As the mercury drops by several degrees all at once, London breathes out befuddled coffee breath into stark, white thin air. It’s snowing up north, apparently. Scotland is deluged with the stuff. Good news for Santa C’s arrival on the 24th Dec but bad news for those attempting to traverse the Highlands on anything other than a robust pair of skis. In London, it’s just got that sky-like-a-white-sheet look about it, as it the sky is startled and something interesting is about to take place. But the national news this morning is that we are in for the coldest, snowest, ice-tingliest winter since 1947, where the only thing that wasn’t rationed was the weather.
According to medical advisers, it’s when the temperature drops to -15 degrees that hospitals start to get seriously overstretched and the older and more physically vulnerable are at risk of dying. At this point, we can be grateful we don’t live in the third century A.D. They didn’t even have anywhere to go to the toilet then, let alone any hospitals. London was so chilly that the River Thames froze for 9 weeks in 250 A.D. This brought about two ideas – the invention of the ice rink, and the start of the London Frost Fairs. When I first heard about this I thought it meant the local maidens lined up opposite Sadie Frost on May Day and told her how fair and lovely she was, but it turns out this was icier than Sadie Frost, a.k.a. Sadie, Sadie, NOT married lady. Yes, icier than that. In fact during the Middle Ages London was so cold that the Thames froze annually, whereupon it became a useful traffic-free road for the distribution of goods and, after that, partying. This wasn’t so much to do with the idea that England was colder in the olden days, but rather the Thames was shallower and wider. Therefore, it was easier for the water to totally freeze for most of January and February. The Thames wasn’t properly embanked and generally sorted out until the 1860s, whereupon it got busier, deeper, narrower, filthier and crammed with odious fat floating restaurants offer dinner dances and midnight “cruises”. Henry VIII was really fat, when he let himself go, and even he was said to have travelled up the icy Thames by sleigh to impress a lady he was hoping to make the seventh Mrs Henry, or something, and the ice held him.
However, the really really big one was the Great Frost of 1683-84. It started on December 20th and ended on February 6th. Hackney coaches zoomed across the iced Thames, touting for fares, there was bull baiting, horse racing, puppet fares and “tipling”. I’ve no idea what tipling is, but I reckon it was a transaction featuring the oldest profession in the world, but on ice. Shops were built upon it so that the Thames became another street, and the King and Queen eventually roasted an entire ox on the Thames and ate it. But this was the exception. Most London Frost Fairs were short lived and it was often a race as to who would get off the ice safely before the river started melting. The very last one was 1814, which featured a majestic interlude of an elephant being led across the ice whilst cold Londoners, shuffled their feet together, mouths agog in the chill.
In the Great Frost of winter 1708-1709, temperatures were recorded as low as -12degrees – but that was only because someone had the thermometer in Queen Anne’s pants. Anyway, Queen Anne thought the Great Frost of 1708 a nasty Jacobite lie, an idea dealt a severe blow when it went ahead and killed quite a lot of French people. It was the coldest European winter for 500 years, and many people felt that it was downright ridiculous and that something should be done about it.
Since its embanking and the wider arches of the new London Bridge were installed, thereby affecting the flow of the river, our Thames doesn’t freeze over. This is a great great shame. We could add a new dimension to our New Year’s Eve fireworks display by having a sort of ice skating X Factor special which combines Dancing on Ice with The Great British Bake Off. The cast of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! would have to compete in sleigh-racing contests and we could fly Robbie Williams in for a ice-skating rendition of his most popular classics. Then once the winter is over we could bury him in a sort of Egyptian funeral under a tonnage of snow and ice and then the pagans can dance on him. We have snowballs and gin and tonics with lots of ice and then we shall laugh and laugh.
Snowfall confuses the English anyway. 2 centimetres of the stuff can send the entire country into a hysterical mess. The national obsession with the weather confounds even a central heating obsessive like me. Why must we speak of the weather, debate the weather and worry about the weather? Answer : we are a nation of skivers. We love the leaves on the track, the cancelled trains, the beauteous hush that makes its gracious descent on the suburbs on a snowfilled Tuesday morning when you know you aren’t going anywhere. We like anything that stops us going to work (this may go some way to understanding the popularity of Royal Weddings. It can’t all be down to a nation goggle-eyed at Princess Anne’s drip-dry two pieces looming out at us from a Cathedral). We love anything that makes us put the telly on a half past ten in the morning. Our national character is aligned with the “Ooh, pop the kettle on and let’s watch the snow on the news with a custard cream” philosophy of skiving. It’s skiving without admitting you’re skiving. It’s snow skiving – it’s not our fault, you know, it’s the damn weather – whilst wearing thick socks and worrying about getting a sled to take us up to Tesco. It’s also the smuggest time of year for the non-driver. The delight of saying “Oh, I’ll just pop the temperature on at 15 for the whole of the night” as you slope off to a chilly bed feels terribly decadent as well. After all, this is a country where most people pride themselves on not putting the heating on until November 1st when there are icicles hanging attractively from their noses and their bottoms have frozen up completely.
Brace it, kids. It looks like we’re in for a long haul. I may be paraphrasing here, but I think in Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing, her memoir of rereading every book in her house, she strongly advocated “Throw another log onto the fire. It’s Dickens for the winter”. I think the only retreat worth making is into the backroads of Victorian literature, with its hardy constitutionals, breathless Brontes scaling West Yorkshire hills and playful street vagabonds flourishing in a London winter with no socks on. Now’s the time to retire, close the curtains and bolster up the heating whilst secretly yearning for a wood burner. It’s going to be a long winter. Still, at least we’re not in Russia. Or at least, you could be with this long winter beckoning ahead. War & Peace anyone?
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every other Thursday so we look forward to seeing you on Thursday December 5th! Many thanks. The London Bluebird.