A rebuilt London Bridge puts an end to the phenomenon of a frozen Thames, but between 1142 and 1895, the Thames froze forty times. Remembered in small vignettes that capture these years, history comes to life as kings and commoners are affected by the broad expanse of roiling water turned to solid ice.
Forty intimate stories reveal the disparate stories of nature’s anomaly, the mighty Thames stilled: the source of starvation, escape and wonder, depending on the perspective of the story. Commerce is as frozen as the river, men forced to create opportunity from nature’s recalcitrance.
These short, poignant tales tell of royalty and commoner, of Queen Matilda’s escape from a siege on Oxford Castle by her cousin Stephen in 1142, rappelling from a window with three of her men, all dressed in light-colored nightwear, moving stealthily through the fires Stephen’s men have set against the cold.
In 1864, an entire village is built on the ice to celebrate the Frost Fair, with coffee houses, taverns and booths selling food. One of the royal party visiting the Frost Fair is King Charles II. For a brief time, the same rules govern king and peasant alike, equal citizens in a magical - if temporary - world.
The winter of 1740 “is full of malice.” People fall through the ice; post boys perish from the cold while riding out on horseback delivering messages. Liquids freeze - wine, ale, ink. Citizens parade through the streets of London singing dirges for lost wages, watermen, fishermen, gardeners, all starving. A stilled London is reminded that the Thames is a wild, ungovernable thing.
In 1809, a miller’s son steps into a glorious moment: “Glittering around him like jewels… is a flock of frozen birds.” The warmth of his hands restores life to these stunned creatures who take flight above him, delivered from an icy death. Nature, as usual, is disinterested.