Britain’s ‘Little Ice Age’

It’s hardly surprising in the UK that we are notorious for talking about the weather, for it is nothing if not unpredictable. Take the last 2 weeks – where I live in the south of Scotland we have had temperatures ranging from -5 at lunchtime to +11 at eleven pm at night. Which makes the decision of when to change to winter tyres rather difficult, and which is perhaps the reason that the weather is not just the subject of casual conversation, but also of jokes and of picture postcards – I’m sure you’ve all seen the ‘Summer in the… (fill in your own county name) cards – which is of course just a picture of rain…

Recently though ‘weather’ or rather ‘climate’ (for I’ve been reliably informed by those who know that they are two different things) has become a worldwide topic of hot debate, with Greta Thunberg named yesterday as the Times Magazine person of 2019. Programmes abound of ice melting in the Artic and Antarctic and the potentially catastrophic effects that will follow for us all if it cannot be halted.

But melting ice hasn’t always been a problem – quite the reverse. For over 100 years within the late Tudor, Stuart and Georgian periods Britain was in the grip of what became known as the ‘Little Ice Age’ when winters were harsh and long. There is ample evidence, in writing and in pictures, of frost fairs on the Thames – carnivals on ice, the most famous occurring in the winter of 1683 / 84, when even the seas around southern Britain are said to have frozen for up to 2 miles from shore!

There were temporary booths selling everything from beer to bootlaces, hot food in abundance, entertainments of all kinds and sporting events – bowling matches and horse and coach races, (though quite how the horses managed on the ice I don’t know). Every trade and guild was represented – the city in miniature reproduced on the ice.

The frost fairs spawned souvenirs, which to judge by the advertising copy below, would likely have rivalled the seaside ‘tat’ of our modern era.

‘Here you PRINT your name tho’ cannot write
Cause numbe’d with cold: Tis done with great delight.

And lay it by: That AGES yet to come
May see what THINGS upon the ICE were done.’

‘To the Print-house go,
Where men the art of Printing soon do know,
Where for a Teaster, you may have your name
Printed, hereafter for to show the same’

It is the Thames Frost Fairs that have had all the press, but the ‘Ice Age’ wasn’t confined to the south of England, but to most of the Northern Hemisphere and so in my first Scottish novel I have set a Frost Fair on the Clyde – and what should have been a happy occasion for the Munro family, didn’t go entirely to plan – courtesy of William Cunninghame.

Here’s a wee extract from Turn of the Tide:

December came in hard, heralding a season of frosts that silvered the loch with ice a foot thick, so that Munro fashioned wooden skates for all but Ellie, the blacksmith fitting them with narrow blades. In January, when it was clear that the cold snap would last, frost fairs were held along the upper reaches of the Clyde and it took little persuasion for Munro to fit runners to the cart and take Kate and the two older children.

It was Maggie’s first experience of a winter fair and she hopped up and down on the shore, impatient for Munro to lace her skates. Kate and Munro each took one of her hands and they struck out towards the braziers burning on the ice and bought chestnuts so hot that even with mittens, they had to toss them from hand to hand until they cooled enough to eat. A flesher had set up a spit and was roasting a pig, the fat sparking like a scattering of bawbees. Maggie wrinkled her nose at the smell of mulled wine and roast meat and burning tallow, and wheedled three pennies from Munro to have her name and the date scribed on a card with a drawing of the fair.

Robbie came flying to drag them to see a man who played a whistle and had a monkey who danced and gibbered on the end of a rope. There were tents with ‘fat ladies’ and fortune-tellers and stalls selling simples: aloes, camphor and ginger, punguent salves of egg-white, rose oil and turpentine. One stall-holder brandished a pamphlet hailing tobacco as the cure-all for everything from toothache and bad breath to kidney stones and carbuncles.

Kate dragged Munro away. ‘Don’t even think on it. I have no wish to kiss a chimney, supposing it could do all that is claimed.’

There were entertainers of all kinds: tumblers in rainbow colours, spinning and wheeling like human kaleidoscopes. Jugglers spinning plates on the ends of long poles balanced on their chins. Musicians who scraped and beat and blew, so fine and so fast that those who hadn’t skates hopped and jigged on the ice around them. Best of all, a conjuror: his silver hair corkscrewed around his face, who began his act by plucking a groat from behind Maggie’s ear.

