Great Frosts and Freezes!
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...