Today is occasionally called King Frost Day in honor of the famous Frost Fair held in London in 1814. River Thames frost fairs were held on the tideway of the River Thames in London in a few winters between the 17th century and early 19th century, during the period known as the Little Ice Age, when the river froze over. During that time the British winter was more severe than now, and the river was wider and slower, and impeded by Old London Bridge.
Even at its peak, in the mid-17th century, the Thames freezing at London was less frequent than modern legend sometimes suggests, never exceeding about one year in ten except for four winters between 1649 and 1666. From 1400 to the removal of the medieval London Bridge in 1835, there were 24 winters in which the Thames was recorded to have frozen over in London. Frost fairs were far more common elsewhere in Europe, for example in the Netherlands on frozen canals. The Thames freezes over more often upstream, beyond the reach of the tide, especially above the weirs, of which Teddington Lock is the lowest. The last great freeze of the higher Thames was in 1962-63.
During the Great Frost of 1683–84, the worst frost recorded in England, the Thames was completely frozen for two months, with the ice reaching a thickness of 11 inches (28 cm) in London. Solid ice was reported extending for miles off the coasts of the southern North Sea (England, France and the Low Countries), causing severe problems for shipping and preventing the use of many harbors. Near Manchester, the ground was frozen to 27 inches; in Somerset, to more than four feet.
The Thames had frozen over several times in the 16th century — King Henry VIII traveled from central London to Greenwich by sleigh along the river in 1536. Queen Elizabeth I took to the ice frequently during 1564, to “shoot at marks”, and small boys played football on the ice.
The first recorded frost fair was in 1608. The most celebrated frost fair occurred in the winter of 1683–84 and was described by John Evelyn:
Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water.
The frost fair of 1814 began on 1 February, and lasted four days. An elephant was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge. A printer named George Davis published a 124-page book, Frostiana; or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State. The entire book was type-set and printed in Davis’ printing stall, which had been set up on the frozen Thames. This was the last frost fair. The climate was growing milder; old London Bridge was demolished in 1835 and replaced with a new bridge with wider arches, allowing the tide to flow more freely; and the river was embanked in stages during the 19th century, all of which made the river less likely to freeze.
King Frost, who gives his name to this day is recorded in folk tales throughout Europe. Here is an English version of the tale printed by the Scottish folklorist/anthropologist, Andrew Lang:
There was once upon a time a peasant-woman who had a daughter and a step-daughter. The daughter had her own way in everything, and whatever she did was right in her mother’s eyes; but the poor step-daughter had a hard time. Let her do what she would, she was always blamed, and got small thanks for all the trouble she took; nothing was right, everything wrong; and yet, if the truth were known, the girl was worth her weight in gold–she was so unselfish and good-hearted. But her step-mother did not like her, and the poor girl’s days were spent in weeping; for it was impossible to live peacefully with the woman. The wicked shrew was determined to get rid of the girl by fair means or foul, and kept saying to her father: ‘Send her away, old man; send her away–anywhere so that my eyes sha’n’t be plagued any longer by the sight of her, or my ears tormented by the sound of her voice. Send her out into the fields, and let the cutting frost do for her.’
In vain did the poor old father weep and implore her pity; she was firm, and he dared not gainsay her. So he placed his daughter in a sledge, not even daring to give her a horse-cloth to keep herself warm with, and drove her out on to the bare, open fields, where he kissed her and left her, driving home as fast as he could, that he might not witness her miserable death.
Deserted by her father, the poor girl sat down under a fir-tree at the edge of the forest and began to weep silently. Suddenly she heard a faint sound: it was King Frost springing from tree to tree, and cracking his fingers as he went. At length he reached the fir-tree beneath which she was sitting, and with a crisp crackling sound he alighted beside her, and looked at her lovely face.
‘Well, maiden,’ he snapped out, ‘do you know who I am? I am King Frost, king of the red-noses.’
‘All hail to you, great King!’ answered the girl, in a gentle, trembling voice. ‘Have you come to take me?’
‘Are you warm, maiden?’ he replied.
‘Quite warm, King Frost,’ she answered, though she shivered as she spoke.
Then King Frost stooped down, and bent over the girl, and the crackling sound grew louder, and the air seemed to be full of knives and darts; and again he asked:
‘Maiden, are you warm? Are you warm, you beautiful girl?’
And though her breath was almost frozen on her lips, she whispered gently, ‘Quite warm, King Frost.’