She was entranced: tipped forward onto the toe of her skates, leaning into Kate that she might not lose her balance; as he spun cards into spirals of kings and queens, aces and jokers, hearts and spades and clubs. He made coins appear and disappear from his hands, under pewter tankards, into a tiny, brightly coloured wooden box with a sliding lid. A dove placed in a tall-crowned hat was gone in a puff of smoke, replaced by a multi-coloured streamer yards long. And best of all: the rabbit that hopped from his sleeve. The act was finished, the conjuror bowing and smiling, Munro fishing for a penny for Maggie to drop in the bonnet he shook.

A slow, contemptuous clapping; a voice impossible to mistake. ‘Well, well. Munro . . . and family. This is an unlooked for surprise. Enjoying yourselves? I daresay this is cheap enough entertainment, even for you.’ William’s eyes raked over Kate, lingering on her breast and she tensed, but tilted her chin and returned his stare.

Beside her Munro smouldered, ‘You’re a step from Kilmaurs. Are you likewise straightened, or is it that Glencairn does not countenance the aggravation closer to home?’

‘I play where I choose and tonight I chose here, and might have been the sooner had I anticipated so pleasant company.’

A gust of wind lifted Kate’s hair, whipped her skirt around her legs, and against her will she shivered.

William leaned close. ‘But come, Munro, you do not treat your wife well. A pretty piece deserves to be kept warm . . . I have a horse-blanket that would serve.’

She was rigid with defiance, determined not to rise to his goading. ‘Thank you but no. I am not truly cold, and if I was I have a shawl in the cart I could put to use.’

‘Some mulled wine then? You will not refuse to drink with me?’

‘We would not, but that we have already had our fill and the bairns hope to see the conjuror’s next act.’

‘This fellow? He is scarcely proficient, or not to a discerning audience at least.’

Maggie, who had followed the sense of William’s comment, though not all the words, shot out a foot and caught him on the shin with the blade of her skate. ‘He is clever and magic and . . .’

Kate caught her round the waist, pulled her back, and though she would have dearly liked to kick William herself, reproved her. ‘Maggie! It is not well done. Apologize this instant.’

‘Shan’t.’ Maggie escaped from Kate’s grasp, her eyes fixed on William, hard and bright.

‘Already feisty . . . like mother, like daughter.’ William was rubbing at his leg. Have no fear Kate, I take no account of a child’s pettiness, how ever ill-bred. When she is grown, I shall take an apology then, no doubt the sweeter for the wait.’

Munro thrust Maggie behind him to turn on William, but Kate had beaten him to it, her hand whipping out, the crack as it met his cheek, echoing like a pistol shot. Off-balance he staggered and then Robbie was hammering at him with his fists, Maggie, who had ducked round Munro, kicking furiously at his shins. A small crowd was gathering, the conjuror, with an eye to further profit, offering odds on the bairns. Kate dived for Maggie, Munro for Robbie. William straightened, and then as if suddenly aware of the folk who gawked, that they made of him a laughing stock, ground out, ‘Ill-mannered as well as ill-bred. You would do well Munro to train your children better, or you may live to regret it.’ He spun on his heel and thrust his way through the crowd, daring any to stop him.

The silence lasted only as long as it took for the conjuror to re-start his show for the new audience that the confrontation had drawn. Maggie, no longer fighting Kate, was craning to see, but Munro, recognizing the wisdom of putting as much ground between themselves and William as possible, said, his voice brooking no resistance, ‘Home.’

They found their way to the cart in silence, the children unusually subdued, Munro and Kate, though both occupied with this new danger, neither wishing to air it. On the hill they stopped and turned to take a last look. Maggie, pointing to the moon riding high and full in the sky, whispered,

‘There is a man. I see his face.’

The lights of the lanterns twinkled all along the shore, the flames from the braziers flaring spasmodically, figures like dolls still skating on the ice.

Kate leant back against Munro, risked, ‘If it were not for William, I could have stayed all night.’‘If it were not for William . . .’ it hung between them, the thought of Anna: of what they had lost; the fear for what they still had.

If you have enjoyed this extract the remainder of the story and the two novels that follow it can be found on Amazon on kindle and both online and via UK bookshops in paperbacks (ideal Christmas presents?)

This is part of a series of seasonal blogs – all of which can be enjoyed this month – the dates are below – do visit them all!

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