Today (March 24) in London History – The London Challenge Cup

Ski jumping on Hampstead Heath. With a lot of help from the Norwegians. To say nothing of a lot of snow from Norway. That’s the stuff of this Today in London History podcast.


Spring is here. March is going out like a lamb. So you know what, I’m going to do Hampstead two days in a row. Because – after all – there’s no better place in London on a fine spring day. For that matter, no better place in London on most days.

Plus this one’s quirky, off-beat, unknown, undiscovered – and well, quirky, off-beat, unknown, undiscovered is one of our specialities at London Walks.

So for a Today in London recommendation I’m naturally going to say “it’s a no brainer, go on our Hampstead Walk – we run it every Wednesday afternoon and every Sunday morning. The Sunday morning slot is mine, David’s, so if you want to avoid me don’t go on that walk. And afterward, well, no end of recommendations for lunch – or tea. For stunning Hampstead value for money try Mani’s Cafe on Perrin’s Court. 

For taste bud heaven try the Holly Bush or the Horseshoe – though they’re both much in demand, you’ll almost certainly need to book if it’s Sunday lunch you’re going for. 

Ok, Today in London History. 

This is a delightful bit of lost London. Lost Hampstead. Lost… and found. Found, thanks to this podcast.

Everybody knows about the gift of the giant Christmas tree Norway presents to this country every winter. It goes up in Trafalgar Square and is a focal point for London’s Christmas.

No one today, though, knows about the other remarkable present from Norway back in 1950 and 1951.

I’m talking about a novel – to London – sporting event. It was called The London Challenge Cup. It was an international ski jumping competition. Made possible by the Norwegians. And by Norwegian snow. 60 tons of it. 

The London Challenge Cup International Ski Championship was held on Hampstead Heath. And yes, it was international, even if only two countries – Norway and Britain – took part. Norway sent 32 skiers; Britain provided five. 

The London Challenge Cup premiered on March 24, 1950.

An 80 foot high, 250-foot long ski jump had been erected on Hampstead Heath. Predictably, the giant superstructure of the jump was surmounted by the flags of Norway and Britain

The runway was carpeted with straw, dry ice and a four-inch layer of Norwegian snow.  The Norwegian skiers had put the snow in place – tamped it down on the runway – the day before the competition.

The event opened on the evening of March 24, 1950. The runway was floodlit. What I wouldn’t give to have been there. Some sporting event. Some light show. Londoners were captivated. Tens of thousands of them made their way up to the Heath to see something exotic, something utterly new to London. 

In the words of the Telegraph, Norway’s mascots, two 13-year-old boys, Gunnar Haugerud and Widar Wilhelmsen, got the show underway. 

The yellowed with age old newspaper story said the boys were warmly clapped when they opened the sport with fine jumps. 

The event was won by Arne Hoel, a 22-year-old Oslo shopkeeper.

Things didn’t go so well for Arne’s compatriot, 22-year-old Hans Bjornstad, a world champion. In vintage, stiff-upper-lip deadpan British prose, we learn from the Telegraph that Hans had a spill in his second jump, knocking out two teeth.

Two other takeaways: no surprise this, in the day or so after the competition there were snowball fights on Hampstead Heath.

And how did it all play out, what happened to it? Well, the London Challenge Cup was held again the next year, in 1951. But that was it. The 1952 Olympics put paid to the event. The Norwegians had other fish to fry in 1952 – they were getting ready for the Olympics. Couldn’t come to London. And so, like a snowman, the event melted away, disappeared from the London sporting calendar. More’s the pity. 

Final point here, I had problems deciding what to run on this date, March 24th. In some ways the more obvious candidate would have been Eros, the famous Piccadilly Circus statue. March 24th was the day London got Eros back. That’s a pretty strong claim. But I just couldn’t resist the pull of ski jumping on Hampstead Heath. So my thought – and this is by no means definite – my thought was, I’ll do Eros next year. Tall order, committing to a second year of these. It’s by no means definite yet… but if it happens this will have been the first cuckoo of that spring.

And on that note, good night from London. See ya tomorrow. 

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