Well this was quite a delightful little read. A slim little hardback with beautiful illustrations taken from classic works of art – I read most it the day before Christmas Eve during a very lazy day of reading. I have to thank Jane of Fleurinherworld whose review of this book made me quite literally leap over to Waterstones site to buy it immediately.
“In its long history, the river Thames had frozen solid forty times. These are the stories of that frozen river”
In forty gorgeous little vignettes Helen Humphreys charts the story of a river, the story of London especially and in sense of England across seven centuries. It is in part a work of the imagination – although many of the stories are based on fact, on the ups and downs of various Royal courts, the frost fairs and plagues that are known to have taken place.
“…The river is a wild thing and this cannot be forgotten because, if it is, the Thames will simply arch its back and throw anything off that tries to tame it.”
In these stories we meet Queen Matilda attempting to escape from her besieged castle, Henry VIII riding across the frozen river highway, on the day of Katherine of Aragon’s death – with rumours circulating that Henry already tires of Anne Boleyn. We witness the corpse of Charles I being taken across the ice in his coffin following his beheading, lovers meeting during the plague years, farmers and wherrymen desperate to see the ice melt that threatens their livelihood. Frost fairs spring up on the ice, small towns of stalls and side shows – new business brought by the ice.
what is remarkable about the Frost Fair is that it does not operate by the same rules that govern life on land. It is a phenomenon and is therefore free of the laws and practices of history. The poor and the rich alike inhabit the same space, participate in the same sports and diversions, are, for a very brief moment in time, equal citizens of a new and magical world.”
Each scene is a perfect little snapshot of a moment in time – a moment in the extraordinary life of a river that froze – you need to read the final piece to discover why we know the Thames will never freeze again. Alongside these stories Helen Humphrey’s offers us a minute exploration of the very nature of ice itself.
“But I am learning that each ice, each freeze, is different from the one before. That freeze was hard and smooth. This one is uneven, spongy underfoot, covered with snow. I cannot even see the ice itself and so only half believe it is there. But when I turned and saw my footprints filling with water, I knew that, not only is the ice there, but the river is there as well.”
Helen Humphrey’s often lyrical prose paints extraordinarily vivid, wintery historic scenes, with Oxen, bears and even elephants lumbering across the ice. A ship anchored to a pub, pulls the building over as the river starts to thaw, birds fall frozen out of the sky, skaters with small animal bones secured to the bottoms of their boots to help them slide across the ice.
What a great little find this was, certainly an attractive book to keep and savour.