England has seldom known a winter as cold—or as much fun—as that of 1683-84. It was so cold that trees cracked open as if hit by lightning; the capital's collections of exotic plants and animals, which were then all the rage (an immature female rhinoceros was the newest marvel), were sadly depleted, and—most important—the Thames River was frozen solid. Not a ship could move in or out, and many were stuck like cake decorations in the middle of the river.
So solid was the river for about six weeks, and so unpleasant was London itself—what with all the coal smoke made necessary by the extreme cold—that half the city took to the ice. Another London, a carnival town of tents and booths which stayed open all night by torchlight, sprang up, and many of its denizens came to know it as Freeze-land Fair. Tens of thousands of people came out on the ice. Stagecoaches ran on the frozen river for miles and miles and nobody traveled by road anymore, the ice route was much the faster. There were even stagecoach races.
There was everything to be seen and done in this icy city of diversion, pleasure and sport. Its streets were lined with booths sheltered by striped tents, with flags of all sorts flapping from tall poles.
In mid-river one found shops selling fruit, and girls peddling oranges to the crowd. There was a barber shop to dress a man's hair if it got ruffled in the wind. Shoemakers set up shops, along with all sorts of food suppliers and cooks and wine merchants. Every tent shop had a fire going to make it cosy, and there were fires burning everywhere on the ice so people could warm themselves.
Picket fences were set in circles to make arenas; in one a whole ox was roasted. In another was a display of bull-baiting, with fierce dogs leaping at the noses of frantic bulls. On the quiet side were puppet shows for children, theatrical performances and toss games where people could win prizes by ringing small targets. Here and there ladies practiced the decorous sport of walking on stilts. Anything that might be done in summer—with the exception of swimming the Thames—went on that winter at Freezeland Fair.
The only trouble was, ships could not move. That meant workmen were out of employment, and, what probably bothered the pleasure-loving Londoners more, there could not be any great ship festivals with floats and fetes. But why couldn't there be! Boats and barges were pried out of the ice, decked with flags and streamers, set upon sledges and hauled over the ice by horses or teams of men. Drummers sat in the prows and beat out rhythms for dancers on the ice. A chariot was devised that may have been a kind of forerunner of today's snowmobile. It was powered over the ice by a sort of propeller.
Amusing as all this must have been, what caused the greatest excitement were the sports made possible by the ice alone. The people of England had long had lively ideas on what to do for sport on the rare occasion of a freeze. A favorite game was to cut a large chunk out of the ice and use this as a sled, piling onto it and pushing it along the ice, with everyone tumbling on and off as it gained in speed. This suggested a wooden sled that was quite circular and pulled by a rope from its center, whirling around and around, slinging its riders off right and left. A "circle of folly" it was called. The real sensation of the big freeze, however, was skating.
The English had for a long time known a kind of ice skating, though its appeal was limited. As far back as the 13th century English boys had taken the leg bones of animals, fastened them to their feet by thongs and shoved themselves along the ice by pushing with a stout stick. Onlookers thought they went as fast as the birds or as arrows shot from bows. When mere speed palled, the boys devised a kind of tournament: starting at each other from opposite sides, carrying those big sticks aloft, then piling into each other as both combatants spilled onto the ice.
Somebody was always hurt in this game and the sport had few followers, but sometime in the late 17th century real skates were brought to England from Holland and gradually became known to the more fashionable sports. At Freezeland Fair on January 24 Londoners passing along the embankment got their first real look at this novel and graceful sport. It was like dancing or flying, they thought, and was quite the prettiest sight London had ever seen. Two famous gentlemen of 17th-century England—John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys—each recorded in now familiar diaries their delight at seeing the people of London sliding on "skeetes."
By the end of January the excitement over the fair had become so great that the king himself paid it a visit, bringing along his family and courtiers. Charles II was a tall, swarthy man, brilliant and fond of unusual diversions. He and his companions fortunately had just the costumes handy for this chilly outing. The remote land of Russia had recently sent ambassadors to England, and those gentlemen had caused a sensation at the English court in their long, loose tunics completely lined with sable. Soon everyone of any pretensions had to have costumes like them. They must have been just the thing to wear on London's frozen river.
Since Charles was very fond of hunting, he arranged to have a fox hunt on the frozen Thames. Charles's way of hunting was leisurely. Fences were set up to form a very large enclosure and to direct the route of the quarry. A fox was kept ready in a cage, and huntsmen lined the route. The king and his favorite friends sat in a heated pavilion, and when everything was ready a huntsman blew three long blasts on a horn as a signal to release the fox. The fox careened along the ice, guided in its flight by the huntsmen along the way and pursued by skidding greyhounds, who were not allowed to catch up with it until it was just in front of the king's viewing stand.
After the hunt a printing press that had been set up gave His Majesty a souvenir of the great day. Inscribed on heavy Dutch paper, it listed the names of eight princes and princesses in the royal party in a column, with "Charles II" at the top. At the bottom it said, "Printed by G. Groom, on the ICE, on the River of Thames, January 31, 1684."
The king was delighted with his hunt, with his souvenir and with the throngs of cavorting Londoners. Whether he learned to skate is not recorded, but it seems unlikely. The river began to thaw a few days later and the Freezeland Fair was over, melted away with the floods.