Alex Patriquin

Marginalia & found poetry. Short fiction and other projects. Musings  on startups. Photos from NYC and travels.

On this day in 1434, the River Thames froze over.

The freeze lasted until February of 1435. This was not an uncommon occurrence at the time; in fact, one of the earliest records of the Thames freezing hard enough to cross occurred in 250 A.D., when the freeze lasted for a good nine weeks.

The Thames was wider and shallower then - it had yet to be embanked, and was also impeded by the Old London Bridge, so the water flowed more slowly, leaving it more conducive to freezing, which happened often between 1300 and 1870. This time period was known in Europe as the "Little Ice Age" because of the particularly severe temperatures.

But people back then were made of sterner, hardier stock, and they made the best of it. The ice was thick enough to host what were known as "Frost Fairs," a sort of carnival on the ice. Vendors sold a drink of made of wormwood wine and gin called "purl." It was drunk hot and packed a powerful punch. People enjoyed bull-baiting, puppet shows, nine-pin bowling, and ox-roasting. Boys played games of football on the ice.

During one of the first Frost Fairs (1309), a hare was hunted with dogs over the ice.

During the Frost Fair of 1564, the ice was thick with sleds and coaches, courtiers from Whitehall Palace mixed with commoners, and even Queen Elizabeth came out to practice her archery on the frozen river.

Frost Fairs were often brief, since people had to be aware of rapid thawing, which could cause loss of life and property. In 1789, the melting ice dragged a ship that was anchored to a pub, pulling the building down and crushing five people to death.

The last Frost Fair was held in 1814. The climate was milder, Old London Bridge had been replaced with a new bridge with wider arches, so the Thames flowed more freely. The ice was so thick that year that an elephant was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge. A piece of gingerbread from the last Frost Fair is on view at the Museum of London.

The last time the Thames froze over was during the brutal winter of 1962, now known as the "Big Freeze." A lone man was spotted bicycling on the Thames near Windsor Bridge.

The Writer's Almanac on Tuesday, November 24th.