got the same virus as North America. Such is not the case. Yours truly is sick as a proverbial dog and the sun is shining brilliantly for a change. I did hold off for a week longer than my better half, but I can no longer regard the effort as anything more than a foolhardy attempt to stave off the onset of the headache, sore throat, coughing, sneezing, wheezing and general misery. Better never than late, if you ask me, but I was not consulted.

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The snow is gone, which is absolutely astonishing considering the weekend before last, everyone in London seemed to be out on Parliament Hill. It was complete chaos, children and adults taking off on anything that would slide. While we were there one guy made his way into the melee on downhill skis, another arrived on a snowboard. They seem not to have heard that sledders are supposed to climb up the hill on the sides, leaving the middle section for those intent on coming down. It was a free-for-all. These are Londoners, after all, and they don’t get a lot of practice at this sledding (or sledging) business.

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Despite the freezing temps, the ponds were open for business. The water was just above freezing and the men’s swimming group, amusingly known as the East German Ladies Swim Team, was out in force. If I had known about it, I definitely would have gone over for pics. One local bather was quoted in the Hampstead and Highgate Express, “It was amazing, but so is every time you swim in the ponds. You think you’re in the middle of nowhere, but actually you’re in one of the biggest conurbations in the world.” Only a Hampsteader would think of dropping “conurbation” into a conversation.

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Hampstead Heath has witnessed some amazing sights over the years, from the hanging of highwaymen in the late 1500’s to horse racing in the 1730’s and 40’s. In the early 1800’s Byron, Keats and Shelly came often to visit fellow poet, Leigh Hunt, and sail paper boats on one of the ponds to amuse the children. Karl Marx used to take his children out for donkey rides when he wasn’t buried in books. Now, he’s buried in Highgate.

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In the late 1800’s the Heath became a place for working class entertainment and recreation, from family picnics to huge fairs which took their impetus from the ‘Bank Holiday Act of 1871.’ There was music and dancing, food vendors, stereoscopes and silhouette artists.

But the event that trumped them all arrived much later, in March, 1950– a downhill ski jump! It seems to have been triggered by the odd idea of increasing British tourism to Norway in winter. Twenty-five Norwegians came to London with 45 tons of snow packed in insulated wooden boxes with dry ice. The jump itself was supported by a tower of scaffolding 60ft (18.29m) high, giving skiers a 100ft (30.48m) run-up to the jumping point, 12ft (3.66m) above the ground. Modern ski jumpers reach 200ft – 300ft (60m – 90m), but skiers on Hampstead Heath only had enough room to jump about 90ft (27.43m).

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The London ski jumping competition, as it was known, held a trial contest the first day involving only the Norwegian skiers. This was followed by a contest between Oxford and Cambridge University, whose teams had trained for two weeks in Norway. Tens of thousands of people gathered in the sunshine to watch the University Challenge Cup. A broadcast commentary on the competition kept everyone informed of the quality of each jump, but the spectators seemed to be more interested in how deep each skier disappeared into the straw at the bottom of the run.

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In the end, the Oxford team, captained by C. Huitfeldt, won the competition, while the London challenge cup – open to all competitors – was won by Arne Hoel of Oslo. It was estimated that 52,000 visitors came to the event, hosted together by the Ski Club of Great Britain and the Oslo Ski Association. The plan was for another event in 1951, but it seems fairly clear that it never came about. Perhaps the costs were too high for the revenue, or everyone came down with the London flu.

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Hampstead has never seen its like, but the urge to get out and enjoy the Heath in winter has never gone away. Only the snow.

Check out the Pathe footage at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKZ3yzPZer0

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