Christmas on ice

It enables skaters to demonstrate their grace, it hinders emergency service vehicles heading from Pendle Hill and blocks of it are imported from Belgium. What’s it like to work with ice?

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For ice sculptor Mat Foster, every Christmas starts in August. The Liverpool-based artist specialises in sculptures and vodka luges for events and film sets, and Christmas is his busiest time of year.

“We probably go through at least 20 tonnes of ice in the run-up to Christmas,” says Foster. “We make the ice ourselves in the studio – eight blocks every four days, and throughout the whole of November and December the phone doesn’t stop ringing with people wanting to order sculptures.

“We do a big Christmas event in York every year and we display 90 sculptures over two days, so we start preparing for that and carving at the end of August.

“This year we have carved everything from Peter Rabbit to a viking ship to a Lego Batman to pigs with wings to a Roman soldier. We do all sorts of designs.”

Foster and his team work from a unit on an industrial estate in Aintree. Temperatures in the studio have to be kept below -10°C at all times, so Foster, his business partner Matt Chaloner and their staff have to wrap up before arriving at work.

“We’re constantly wet and cold,” he says. “We have to wrap up like Eskimos in ski jackets, ski pants, wellies and lots of thermal layers. It does feel strange in the summer going outside after working in the studio, but you get used to it after a while.

“I’ve never had frostbite but I did manage to chop the top of my finger off with a chainsaw seven years ago. We work with a lot of electronic tools so it can be a risk.”

“People think performers have an easy life but we’re where you can’t see us half the time.”

Ice sculptures are often part of the furniture at corporate events, with businesses ordering company logos carved in ice to decorate awards ceremonies and Christmas parties. For Foster, who previously worked in special effects before setting up his company Glacial Art, every commission is important, but there are some creations he is particularly proud of.

“We worked with HBO to carve a sculpture for Game of Thrones,” he says. “We had to make a stone circle with ice spikes and an altar in the middle. We carved it all in Liverpool and shipped it to the set in Belfast. It was used in season four. That was definitely a career highlight.

“We also recently did a job for the launch of the DVD release for War of the Planet of the Apes. We carved a life-size horse with an ape on top with a rifle. That alone was three tonnes of ice and it took five days to carve. We needed giant blocks to make it, so we had to import ice from Belgium, and we carved it in an ice cube factory in Fleetwood as our studio wasn’t big enough. We love a challenge.”

Liverpool ice sculptor Mat Foster

Foster and his team have worked with clients including Gucci, Bentley, Cannes Film Festival and Reebok. Prices typically start at around £300 for a basic sculpture or vodka luge, but Foster and his team take commissions in all shapes and sizes.

“People often come up with their own ideas and I draw a couple of different designs. In November and December we do a lot of Christmas trees and we do get a few requests for some rude ones.”

As Christmas draws closer and the temperature drops, Andy Simpson is preparing for his 25th winter as a mountain rescue volunteer. Operating in Rossendale and Pendle, Simpson and his team are tasked with carrying out rescues, most commonly on Pendle Hill. They also assist the ambulance service if it is unable to get to patients during periods of bad weather, so winter is a busy period.

“Very often the ambulance service will put us on standby because there’s snow on the ground and they don’t have 4×4 vehicles,” says Simpson. “If they are called out to a house on a hill and there’s bad weather, the ambulance service can’t always get to it, so quite regularly they contact us to go and get a patient from their home and transfer them to hospital or take them to the nearest ambulance that’s on a road that’s been gritted. That’s how we get to the wider community – we don’t just work with hill walkers and climbers.”

During his time with Mountain Rescue England and Wales, Simpson has dealt with dozens of incidents. His patch comprises open moorland, farmland and a number of points where the ground is high up, so he and his team of 35 volunteers are always on standby for bad weather.

“Out of 10 years there will be maybe seven years where we are tasked in periods of heavy snow,” he says. “It can happen any time during the winter. It catches you for a few weeks, causes total chaos, then it warms up a bit and everyone is thinking: ‘what was all that about?’

“One of our main strengths is having suitable equipment and people in great enough numbers. If the weather drops below zero we all insist that all our volunteers carry crampons and an ice axe because you don’t know where you’re going to be sent.

“We do house calls in Blackburn and Burnley up around the M65 because the ground is slightly higher. Quite often we’re in and out of people’s houses picking up old ladies, or it could just be transporting a paramedic so they can access people’s homes more easily.”

Simpson says the popularity of Pendle Hill means it is a likely location for rescues over the Christmas period. The area is prone to snow storms.

Pendle Hill search and resuce

“I would advise people to prepare well before going onto Pendle Hill,” he says. “If there’s snow on top they need to be carrying an ice axe and potentially carrying crampons and they also need to be carrying food and drink and essentially a torch, because if they do get caught out that’s an ideal piece of kit for us to be able to find them.”

For Owen Edwards, the ice rink is his second home. The champion figure skater, from Wrexham, has skated his way around the globe and has competed in the World Figure Skating Championships. Edwards announced his retirement from competitive skating in 2013, and he now works at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in the theme park’s Hot Ice Show.

Edwards’ work is seasonal. The Hot Ice Show, which has been running since 1936, runs from July to September, so during the winter months Edwards looks for other work. Usually he performs on cruise ships and ski resorts, but this winter Edwards is working on a change in career.

“I’ve been skating for 23 years and my job has taken me all over the world,” he says. “In the summer I work at the Pleasure Beach and throughout the rest of the year I skate on cruise ships and other parks in Germany and across Europe.

“The Hot Ice Show is great because it’s generally the only thing that goes on in the summer months. It’s easy enough to find work in the winter, especially around Christmas.

“This Christmas is a bit of a funny one. I don’t have anything skating related lined up. I’m making a bit of a transition at the moment – I’m currently working in the marketing department at the Pleasure Beach. I love skating and I love what I do, but my wife, who I also skate with, had appendicitis not long ago and she is still recovering, so I’m trying something new.”

Edwards admitted his career as a professional ice skater has often led him to dabbling in other roles.

“People think performers have an easy life but actually we’re where you can’t see us half the time,” he says. “On cruise ships you are responsible for guest safety, running the ice rink and various other behind the scenes duties that people don’t know about. I once spent a whole season on a cruise ship selling tours as well as skating.”

Although Edwards is spending this Christmas off the ice, it won’t be long before he’s back in his skates. Next year will be his sixth year performing in the Hot Ice Show, and the cast is preparing a new production, Mesmerise, choreographed by Olympic athlete Oula Jaaskelainen.

“For me you can’t beat the feeling of opening up a new show,” says Edwards. “During a full length performance I usually skate around 14 figures and the atmosphere is always brilliant. We always look forward to the summer.”

Main photo: Owen Edwards (Rebecca Lupton)

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