Long Read

Winter on the Fens

A meeting with a remarkable woman hoping to revive an almost unknown British sport.

The final of the world championships this spring saw a flurry of first-half goals. Finland had pegged back Sweden to 1-1 after they took the lead, but two scores in as many minutes from Joel Broberg and Christoffer Edlund earned the Swedes a comfortable buffer heading into the break. There was no way back for Finland, and when the 90 minutes were up Sweden celebrated their 13th title.

This wasn’t a football tournament, though the similarities are uncanny: there were corners, offsides and 11 players per team. The sport of bandy is played on vast swathes of ice, up to 110 metres long and 65 metres wide, with curved sticks and a hard pink ball. To the untrained eye it seems like a variant of ice hockey, but the closer you look, the more the differences emerge.

It’s a global game: in Russia, Sweden’s counterpart as a great bandy power, it’s a national sport played by about a million people. Elsewhere it’s growing: India, Japan and Mongolia are members of the Federation of International Bandy (FIB).

So is Great Britain. Bandy originates in the villages of the Fens, East Anglia. But like so many things invented or codified in England it fizzled out, thriving better in the places where it was exported. I went to meet the enthusiasts, undaunted by obstacles and accidents, who have kickstarted the revival.

Bandy’s renaissance in England began in 2016, when Lyn Gibb de Swarte, the former British short-track speed skater, came across the game online. Lyn took over a dormant national federation of which she has become president. With her wife Cathy, she lives in Littleport, a few miles north-east of Ely. She hails, though, from south London, and learnt to skate as a child on Saturday mornings at Streatham Ice Arena. As we talked, Cathy, a former footballer, supplied tea, digestive biscuits and observations on the Premier League title race. Lyn pointed out the necklace she was wearing: a Star of David combined with a cross. ‘I’m a Jew,’ says Lyn, with playful firmness, when I ask whether she’s Jewish, though in religion, she tells me she’s a Christian.

Racing internationally as an amateur in the 1970s, Lyn helped to establish the UK’s first women’s ice hockey team, the Streatham Strikers – her preference was ‘Streatham Rebels’ – who played their debut fixture in 1982, wearing men’s protective pads. Her attempt to join the club committee at Streatham was met with chauvinist bluster; she does an excellent impression of a pompous male representative informing her that ‘the air of the committee was often decidedly blue’. After her retirement from racing she qualified as a referee and, in 1991, became the national speed-skating coach for post-apartheid South Africa. Her career has included a lifelong campaign to promote sport for women and to reject the gendering of certain attributes – pace, skill, controlled competition – as male. As journalists, she and Cathy have covered and promoted women’s sport of all kinds across the world.

Bandy appeals to Lyn for its lack of exaggerated machismo. Bodychecking is forbidden, unlike in ice hockey, whose original rules derive not from football but from rugby. ‘I always fought,’ she recalls, for women’s hockey to be ‘non-contact.’ Without realising, she was seeking out bandy, which places greater emphasis on skill than on brute strength. She calls bandy ‘the most egalitarian sport I know’. The word she often uses to describe the sport is ‘wholesome’, but without the connotation of propriety it sometimes carries: with its deft passing and possession-based tactics, the long dribbles and skilful skating enabled by its huge rink, bandy provides team spirit with a space for personal expressiveness.

Today, though, there is nowhere in the UK where bandy can be played in its true dimensions. Training sessions have taken place at the rink in Peterborough, which like many arenas in the UK doubles as an ice hockey stadium and a training centre for short-track and figure skating. No rink in the UK is big enough for bandy or long-track skating.

Lyn’s ambition is to build a dedicated ice stadium, for bandy and long-track speed skating, on the outskirts of Littleport: 100 x 50m, fully accessible by wheelchair, with social and coaching facilities, catering to skaters of all sorts. It would serve as a national centre for bandy in the region where it was born. It would also invigorate the community. ‘I’m doing something enormous,’ Lyn says. Walking to the station from her house, I peer through the twilight towards the Great Ouse, at the patch of land she has in mind. She has commissioned drawings from an architectural designer. The project has been generally supported – yet, as she observes, ‘someone needs to stick their neck out’.

In the Little Ice Age, the cold snap that lasted from 1300 to the end of the nineteenth century, there was no need for refrigerated rinks. The drainage of the Fens in the 1600s by the Earl of Bedford’s ‘gentlemen adventurers’ created today’s landscape: huge fields intersected by raised ditches, perfectly straight and seemingly infinite. The ditches had a troublesome tendency to overflow, flooding the fields. In the typically cold winters they froze, creating huge sheets of ice.

The Bury Fen team, from the joint villages of Earith and Bluntisham, played the first recorded match in 1813. But bandy’s real spread began in the mid-century. In 1853 Queen Victoria spectated on a game at Windsor Castle; Prince Albert played in goal. Heeding the Victorian instinct for clubs and codification, bandy hotshots formed a governing body. When the Tebbutt brothers – Charles Goodman Tebbutt is bandy’s W. G. Grace, its first superstar – drew up the rules in 1882, they were taming a wild game. The concept of a goal-line existed, initially, but without horizontal limits: as Charles’s brother Neville put it, there was nothing to stop ‘egoistic dribblers’ edging further and further from defenders, until ‘the two players would almost disappear in far distance’. Bandy was booming: in 1895 it was said to have displaced football for popularity at Oxford.

