Friday, January 4, 2013

Mission Impossible: The Frost Fair

Some of my favorite Regency romances feature the Frost Fair of 1814. Every account I’d ever read talked about the fun, the frolic, the exorbitant prices . . . But recently, I read another account that painted an entirely different picture, with danger lurking around every corner. And it got me thinking . . . . So, I give you, Mission Impossible: The Frost Fair!

Picture this: You’re a young gentleman of the early nineteenth century, stuck in London on winter holiday. Can’t even get back to Hilary term the roads are so bad. Lord Siddon the Home Secretary has ordered all Road Commissioners to see what can be done. Snow is heaped so high in London that your parents had you up on the roof shoveling it off for fear it would crush the house. That only made the streets more impassible. Pipes have frozen, and the good leaders of the city have opened the plugs in the streets, pushing out a stream of constantly flowing water that immediately freezes!

You can hear the river, actually hear it, at the ebbing of the tide. Huge fragments of ice crash into each other with the sound of cannon fire. And then it happens. The Thames between Blackfriars and London Bridge freezes over. Thousands flock to the site. You want to go, but your parents forbid you to attend such a rabble.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to get in to the Frost Fair and out again, without notice.

Sneaking out is surprisingly easy. The maids head for bed shortly after your parents, after all. And it’s not so hard to use your spending money to hire a hack and take you down to the shore. Of course, the watermen demand a fee, even when their boats can’t actually ply the waters, but swift payment, and you’re on the ice.

The place is amazing, a veritable fair on the river! Swings, dancing on a barge, skittles, while all around in the moonlight mountains of ice heave up, making it look as if you’ve traveled as far as the fjords of Norway.

You drink, probably more than your parents would like. You eat roasted beef and chestnuts. You’re having a perfectly wonderful time. And then you hear it. A soft report, like gunfire, then another, and another. And the mountain nearby seems to be moving, creeping slowly downstream. The ice is breaking!

A mad scramble ensues. Men, women, and children rush to the nearest shore, clawing at the ice that is moving faster and faster. You could make it. You excelled at sports at Eton. Even with the upheaval, it wouldn’t be so hard. But you see a young lady, cringing in the shadows, terrified to move. What’s a young gentleman to do?

[Cue music]

You rush to her, grab her by the hand, pull her toward the dancing barge, which is tilting precariously but obviously still afloat in a landscape that is becoming wetter every moment. You scramble aboard, trying not to notice the dainty display of ankle, and show her how to anchor her hands to a bulwark. All around you, the ice groans, shrieks, shoves, until the barge is born on the tide and heading downstream.


And so is everything else. Timber from the makeshift booths hurtles past. With a crash, the printing press disappears below the waters. Lights and fires are extinguished in the roaring waters. You hang on to the barge, and the lovely young lady, as the craft careens through the night.

Up ahead are the arches of Blackfriars Bridge, still illuminated from above. The tide is rising, pushing everything before it. Will you clear? You say a prayer, close your eyes, and with a sickening lurch, you strike a pier!

The ice batters the barge, demanding that it give way. The young lady turns to you, tears rolling down her face, asking for a kiss before she dies. You’d be more than happy to grant her last wish, only you’d rather prefer it wasn’t her last!

But what’s this? Something brushes your face. A rope! You look up and find faces peering down at you from the bridge. You can see mouths moving, hands gesturing, but you can’t understand them over the roar of the river. But you know what a rope is for. As another snakes down toward you, you knot the first around the brave young lass, who kisses you anyway even though it appears you both may be saved, then tie the second around your own middle. Then it’s haul and kick your way up the stones of Blackfriars to the top, where you’re hailed as a hero by all those standing along the bridge.

The young lady offers you her name along with her thanks, begs to know your name so she may sing your praises to her parents, who are dashing through the crowd. Any minute, some enterprising chap from one of the newssheets will be by as well. You tip your hat, which is somehow still miraculously on your head, promise to be in touch, and disappear into the night, calling down a hack and arriving home just as the maids are getting up to light the fires. Taking the back stairs to your room, you collapse on your bed.

Was it all a dream, you wonder when you wake the next morning? No indeed. For a complete account of the night the ice broke, see Charles Mackay’s The Thames and Its Tributaries, 1840. And for a better description of the wonders of the Frost Fair, see Marissa’s excellent post of a few years ago.

Oh, and one other thing. Happy birthday, Meryl Birn!

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