Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Frosts, freezes and fairs

Spring has been late in coming this year. We have had the coldest March in 50 years, and as  I write this in mid-April, there are still some snow drifts up on the high roads. It seemed a good idea to reach for this book to console myself that we have been here before. And of course it gives me an excuse to post some snowy pictures.

The subtitle to this book is : chronicles of the frozen Thames and harsh winters in Britain since 1000AD. It is basically a chronology of  Britain's harshest winters followed by a more indepth look at some of them. Although it is a bit uninspiring in layout, it does deliver some fascinating facts and includes some amazing old pictures of winters past. Here are some snippets from the frozen past.


Source: Wiki Images http://www.fulltable.com/crowd/12.jpg
 1715 was particularly cold with bitter temperatures lasting for seven weeks. The Thames was described as frozen solid, tho' sadly not reliably solid, as one local character Doll the Pippin was to find to her cost.


1881 is known for the greatest snowstorm of the 19th Century with mountainous drifts across southern England and drifts 10 foot high in Oxford Street. So intense was the cold that oaks, yews and hollies were 'split assunder sounding like rifle cracks."

The diary of an Oxfordshire farmer relates that ''27 persons were said to have perished on Salisbury Plains - besides hundreds of sheep.''

When you think of the Thames freezing you probably imagine a glass-smooth surface, of course it was nothing of the sort. Often it took the form of  huge blocks of floating ice.  In Greenwich, spectators gazed in amazement at enormous icebergs the size of a 'six-roomed cottage'.


The frost which began on Nov 25th continued in East Anglia for 56 days with every night at or below freezing.  A measure of the cold was shown in Devon when mud froze and adhered to the bottom of fishing smacks, anchoring them to the bottom of the river at low tide. When the water rose they remained there, only their masts showing. And this in salt water.  This wasn't the last time the sea froze, in 1963 ice stretched out to sea  for two and a half miles off the North Kent coast.
Frozen waterfall after days of temperatures below -10 C


In times past, the big freezes brought with them immense hardship. The difficulty in transporting food and supplies led to hunger and of course the people also had to suffer the penetrating cold in houses lit only by fires. The cost of fuel in 1740, known as The Brutal frost rose eight-fold from 2s a bushel to £3.10s. There are many tales of folk freezing to death littering these pages. Freezing conditions caused widespread unemployment for many trades including watermen, boatmen, fishermen and carpenters. The merriments on the river provided employment for only a small proportion of those who relied on a flowing river for their livelihood. For instance, when in 1895, the Medway froze for a fortnight, makeshift depots and soup kitchens distributed bread and soup to the needy. "The hungry poor assembling in great crowds literally fighting their way to the doors in their struggles to get bread."   This winter was known as The Great Skating Winter but it brought hardships for builders, farmers and gardeners who were unable to work and with no welfare state to help them out, many became destitute.

Another phenomenon, seen in 1940 occurred after two days of continous rain. It was supercooled and immediately froze on touching surfaces of trees, grass, roads and buildings. Whole woods were devastated as trees split apart or shed branches weighed down by ice.  We have experienced this super-cooled rain ourselves over the last few winters and it's literally impossible to get about unless you go on your hands and knees.

This Spring, the hill farmers have faced huge difficulties with  a late snowfall. Many hundreds of sheep have frozen to death with their lambs under huge drifts of snow. Back in 1947 on the South Downs farmers faced the similar difficulties when live sheep were frozen by their wool to gorse bushes. Birds were frozen to their perches and ponies became encased in tombs of ice on Dartmoor.  This wasn't the first winter in which birds suffered. In the winter of 1963 a heron was found standing dead in a dyke with its legs held fast in the ice.

This year there have been reports of hundreds of puffins being washed ashore on the East coast due to stormy conditions out to sea. This fatal event is known as a wreck, and this was the largest for some 60 years. Puffin report



A particular hardship hit Yorkshire in 1945 when the second half of January brought a particularly cold spell of weather. Temperatures did not rise above -9 degrees Centigrade and beer froze inside public houses! Yes, it was that bad. In London Big Ben was silenced when its hammers froze. Fuel was in short supply and people queued for hours to bring home a bag of coke from the local gas works.

From the countryside there was reports of a farmer using rabbits which had frozen to death, to keep his stove alight, as the roads for miles around were blocked with snow. 

Source: Frosts, freezes and fairs.


If you're not a fan of cold weather, then Buxton in Derbyshire is probably not the place for you. As one of the highest towns in Britain at 1000 feet above sea level, it seems to suffer particularly badly. When snow was reported to have laid on the ground for 45 days in London in 1947, it was with Buxton for 71.  That particular winter finally ended in mid-march with disastrous flooding but not before another ice storm had festooned the trees with ice and icicles even hung from people's hats. The picture taken from the book shows the enormous drifts that had amassed by March here, north of Beaufort in Gwent, some 1300 feet above sea level.


More recent winters have also stopped transport. In 1963 two hundred London buses were grounded with frozen diesel.


An extraordinary aspect of this winter was the outbreak of many fires in West Scotland. The dryness caused by the mountains providing shelter to the easterly winds led to over 50 fires on the dry grass and heathers. The firemen had to set explosives to break up the ice to provide enough water to put them out!


Icy pleasures 

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Of course it wasn't all misery. People have always gathered to have fun in these icy conditions. In Elizabethan times, enterprising printers set up presses on the frozen water and sold certificates commemorating the occasion.  The Great Winter of 1683 saw these along with travelling theatres, throwing at a cock (?!!), horse, donkey and coach races and nine pins amongst its pleasures.   In 1881, a stove was made of bricks and erected on the frozen Thames. A huge fire was lit, and a whole sheep roasted. A crowd of at least 1000 revellers, mostly skaters availed themselves of this.  At Kingston, in 1895 immense ice floes congealed into one solid mass. A fair was held with marquees. The highlight being the roasting of an ox on the ice.  Ice skating was certainly a winner of these cold winters. The ice Skating Asssocation was set up in Cambridgshire in 1878. In 1929 when Lake Windermere froze 50,000 skaters came to enjoy this rare pleasure.

Why does the Thames no longer freeze?

There have of course been cold winters this century (1946/7 and 1962/3 being equally cold as those of the great frosts in the past) but the last frost fair was held on The Thames in 1814.  You're probably asking yourself why the Thames no longer freezes in this way? The answer is not only because of the warmer winters, but also due to the rebuilding of damaged London bridges allowing for a freer flow of water. The old London Bridge had 19 piers protected by frameworks of wood on timber piles known as starlings. These arches halted the flow of the river. The narrow arches all too readily became blocked with floating chunks of ice.  The new bridge was opened in 1831. With only five arches, it allowed a much freer flow of water. Draining of the marshes of Lambeth and Vauxall  have lessened the chance of ice forming on the water's edge.  The growing size of London has also generated an urban heat island effect, roads and buildings absorbing heat during the day and releasing it at night. The emptying of warm water from the riverside power stations was enough to raise the water temperature and prevent freezing during the winters of 1947 and 1963. And finally, the new London Bridge opened in the 1970s has only three huge arches. Sadly, we are unlikely to see the Thames frozen in such a way again. 

 The Royal Humane Society

The book ends with a description of a society set up in 1774 and first known as the Institution for affording immediate relief to persons apparently dead from drowning, shortened thankfully tho' less descriptively to 'The Royal Humane Society' in 1787.  As the popularity of ice skating rose the Society employed 'ice men' to test the strength of the ice on lakes in London's parks and to rescue folk who failed to head their advice.  The Royal Humane Society today

So, as the snow finally melts away and spring finally shows its face, we can at least be grateful that our cold winters can be borne stoically with the comfort of central heating and an electric blanket. 


This has taken a long time to be posted. Mainly because I managed to lose all the text after spending ages on it, and then had to type it out again and couldn't face the final edit! Anyway, the positive side of this now terribly outdated entry is that I heard Gillian Clarke on the radio at the weekend and thought her poetry would be a good addition. Here's a snippet of her poetry  and here's a link to the collection  Ice

Books which surely must be read/bought some day

Richard Mabey's take on how the weather shapes our national culture and psyche. Turned out nice again

And another book which uses fictional accounts of the 40 times the Thames has frozen solid  The frozen Thames 

Winter: Five windows on the season (2012) by Adam Gopnik
'Winter' takes us on an intimate tour of the artists, poets, composers, writers, explorers, scientists and thinkers who helped shape a new and modern idea of winter.  Winter (details)

Now enough of Winter, let's enjoy the sunshine!

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