Sunday, 11 July 2010

A cooler London

Londoners cursing the heat may like to be reminded what London has been like from time to time in earlier years: "In its long history the river Thames has been frozen solid forty times", wrote Helen Humphreys as introduction to her book containing forty vignettes based on events that actually took place each time the river froze between 1492 and 1895. Here is part of one of them:

An entire village has been built upon the ice. Booths have been made from blankets and the oars of the watermen. The main thoroughfare between the booths has been named Freezland Street. There are coffee houses and taverns, booths that sell slices of roast beef. An ox has been roasted whole and a printing press has been set up so that one can have one's name printed in this place where men so oft were drowned. The Frost Fair is visited by a royal party that includes Charles II in what will be the last week of his life.

The watermen trade their boats for sledges and pull people across the river for the same price as when they had rowed them over. A whirly sledge twirls passengers around a stake set in the ice, Coaches are pulled by both horses and men. There are games of football and bowls, horse and donkey races. There is music and a large bear garden. A fox is hunted on the ice and a bull is staked out in a ring by the Temple Stairs. Dogs are tossed in to bait the bull and many are gored to death before the beast is brought down. Men have skates to slide over the river, and horses have have their hooves wrapped in linen to prevent this very same thing. Three cannons are brought out upon the ice to commemorate the royal visit, and boats are sent over the frozen Thames with their sails set and wheels fastened to their hulls to keep them upright.

What is remarkable about about the Frost Fair is that it does not operate by the same rules that govern life on land. It is a phenomenon and therefore free of the laws and practices of history. The poor and rich alike inhabit the same space, participate in the same sports and diversions, and are, for a very brief moment in time, equal citizens of a new and magical world.

Bull and bear baiting aside, all that sounds like a lot of fun, certainly better than sweaty old London as it is this week,

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