Wednesday, 14 January 2015
THE FROZEN THAMES by Helen Humphreys. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull
"The hare is set upon the ice. Here, it does not have the shelter of the field, cannot dash between furrow and stubble, use its colours to try to match the colours of the earth. Here, it is quick brown against this long, white river. There is nowhere for it to hide or escape."
This beautiful book is a collection of vignettes about people - both royal and commoners - who lived near the Thames during the forty times that it froze between 1142 and 1895.
These are mostly glimpses of everyday life: of icy bedrooms, frozen ale, ink frozen in inkwells. A young couple become aware of how their living space has shrunk to a huddle around the fireplace. A carter gently and patiently persuades his reluctant pair of oxen to venture onto the ice. There are frost fairs and skating contests. Watermen lose their livelihoods. A boy and his mother attempt a perilous crossing on melting ice. And birds fall frozen from the sky. My favourite story is one about a miller's son who comes upon a field full of frozen birds and revives them by warming them with his hands and breath.
This is an appropriate seasonal read: a small hardback book, beautifully written and produced, and illustrated with reproductions of old paintings. The scenes of activity on the frozen river are fascinating in their detail.
It's not a children's book, though some older children and teens might enjoy it. It is a rich source of information about life in the past during periods of extreme cold. The author has drawn on many contemporary accounts, and most of the stories are based on documented events.
The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys, Union Books, h/b, 2007.
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