Thursday, January 07, 2010

Great Frosts and Freezes!

As I write this I am snowed up in our Oxfordshire hamlet, looking out over trees bent almost double under the weight of snow and ice. It all looks extremely pretty but as I have to walk 4 miles to get a pint of milk I am reconsidering how practical it is to live in the depths of the country!

This type of extremely cold weather in the UK must have been familiar to most people during the winters of the Georgian and Regency periods. Newspapers, almanacs and records of the time all report periods of extreme cold. The river Ouse in York froze solid in 1807/08 and 1813/14 was the year of the last great Frost Fair on the Thames in London when a solid field of ice blocked the river between Blackfriars and London bridges. As with 2009/2010, the great freeze that year started with dense freezing fog so bad that the Prince Regent was obliged to turn back on a journey but not before one of his outriders fell in a ditch in Kentish Town because no one could see in front of their nose!

Stories of animals surviving astonishing lengths of time without food are frequent and well-authenticated. The Northampton Mercury of 1808 records the case of a sheep that was buried under snow for three weeks and when it was finally pulled out it ate its way through a pile of sticks, straw and anything else it could get hold of. The benevolence of the local gentry was also relied on to help the poor and needy in times of extreme cold. The Lancaster Gazette tells how Lord and Lady Lowther distributed bags of coal and 200 pairs of flannel blankets in January 1805.

In this part of the world the Ashdown Park gamekeeper earned himself a hero’s reputation for saving the life of two people who fell in a snowdrift on the Lambourn Downs. A convoy of carts had set out from Lambourn on the ancient track across the high Downs intending to deliver coal to the nearby town of Faringdon. As it started to snow the drivers lost sight of the road, the carts plunged off into the fields and they all wandered around aimlessly for several hours until exhausted. One of the party finally managed to struggle as far as Ashdown House before he collapsed; the gamekeeper marshalled a search party and went out in the dark and in snowdrifts of 8 feet to try to find the rest of the party. Although some of the group perished in the cold, a man and a boy (and the horses!) were all saved and taken back to Ashdown where the humans at least were revived with brandy and hot milk.

It’s interesting to reflect that with all our technology these days we’re still almost as much at the mercy of the weather as our ancestors although we are infinitely more fortunate to have better heating and other modern comforts. I’m off to buy a pint of milk now. I may be gone some time...

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Blogger Jane Holland said...

I'm about to start work on a snow-bound Regency - not jumping on the weather bandwagon; I planned it before the heaviest snows hit! - but these are very useful dates and anecdotes, thank you. I did wonder about weather on specific dates, but wasn't sure how to go about researching day-by-day or at least month-by-month weather patterns in the Regency. Any advice would be most appreciated!

10:05 AM  
Blogger Jan Jones said...

Good luck with your treck for the milk, Nicola! At least the dog will enjoy the walk.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Melinda Hammond said...

You are right, Nicola, the weather is still very powerful - looking at our hilltop roads I can imagine in the old days everyone would have been riding and driving around on snow-covered roads for weeks.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Nicola Cornick said...

That sounds very topical, Jane! I'm not sure about month by month weather reports. I don't have anything that detailed. I've used Ian Currie's book about frosts and freezes for general information and picked some anecdotes out of collections of local news reports. Some of the other authors may know where you can find more detailed information, though.

1:23 PM  
Blogger Nicola Cornick said...

Thanks, Jan. Managed to get there and back for the milk ok. You're right - Monty is loving this weather!

Melinda, I imagine that having to work amongst those snowy hills was a big challenge in the past!

1:31 PM  
Blogger Joanna Waugh said...

I can vouch for the danger of getting stuck in a snow drift. In the 1970s, I read gas and electric meters. We had a lot of snow one year and I got stuck up to my crotch in a drift near the meters on a house. I couldn't lift my legs out and didn't have enough strength to plow through -- it was that heavy and wet. So I laid on my back on top of the show and started kicking until my legs were free. Very scary.

2:19 PM  
Blogger Heather Snow said...

I'm still impressed that you walked four miles for milk! Is that one way?

It's hovering around zero here in Kansas, due to drop down to -16 F this weekend. At times like this I often think about living in a drafty old manor house with little more than fireplaces for warmth. Not sure I would have liked it much! Neither could a warmed brick footwarmer in a carriage compare to the heated leather seats in my Toyota. :)

Keep safe and warm, Nicola!

3:02 PM  
Blogger Nicola Cornick said...

Oh Joanna, I know it can't have been funny at the time but you do tell the story well!

Heather, yes that is four miles to the nearest shop. We met lots of other people out and about and were able to encourage each other along! My legs ache now though. Walking through snow is hard work!

Yes, those draughty manor houses can't have been much fun. When I went to visit Killerton House in Devon the guide told us that the seats on the fireplace side of the dining table were highly prized. You can imagine people fighting over them!

3:27 PM  
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4:00 PM  

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