The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys

“In its long history, the river Thames has frozen solid forty times. These are the stories of that frozen river.”

This is such a simple idea, quite beautifully executed; forty simple stories, vignettes really from each year that the Thames froze. Each one captures a moment in time. The first tells of Queen Matilda’s flight from Oxford Castle, the last takes lines written by Virginia Woolf for an early draft of Orlando, and the stories in the middle touch on every aspect of life on and around the frozen river.

16694831A publican wonders how to measure ale that is frozen solid; a small boy lagging behind his friends falls and the ice cracks below him; a boatman watches the body of Charles I being transported to Windsor; a man walks, studying the environment, and dreaming of exploring the arctic; frost fairs draw people onto the ice; and an artist wonders at the view from his window and paints.

The art – paintings, sketches, woodcuts, advertisements – is as lovely, and wonderful, quiet companions to stories that take centre stage.

Those stories are sparely written, and that gives them a timeless quality. They are strangely addictive, and the little hardback book is lovely to hold and to look at.

My copy has gone back to the library now, but I’ve pulled out a few pictures and quotations to hold on to …..


“The birds fall from the trees. They tumble from the roofs and chimney-pots where they have perched. They are heavier in death than they were in life, Solid and flightless, they fall to the ground like dark, feathered apples, with exactly that weight, the weight of an apple,

There has been a frost for fourteen weeks straight and everything is starving. The Thames has frozen solid. The fires burn so fiercely in the hearths of the houses that sometimes the houses themselves catch into flame, a bright bloom of red flaring up in the field of white that is now London.”


The Fair on the Thame 1814 by Luke Clennell

The Fair on the Thame 1814 by Luke Clennell


“The three boys have come down to skate on the river. The water above the bridge has set fast and smooth. There is no snow on the surface and the ice glistens black under the winter sun. It is early in the morning and there is no-one moving on the Thames.

The boys sit on the edge of the shore and strap the skate bones onto their boot soles. They push off from the bank, at first tentatively, and then with stronger and stronger strokes, until they are flying, like crooked birds, up the centre of the river.”


Frost Fair on the Thames at Temple Stairs 1684 by Abraham Hondius

Frost Fair on the Thames at Temple Stairs 1684 by Abraham Hondius


“All the ships have frozen solid in the river ice. there are no moorings to attach lines to, no water to drop anchor in. One enterprising captain, fearing the ice would melt and he wouldn’t be aboard his vessel at the time of melting, has fastened a cable around the beam of the pub and attached the other end to his ship. He has also deposited the ship’s anchor in the pub cellar, with the anchor chain leading through a cellar window and back to the ship.”


View of the Thames in the Great Frost of 1789; Pen and grey ink and watercolour by an unknown artist

View of the Thames in the Great Frost of 1789; Pen and grey ink and watercolour by an unknown artist


“The colder it gets, the better I like it. I love that there is thick frost on the inside of my windows, and that the glass if water I left by my bed last night froze solid by morning. What I would really like is that I would wake with icicles hanging from my nose and ears.

I find the cold wholly inspirational. Every morning I tromp along the icy thames and every afternoon I come back to my small room and try to write about it.”


22 responses

  1. Sounds wonderful! It is a really simple idea, but it’s not something I would ever think of in a thousand years. Thanks for the review!

  2. Oh Jane, how gorgeous. I love stories connected – by place especially – over time. Are the pictures from the book, or did you find them for us?

    • The pictures are all in the book, Lisa – and there is a list at the back which made it very easy for me to track them down. There are others too on the Museuem of London’s website and I suspect at BBC Pictures too.

  3. What a beautiful book and such beautiful pictures – thanks for reviewing this Jane, it’s gone straight on the wishlist!

  4. I think we tend to forget just how extreme our own climate has been in the past. Shakespeare would have seen the Thames frozen and his song at the end of ‘Loves Labours Lost’, ‘When icicles hang by the wall….’ is as brilliant an evocation of pure cold as I know. And yet Chaucer lived through a time when our climate was similar to that of the Mediterranean today. I will have to try and remember if we have another bad winter this year that in fact it isn’t as extreme as it might have been. (Unless the Thames does suddenly freeze over, of course!)

  5. Pingback: Le peintre hollandais Abraham Hondius montrait que la Tamise était gelée jusqu’au fond….. | Léon ROUMAGNAC

  6. Pingback: Now We Are Six ….. « Fleur in her World

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