Today (December 23) in London History – Arctic on Thames

December 23, 1683 was the start of the Great Freeze. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.


And counting.

It’s December 23rd, 1683.

And we have this ten-word diary entry:

“The small pox very prevalent. And mortal. The Thames frozen.”

And so it began. The winter of the great freeze. 

Any number of ways of describing London in that winter. It’s been said that London’s like Budapest, “two cities separated by a river.” Buda and Pest and the Danube. Well, the London version of that is North London and South London and the Thames. Except that in the winter of 1683-1684, it wasn’t two cities separated by a river. It was one city. Or two cities conjoined by a frozen river. Or the city on the river. The frozen river. The City on the Thames. Literally on the Thames. In some ways we know the London of those few weeks better than the London of many decades on either side of it.

It was that unusual, that extraordinary that people were driven to portray it – in words and with pigment on canvas, paintings. That is of course par for the course. We live in West Hampstead, more or less on the boundary of West Hampstead and Westminster and St John’s Wood. In 45 years here I’ve never had occasion to describe Belsize Road, which is just a stone’s  throw away from where I’m writing this. Never had occasion until yesterday. A water mains burst. Expensive houses were flooded. The streets were rivers. People were in danger; they had to be evacuated; had to spend the night in emergency shelters, with nothing more than the clothes on their back. That I described to a friend. It’s obvious why I did so. It was so out of the ordinary, so unusual. Well, the same principle applied to London’s ice carnival winter.

We have, for example, amazing paintings of that scene. The Thames frozen solid. Almost everything seems to be taking place on the city on the ice. There are a couple of rows of booths stretching almost all the way across the river. They house businesses. I suppose you could call them pop-up businesses. Each of the booths is flying a flag. What else? There’s a game of skittles taking place on the ice. There are horse-drawn vehicles, sleighs and carriages. There appears to be some sort of military parade taking place. There’s a beggar. There’s a dog cavorting. There’s an ice yacht. There’s a man on horseback. There’s a chair, borne by two chairmen. And literally hundreds of other Londoners. They’re walking and talking and courting and skating. So, commerce and social life and sport and getting from A to B and out on the town, taking it all in. All of London in all of its variety and hustle and bustle and plenitude is there. Carpe diem, I suppose. They must have known that this was a rarity, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  And that’s just one carefully observed, exactingly detailed painting.

Letters and diary entries tell the same story through a different medium. They paint pictures with words.

For example, the Duke of York – he’ll soon be James II – writes to the Prince of Orange, his son-in-law, who before the decade is out, will depose his father-in-law and be crowned William III of William and Mary – the Duke of York writes to the Prince of Orange: “The weather is so very sharp and the frost so very great, that the river here is quite frozen over, so that for these three days last past, people have gone over it, in several places, and many booths are there on it, between Lambeth and Westminster, where they roast meat and sell drink.”

Or we can call on John Evelyn again – his was the brief diary entry that opened this piece – call on John Evelyn again, leap forward a month and a day in his diary. To January 24th. “The Thames before London was still planted with booths in formal streets, all sorts of trades and shops furnished and full of commodities, even to a printing press, where the people and ladies took a fancy to have their names printed, and the day and year set down…. Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs to and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skeets, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tippling, and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water, whilst it was a severe judgement on the land, the trees not only splitting as if lightning struck, but men and cattle perishing in diverse places, and the very seas so locked up with ice, that no vessels could stir out or come in.”

And then two weeks later, the great thaw and the carnival on the ice fast becoming a memory but a memory that London was determined to preserve. Evelyn’s diary entry reads: “The booths were almost all taken down but there was first a map or landscape cut in copper representing the several actions, sports and pastimes thereon, in memory of so signal a frost.”

Well, that was 338 years ago. And that memory lives on. We’ve just gone back there, had a good look round, paid a visit to London’s ice carnival, dropped in on the year the Thames froze over. 

And for a Today in London recommendation. How about a visit to the Horniman Museum. Come tomorrow you’ll understand why I’ve dialled up the Horniman for this time of the year. So, yes, full disclosure tomorrow. Until then, trust me, keep the faith. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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