Well it’s snowing again – TMS match off. Don’t know about you but this winter seems to be interminable, probably because we didn’t have much of a summer. It is incredible to think that 12 months ago we were basking in temperatures in the early 20s (centigrade).
Although we seem to have had nothing but unremitting gloom, history can usually tell us that someone somewhere at some other time had it worse than us. Cold comfort, perhaps, but comfort nonetheless.
I am old enough to remember the winter of 1962/3 – we actually moved house in the December and were confronted with frozen pipes when we got to our new abode. The snow started in November in the South West but the really bad weather started on Boxing Day with the country blanketed in feet of snow. The thaw didn’t start until March.
Post War Britain had to endure one of its worst ever winters in 1946/7. Snow fell in southern England on 19th December but then there was a notable mild spell with temperatures reaching 14c. Hopes for a mild winter were soon dashed when the weather deteriorated on 22nd January 1947 with continuous snow right up until 17th March.
Between the 15th century and the early 19th century, a period described as the Little Ice Age, the UK often had severe spells of weather. In 1564/5 the Thames froze between Christmas Day and January 13th. Elizabeth the First was reported to have enjoyed daily trips on the ice. The Thames was much shallower in those days (and more clogged up) so the waters did not flow as freely.
The crafty cockneys, not wishing to miss the opportunity to make an extra bob (or groat), saw the frozen and unencumbered waste of the Thames as a large but temporary market place and developed the tradition of the frost fair. The first recorded fair was held in 1608, although Henry the Eighth travelled from London to Greenwich along the Thames by sleigh in 1536 – the ice must have been thick.
The winter of 1683/4 was particularly harsh and ranks alongside that of 1947 for the prolonged period of cold temperatures. The Thames was frozen all the way up to London Bridge by early January 1684 with ice up to eleven inches thick and remained frozen for a couple of months. In Somerset the ground was frozen up to four feet.
The diarist, John Evelyn, has a famous report of the teeming activity on the frozen Thames. “Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water”.
The last recorded frost fair was held during the harsh winter of 1813-14, which again had bitter cold from January to March. That winter was the last time that the tidal stretch of the River Thames froze – the removal of the old London Bridge and works to deepen the river meant that the river flowed more easily and was less prone to freezing.
Still, the frost fair in 1814 went out with a bang. It began on 1st February, lasting for 4 days, and featured an elephant which was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge.
It seems our ancestors made the best of a bad job, perhaps a lesson we would do well to learn.