Thursday, 7 January 2010

Frost Fair

The wonderful excerpt below is taken from Chapter One of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and imagines the great freeze of 1603 and the resulting “frost fair” held on the Thames. It is a wonderful blend of fact, legend and literary reconstruction. Well worth reading!

"The great Frost was, the historians tell us, the most severe that has ever visited these islands. Birds froze in the mid-air and fell like stones to the ground. At Norwich a young countrywoman started to cross the road in her usual health and was seen by onlookers to turn visibly to powder and be blown in a puff of dust over the roofs as the icy blast struck her at the street corner.

But while the country people suffered the extremity of want, and the trade of the country was at a standstill, London enjoyed a carnival ofthe utmost brilliancy. The Court was at Greenwich, and the new King seized the opportunity that his coronation gave him to curry favour with the citizens. He directed that the river, which was frozen to a depth of twenty feet and more for six or seven miles on either side, should be swept, decorated and given all the semblance of a park or pleasure ground, with arbours,mazes, alleys, drinking booths, etc. at his expense. For himself and the courtiers, he reserved a certain space immediately opposite the Palace gates; which, railed off from the public only by a silken rope, became at once the centre of the most brilliant society in England. Great statesmen, in their beards and ruffs,despatched affairs of state under the crimson awning of the Royal Pagoda.Soldiers planned the conquest of the Moor and the downfall of the Turk in striped arbours surmounted by plumes of ostrich feathers. Admirals strode up and down the narrow pathways, glass in hand, sweeping the horizon and telling stories of the north-west passage and the Spanish Armada. Lovers dallied upon divans spread with sables. Frozen roses fell in showers when the Queen and her ladies walked abroad. Coloured balloons hovered motionless in the air. Here and there burnt vast bonfires of cedar and oak wood, lavishly salted, so that the flames were of green, orange, and purple fire. But however fiercely they burnt, the heat was not enough to melt the ice which, though of singular transparency, was yet of the hardness of steel. So clear indeed was it that there could be seen, congealed at a depth of several feet, here a porpoise, there a flounder.

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