Friday 6 December 2019

The Krampus Kalendar: F is for FROST FAIR

The temperature has been dropping steadily this week, here in the UK, but it's not got so cold yet that the River Thames here in London has frozen.

Between 1400 and 1814 (which was the last time it happened) the River Thames froze over 26 times. And when it froze solid, Londoners made the most of it, holding Frost Fairs on the ice.

The tidal, somewhat salty Thames is a deep, fast-flowing river today, but before the Old London Bridge was demolished in 1831, the river’s waters were pooled slightly behind the medieval arches, which probably helped the ice take hold. It was also the time known as the Little Ice Age, when winters were colder and more severe than they have been since 1800.

An Exact and lively Mapp or Representation of Boothes and all the variety of Showes and Humours on the ICE of the River of THAMES by LONDON During that memorable Frost in the 35th yeare of the Reigne of his sacred Maj King Charles the 2nd

The embankments had not yet been built, either, and so the River Thames was wider, shallower, and probably a little slower moving.

The Thames froze several times in Tudor England. Henry VIII is known to have travelled from Whitehall to Greenwich by sleigh, along the River Thames, in 1536. In 1564, Elizabeth I practised her archery on the frozen Thames, whilst menfolk played football on the ice.

The first frost fair, in terms of full-scale activity and commercial stalls and sports took place in 1608. It was a cheerful and spontaneous affair.

The Long Freeze or Great Freeze of 1683/4 was one of the coldest-known English, and European, winters. The Thames froze solidly, and the ice was up to a foot deep. The frost began six weeks before Christmas, and lasted well into February.

Streets of stalls and booths stretched from bank to bank; all London’s normal entertainments made their way on to the river. A whole ox was roasted at Hungerford Steps, bear-baiting and puppet-shows were held on the ice. Skating and chair-pushing events were also set up.

The Great Frost of 1709, probably Europe’s coldest winter for 500 years, saw another large-scale frost fair.

The last proper freezing of the River Thames in London took place in 1814. The frost set in at the start of January, and by the end of the month, the River was frozen solid. An elephant was even led across the Thames by Blackfriars Bridge to demonstrate the safety of the ice!

Hordes of traders and entertainers rushed to set up shop, and the fair was in full-swing. It was shorter than many, as the solid ice lasted only a week.

You can visit a Frost Fair in 'TWAS - The Krampus Night Before Christmas.

The RPG inspired by the gamebook, 'TWAS - The Roleplaying Game Before Christmas, is currently funding on Kickstarter.


To find out more about the festive season and its many traditions, order your copy of the Chrismologist's Christmas Explained: Robins, Kings and Brussel Sprouts today!

The book is also available in the United States as Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Christmas.


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