Council health and safety officials would never allow it today, writes Geoff Cox.
But during the harsh winters of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, very few people considered that skating on a frozen lake was foolhardy.
Families flocked to Wardown Park, Luton, for fun and games on the ice and a Luton News photographer would be sent to capture the scene.
A memorable picture of a teenage girl skating 65 years ago recently appeared on social media and a nostalgic Christmas card produced by Luton Culture. Amazingly that young lady, Annette Miller, now aged 79 and living in South Portland, Maine, USA, recognised herself from the 1949 picture and has told of her memories of the occasion and also sledging down the steep slope at Pope’s Meadow.
Luton Culture is selling packs of five Christmas cards, which also includes another Luton News image of people tobogganing in People’s Park in February 1940.
Annette contacted Luton Culture to ask about buying the cards and exclaimed, “That’s me in the photo,” after seeing it on the ‘The Luton I Remember’ Facebook page.
“It was lovely to hear from Annette. We wanted to hear more of her story and her connection to Luton, which I think really helps bring the photo to life,” said Janice Jarrett, retail manager at Stockwood Discovery Centre.
Annette recalled: “I was 14 and I remember clearly the photographer taking the picture in the winter of 1949. It appeared in the Luton News, so I kept a poor quality newspaper cutting. I’m thrilled that my son, who’s a graphic designer, has now made me a large copy of the original photo. I only remember skating on the lake that particular winter. Sledging down Pope’s Meadow was THE place to be if there was enough snow.
“It was very unusual for the lake to ice over. Everyone who ventured out onto it made slides. A very light dusting of snow covered the ice so if enough people slid on it, it cleared the snow and you could slide quite a long way. The ice was dangerously thin, you could feel and see it sway up and down. If anyone did go through it would only be up to their knees, as I don’t think Wardown Lake was very deep. To my knowledge though, I never heard of anyone falling in the lake, although I suppose it must have happened.”
Annette added: “In the summer as a child I loved going out onto the lake in a paddle boat. I remember going out with friends on a row boat and going round and round. The chap at the boathouse kept calling our number as our time was up, but we had a devil of a job getting back. He almost burst a blood vessel, especially as we children were laughing our heads off. He almost jumped in to haul us out! We did make it eventually though, it was great fun.”
Annette said another Facebook user, Alan Smith, spottted himself in the picture. He is the tall boy near the left wearing a long coat.
Annette’s father was the superintendent of Luton Baths from 1934 to 1959 and the family lived in Carlton Crescent, close to Wardown Park. Her brother was 19 years older than her and served in the Army in India during the Second World War. Her sister was 15 years older than her.
“My parents were always very busy working at the outdoor pool or the indoor baths, so Wardown Park was my ‘back garden’ as I spent many happy hours there,” said Annette. “I particularly loved the rose garden as I could dance and dance around the flower beds and I don’t remember seeing anyone else there. I danced on the bandstand when no one was there, too! I loved going to the museum and seeing a skeleton and looking at a Bedfordshire farmer wearing his smock, and the lace-making exhibit. I used to pretend the house was my house! It was bigger and better than our semi-detached.”
Annette, who has lived for more than 40 years at Thompson Lake, which is eight miles long and up to 120 feet deep, skated up until ten years ago.
She was a member of Luton Swimming Club and amdram group the Top Hatters and worked at Laporte Chemicals in Luton.
“My attachment to Luton nowadays is through correspondence with my childhood friend Julie Rushden, who still lives in Fieldgate Road,” she said. “My last trip to the UK in 2012 was to visit my niece Angela Spicer, who lives at Ickwell Green. She drove my American friend and I to my old Wardown area neighborhood and other parts of Luton. It has changed so much.”