Heads up: Top comment and controversy

You call this snow?: The Coldest Winters in British History

Snow, snow and more snow.  The latest weather forecasts predict the temperature in Britain won't rise much about 0 for the next week, making this the coldest winter the country has seen for some time. But as cold as the winter of 2013 is turning out, it's a beach holiday in the Bahamas compared to the British winters of yesteryear.

 Some older readers may remember The Big Freeze of '63. December 1962 began with the last Great Smog before the Clean Air Act came into effect. As if that wasn't bad enough, a cold easterly wind blew in from Scandinavia on the 22nd and didn't let up for the rest of the month. The snow was 8 feet deep in Kent and the upper reaches of the Thames froze over.

It did not, however, freeze over in central London, which would have provided ideal conditions for a River Thames frost fair, such as that held during the Great Frost of 1683-84. That year, during the peak of the period known as the Little Ice Age, the Thames was completely frozen over for two months and solid ice reportedly extended several miles into the North Sea.

The diarist John Evelyn described the frost fair that year as "a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water." The ice was thick enough to support not only sledding and skating, but "bull baiting", horse and coach races and general drunken revelry.

In 1709, a William Derham of Upminster recorded a temperature of -12 C on the night of the 5th of January. He wrote "I believe the Frost was greater (if not more universal also) than any other within the Memory of Man."

1814 was (probably) the last year that a British winter was cold enough to hold a frost fair on the Thames. That year, organisers rather pushed their luck by leading an elephant across the river below Blackfrairs Bridge. The stunt was a success and both elephant and elephant handler survived.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: I would ramp up Britain's spending on science

Paul Nurse
A family remain in the open for the third night following the 7.8 quake in Nepal  

Nepal earthquake: Mobs of looters roam the camps and the smell of burning flesh fills the air, but still we survive

Bidushi Dhungel
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence