A Frosty Reception

Frost fair, 1683

I suppose today is as good a day as any for an entry about the old Frost Fairs. What with it being really snowy and all. The frost fairs, for those of you who aren’t “in the know” as we say, were undoubtedly a class of event whose time has passed.

From the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries, Europe experienced an unusually cold period known as the “Little Ice Age.” The exact duration is unknown, as are the causes. Suggestions for the cause have ranged from solar activity to reduced agriculture following the Black Death, the latter of which I think can’t have been much more than a contributing factor at best. What is known is that during this period, winters were harsh. Britain, a chilly sort of place at the best of times, was particularly hard hit.

[PARENTHESIS: Critics of the concept of global warming argue that we’re still recovering from the Little Ice Age, hence the gradually rising temperature although this is considered to be a poorly-supported theory at best.]

Farming was the trade worst hit for obvious reasons. Fishermen, too, found themselves at a loss (although if they’d had a bit of nous, Captain Birdseye might have come on to the scene centuries earlier). Fuel was at a premium, and many found themselves unable to afford enough fire to keep themselves alive. It goes without saying that river trade was, so to speak, up the creek.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. In London, the Thames froze on several occasions. At first, it was simply a way of getting across the river without paying for a boat or using the eternally-congested London Bridge. Tentatively, though, people started to realise that they could have a bit of fun. After all, it’s not every day that the Thames freezes. By the sixteenth century the frozen river was used for sport and recreation, with dances and games played on the ice. Henry VIII would sleigh down the river, and if it could bear his weight then it was a sure sign the ice was safe (cheap shot, I know).

A souvenir from the 1683 Frost Fair

The first true frost fair is generally acknowledged to be the one seen above, the 1683 fair when the river was frozen for two entire months. Enterprising tradesmen set up stalls, many of them watermen temporarily put out of business by the ice. Coachmen plied their trade up and down this new highway. There are even accounts of animals being roasted on the ice, though it would take a braver man than me to set up a fire in the middle of a frozen river.

Frost fairs took place on a number of later occasions, but the last was in 1814, when nothing less than a full-grown elephant was seen on the ice.

Frost Fair of 1814, by Luke ClavellSince 2003, an event known as the ‘Frost Fair’ has taken place on the South Bank, but I think it lacks a certain something by virtue of not being on a frozen river. Or maybe that’s just me. There was also a slightly bat’s-arse idea to freeze the river again in 2000 using a network of refrigeration pipes, which was abandoned due to environmental concerns and, one suspects, because it sounds like exactly the sort of thing that James Bond would be called in to prevent.

The nineteenth century really put paid to the Thames freezing again, supervillainy aside. The reason the Thames to the west of London Bridge was so prone to freezing was, to a large extent, due to the old London Bridge, seen left. The bridge, as you can see, was supported on a series of narrow arches. The already narrow passages were cluttered up further by waterwheels, fishing nets, mooring posts and any old crap people felt like putting down there. As a consequence, the water rushed through the arches at a hell of a rate. It was said that a wise man would cross over the bridge, but a fool would cross under it, and watermen considered it a test of skill to shoot the rapids without, you know, dying. What this meant was that the water west of the bridge was fresh – not a hope of any brine getting past that lot. Furthermore, it meant that if a chunk of ice got stuck in one of the arches, the whole thing could very quickly get dammed up. In 1831, though, the medieval bridge was replaced. It was considered to be woefully inadequate for its purpose, making boat trade and cross-river traffic alike unnecessarily difficult, and a new bridge with wider arches replaced it.

The next obstacle to the Thames freezing was Sir Joseph Bazalgette, whose name has graced these pages before. His embankments may have done wonders for the cleanliness of the water, but they also narrowed the river, making it too fast flowing to freeze. Further construction, including several more bridges, made it even less likely.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that it’s a lot warmer these days. Remember that as you struggle into work tomorrow.

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Filed under 19th century, Buildings and architecture, Food, Geography, History, London, london bridge, Medieval London, Shopping, Sports and Recreation, Stuart London, Thames, The City, Transport, Tudor London, Waterloo and Southwark, West End, Westminster

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