Then King Frost gnashed his teeth, and cracked his fingers, and his eyes sparkled, and the crackling, crisp sound was louder than ever, and for the last time he asked her:
‘Maiden, are you still warm? Are you still warm, little love?’
And the poor girl was so stiff and numb that she could just gasp, ‘Still warm, O King!’
Now her gentle, courteous words and her uncomplaining ways touched King Frost, and he had pity on her, and he wrapped her up in furs, and covered her with blankets, and he fetched a great box, in which were beautiful jewels and a rich robe embroidered in gold and silver. And she put it on, and looked more lovely than ever, and King Frost stepped with her into his sledge, with six white horses.
In the meantime the wicked step-mother was waiting at home for news of the girl’s death, and preparing pancakes for the funeral feast. And she said to her husband: ‘Old man, you had better go out into the fields and find your daughter’s body and bury her.’ Just as the old man was leaving the house the little dog under the table began to bark, saying:
‘YOUR daughter shall live to be your delight; HER daughter shall die this very night.’
‘Hold your tongue, you foolish beast!’ scolded the woman. ‘There’s a pancake for you, but you must say:
“HER daughter shall have much silver and gold; HIS daughter is frozen quite stiff and cold.” ‘
But the doggie ate up the pancake and barked, saying:
‘His daughter shall wear a crown on her head; Her daughter shall die unwooed, unwed.’
Then the old woman tried to coax the doggie with more pancakes and to terrify it with blows, but he barked on, always repeating the same words. And suddenly the door creaked and flew open, and a great heavy chest was pushed in, and behind it came the step-daughter, radiant and beautiful, in a dress all glittering with silver and gold. For a moment the step-mother’s eyes were dazzled. Then she called to her husband: ‘Old man, yoke the horses at once into the sledge, and take my daughter to the same field and leave her on the same spot exactly; ‘and so the old man took the girl and left her beneath the same tree where he had parted from his daughter. In a few minutes King Frost came past, and, looking at the girl, he said:
‘Are you warm, maiden?’
‘What a blind old fool you must be to ask such a question!’ she answered angrily. ‘Can’t you see that my hands and feet are nearly frozen?’
Then King Frost sprang to and fro in front of her, questioning her, and getting only rude, rough words in reply, till at last he got very angry, and cracked his fingers, and gnashed his teeth, and froze her to death.
But in the hut her mother was waiting for her return, and as she grew impatient she said to her husband: ‘Get out the horses, old man, to go and fetch her home; but see that you are careful not to upset the sledge and lose the chest.’
But the doggie beneath the table began to bark, saying:
‘Your daughter is frozen quite stiff and cold, And shall never have a chest full of gold.’
‘Don’t tell such wicked lies!’ scolded the woman. ‘There’s a cake for you; now say:
“HER daughter shall marry a mighty King.”
At that moment the door flew open, and she rushed out to meet her daughter, and as she took her frozen body in her arms she too was chilled to death.
A cautionary tale for a cold and snowy February. The pancakes that the woman made for the dog are seasonal in England – usually made for Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (called Mardi Gras elsewhere, but commonly called Pancake Day in Britain). Pancakes for Pancake Day are not like pancakes in the United States; instead they are very thin, like French crepes, and always served with a sprinkling of sugar and a squeeze of fresh lemon – one of the great desserts of the world. The batter for pancakes is the usual English egg batter that I have described many times before. Watch this video if you need help: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bx9zQ-sRgAkQMEpmZkVZLUJsR1U/edit?usp=sharing
Pancakes are very versatile for both savory and sweet dishes. Use your imagination to make fillings for them. Here’s a version I made today using creamed chicken, fresh oyster mushrooms, and leeks.
Poach a whole chicken in broth. Remove it and strip the meat. Meanwhile poach sliced leeks and mushrooms in the broth.
Make a cream sauce by first making a roux of flour and butter, then adding a mix of the broth and heavy cream.
Add the chicken and vegetables, and warm through.
Make the pancakes one at a time by heating butter in your pan, then adding a ladle full of batter. Swirl it around to coat the bottom of the pan. When the top is dry flip it over and cook the other side.
Turn on to a plate and keep warm whilst you make more.
For dessert today I made a filling of poached wild berries in a sauce of sugar and butter.
When your fillings and pancakes are all ready, lay one pancake at a time on a plate, spoon in some filling, and roll it up.