The game in England had almost vanished only 20 years later. Many of the boys who grew up idolising the Tebbutt brothers had been killed in the trenches. The Little Ice Age was over. With the advent of indoor rinks skating retreated indoors, and as North America started to export ice hockey, bandy’s golden age came to an end.

Skaters, however, never deserted the Fens. David Smith grew up in Sutton and still lives nearby. His father worked for a Dutch fruit importer in Earith and one night, Smith tells me, he took his sons skating on the nearby ice. The moon was out; his father called it ‘the parish lantern’. He was hooked. To shoot over Fenland ice, he tells me, is ‘something you can’t explain – something magical.’ Last winter, unusually cold, yielded a week of continuous ice: the best conditions for more than a decade. There was plenty of skating, but no racing, unlike in the heady days of the mid-80s, when over three consecutive winters skaters raced for trophies like the King Edward VII Cup.

Lyn shares his appreciation for the mysterious, otherworldly feeling to which skating allows access. In Women and Sport (1988) she links the anticlockwise motion of the speed skater to the spinning of a whirling dervish, a way for the ‘devotee’ to ‘alter her perception… of the passage of life time’. Kay Dibley, a friend Lyn met racing at Streatham, introduced her to the Spiritualist Church in the early 1990s. Lyn later became a renowned medium and edited Psychic News before she came to Littleport.

Three decades after the post-Soviet opening up, relations between the great bandy nations are, so to speak, on thin ice. Russia was supposed to be hosting the championships this year, in Syktyvkar. The Ukraine War destroyed all the careful plans. Sweden and Finland declared a boycott and threw bandy’s governance into crisis. Since 2005, the FIB had been run by Boris Skrynnik, who enjoyed a distinguished playing career for Vodnik in Arkhangelsk. Skrynnik initially tried to hang on, despite political and practical gridlock, but in October 2022 he resigned. Though the FIB still runs the sport its hands are tied: its assets, allegedly banked in Russia, remain inaccessible. The Swedish Bandy Association stepped in, and organised this year’s championship in Åby.

During the Cold War, bandy had offered a glimpse of a different, utopian kind of competition. Chris Middlebrook, a hockey player from Minneapolis, encountered bandy in 1980. Soon obsessed, he assembled a national team. At the Oslo World Championships in 1985 the USA and USSR teams developed a remarkable camaraderie. Chris remembers moments when, after games, ‘the Soviet handlers would disappear’ and the players would drink, swapping stories and songs. The USA team’s lack of flash sponsorship worked in their favour: ‘We didn’t come across as the mighty Americans’, he reflects. Now he’s fighting a dogged campaign to restore bandy’s long-lost Olympic status. He defines sport, intriguingly, as ‘the people meeting the people’.

It’s hard to know how today’s generation of Russian bandy players feel about the war. On 10 March, Dynamo Moscow travelled 5,000 miles to Khabarovsk to play SKA Neftjanik in a semi-final. Before the match the players lined up on the ice to form the letter ‘Z’, the cipher for Putin’s war. Among them was forward Tuomas Määtä, Finnish bandy’s poster boy. Against furious criticism, Määtä protested that he hadn’t known what was happening. But in photographs he looks pained, staring down at his skates. SKA Neftjanik has close ties to the Russian military. A Swedish player in the other semi-final, also preceded by a gauche, grotesque Z formation, stayed in the changing rooms.

Neither the GB women nor the men made it to Åby this year, but in recent years our star has been rising: at the 2019 tournament our men’s team progressed to the final of Division B in the World Championships, losing 9-3 to Estonia. Lyn was among the spectators, present for the singing of the national anthem. A true patriot, she says the spectacle gave her ‘such a frisson of pride’.

Bandy is sport at its most wholesome: played for love, not money, by amateurs in all but the most established nations. Nice People (2015), a Swedish documentary, tells the uplifting story of the Somalian immigrants in the town of Borlänge, who defied local hostility and indifference (as well as their unfamiliarity with the concept of ice) to create Somalia’s first national team.

Yet sport cannot work its magic without competition and if bandy is to prosper it needs emerging national teams to develop. Russia is frozen out for the foreseeable future and the World Championship might lose its allure if no one can give Sweden a serious challenge. Tom Parker, an ice hockey player from eastern England, coaches GB’s women. (He met Lyn at the rink in Peterborough and she converted him; his partner, Claire, now plays for the women’s side.) It’s a formidable task to secure funding, he explains: the British game relies on private sponsorship, often from players’ employers. Sport England won’t touch it, because of its GB branding. But Tom remains cheerful. If we were speaking in person, he tells me down the phone, he’d be able to get out his whiteboard to demonstrate formations and tactics. Enthusiasm colours his voice as he describes the beautiful intricacy of the game.

The ice stadium project needs investment. ‘If you know any millionaires…’ says Lyn, hopefully. Yet I leave Littleport struck by how much she has already accomplished and daydreaming of a World Championships held on the Fens: of the day when bandy comes home.


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