It’s freezing! It seems appropriate that it has been snowing in London today. One hundred and ninety nine years ago there was a Frost Fair on the River Thames. The cold snap started at the end of December with a freezing fog that was so bad that even the Prince Regent had to call off a planned journey and return to Carlton House after one of his outriders fell in a ditch because the fog was so thick. People stumbled about the London streets unable to see in front of their noses. Then the river started to freeze.
There had been Frost Fairs on the Thames at a number of different times during history. This was one of the most spectacular. There were booths on the ice selling alcohol, hot drinks and hot food. There were entertainments; archery games and a roundabout and a flying boat. People flocked to the river to see the huge chunks of ice that had been thrown up as the water froze. At one point an elephant was apparently led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge. The event was commemorated in a book called “Frostiana: Or the History of the River Thames in a Frozen State.”
I use the Frost Fair as background for a scene in my 2008 RITA nominated book Lord of Scandal. I l0ve the book, with its theme of celebrity, and I love the idea of the Frost Fair because I could imagine the raffish, exciting atmosphere there would be out there on the ice.
Here is an extract from Lord of Scandal:
Suddenly the scarlet curricle was right beside them and Ben Hawksmoor was close enough for Catherine to touch. The pavement seemed to shift slightly beneath her feet. She wanted to turn and run but she stood still, rooted to the spot. With a sense of inevitability, she looked up to meet Ben’s cool hazel eyes. He was looking at her with disturbing intentness.
“Catherine?” Lily said questioningly, and Catherine jumped and dragged her gaze away from Ben’s. He bowed to Lily, smiling.
“Miss St Clare.”
“Lord Hawksmoor.” Lily sounded ruffled, but not on her own account. She was looking from Catherine to Ben with a frown on her face. “Have you met? I didn’t think-”
Ben turned back to Catherine. His smile was warmer for her, intimate enough to make her stomach clench.
“Madam…” There was the very faintest hint of a question in his tone. Catherine realised that he would think that she, like all the other eager ladies in the crowd, had come deliberately to see the race.
“I did not know you would be here,” she blurted out, and blushed at her own gaucheness. “That is, I did not come especially to see you…”
That was even worse. She could feel herself getting hotter and hotter to see the amusement in Ben Hawksmoor’s eyes. He had passed the reins to his groom now and jumped down onto the pavement beside her. He took her hand and drew her a little apart, ignoring the calls of the crowd for the race to start.
“I am desolated to hear you did not seek me out,” he murmured, the spark of humour still in his voice, “when I would go a deal further than Oxford Street to see you again, Catherine.”
Catherine closed her eyes for a second against the potent awareness coursing through her. He had the most attractive voice she had ever heard, smooth, mellow and hopelessly seductive. For a moment she felt frighteningly adrift.
“I doubt that,” she said, rallying. She looked about her at the throng of people. “You do not need my approval when you have all this.”
Ben turned so that his broad shoulders blocked out the crowd. His physical presence was so powerful that Catherine felt a little light-headed. She had his whole attention now. The race, the crowd, the Regent himself, none of them mattered. They could have been alone.
“You mistake.” He spoke softly. “You are the only thing here that interests me, Catherine.”
Catherine’s mind went completely blank. She had little experience of flirting or playing games and she knew that was what he was doing. He had to be. He could not be sincere.
“That,” she said, “is absurd.”
He smiled again and the lines deepened at the corners of his eyes in a way that made her stomach flip.
“You won’t flirt with me?”
She took a deep breath. “No.”
“A pity. But this time I meant what I said.”
Catherine realised that her hand was still in his. She tried to free herself but he refused to let go. He was running his thumb over the back of her hand now in small, distracting strokes. Catherine could feel the insistence of his touch through the material of her gloves.
“You did come here to see me, didn’t you?” He murmured.
Catherine’s gaze jerked up to meet his laughing hazel eyes. “You have a monstrously high opinion of yourself,” she said.
He gave her a rueful half smile and her heart turned over. “Have I?”
She watched his smile fade and another very different, more disturbing emotion take its place. Then someone dug an elbow in Catherine’s ribs and she realised they were surrounded by a crowd growing more restless by the minute. She forced herself to look beyond the compelling demand in Ben’s eyes.
“You are keeping his Highness waiting,” she said.
Ben grinned. “It is worth it.”
“You take too many risks.”
“Always.” He gave her that dangerous, flashing smile, released her hand and swung himself back up onto the box of the curricle. The crowd gave an ironic cheer.
“A kiss for luck!” Someone shouted.
Ben leaned down. His gloved fingers touched her cheek.
She barely heard the words above the pounding of her pulse but she must have made some sound, for he tilted her chin up and then his lips brushed hers, lightly, a brief but insistentpressure. He was cold and tasted of fresh air and her mind reeled. He straightened and Catherine opened her eyes to see the blaze of triumph in his. “Thank you,” he said, and his voice was a little rough.
The winter sky was too bright. The light hurt her eyes. She felt shaky. The crowd roared its approval.”
Though they did not know it then, 1814 was the last Frost Fair. These days the Thames doesn’t freeze. The climate is warmer, the banks have been cut to allow the water to flow more freely and the new bridges have wider arches. In the pedestrian tunnel beneath the Thames there is now an engraving by the sculptor Richard Kindersley that depicts the Frost Fair.
If the river froze do you think you would feel safe walking on it? I’m not sure I would. Apparently there were a number of accidents when the thaw came because it melted so fast!