The Frozen Thames
  • The Frozen Thames
  • The Frozen Thames

The Frozen Thames

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by Helen Humphreys

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In its long history, the river Thames has frozen solid forty times. These are the stories of that frozen river.

So begins this breathtaking and original work, which contains forty vignettes based on events that actually took place each time the historic Thames froze solid. Spanning more than seven centuries—from 1142 to 1895—and

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In its long history, the river Thames has frozen solid forty times. These are the stories of that frozen river.

So begins this breathtaking and original work, which contains forty vignettes based on events that actually took place each time the historic Thames froze solid. Spanning more than seven centuries—from 1142 to 1895—and illustrated with stunning full-color period art, The Frozen Thames is an achingly beautiful feat of the imagination…a work of fiction that transports us back through history to cast us as intimate observers of unforgettable moments in time.

Whether we’re viewing the magnificent spectacle of King Henry VIII riding across the ice highway (while plotting to rid himself of his second wife) or participating in a joyous Frost Fair on the ice, joining lovers meeting on the frozen river during the plague years or coming upon the sight of a massive ship frozen into the Thames…these unforgettable stories are a triumph of the imagination as well as a moving meditation on love, loss, and the transformative powers of nature.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A splendid book, full of memorable and vivid imagery.” —Toronto Globe and Mail

“Most curiously wonderful and splendidly written.” —Ontario Sun Times

“Spare but satisfying. Each of its episodes has within it the capacity to do what Humphreys did with the entirety of The Lost Garden: to speak of loss lightly but profoundly.” —Quill & Quire

Forty vibrant protagonists give depth and variety to this magical collection…. A dreamy, poetic evocation of winters past.” —Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Between 1142 and 1895, the Thames froze solid 40 times, and Humphreys (Wild Dogs) captures the magic and hardship created by these deep freezes in a series of elegant vignettes. The book opens with Queen Matilda's snow-cloaked escape across the frozen Thames from Oxford Castle, and subsequent snapshots capture everything from fox hunts to the merry Frost Fairs that set up on the solid river. The river is also witness to the Black Death, a window tax and a hearth tax, a crumbling London Bridge and the Luddite uprising. The elements are wonderfully evoked, with coldness so intense that birds fall frozen from the sky, ale freezes solid in its jugs, and trees split apart "as though struck by lightning." In a style meditative and poetic, Humphreys crafts a compelling portrait of the role something as seemingly simple as ice has in people's lives and imaginations. (Mar.)

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Kirkus Reviews
A dreamy, poetic evocation of winters past. As far back as records have been kept, the river Thames, which flows through Oxford, Reading and, of course, the heart of London, has frozen solid only 40 times. For each of these, Canadian poet and novelist Humphreys (Coventry, 2009, etc.) offers a single, delicate vignette, taking delicious poetic license with both grand events and the minutiae of history. The stories begin with the earliest record of a freeze, in 1142, when Queen Matilda made a desperate escape across the ice from her long-besieged castle in Oxford. They continue up to 1895, when ice floes as thick as seven feet crowded the river but it was clear, writes Humphreys, that "the Thames would never, will never, freeze solid in the heart of London again." (Causes: the new London Bridge, which allowed the water to flow more freely, and the dredging of a deeper river channel.) Between these historical bookends the author presents 38 more vivid, intimate sketches of people confronted with the cold, all related in the present tense. A wife marooned indoors by the frost in 1784 passes the time by perfecting her recipe for jugged hare. Two children escaping the plague in 1666 emerge from their quarantined house into a "cold and beautiful" world. In 1789, a sudden thaw kills a husband and wife who good-naturedly permit a ship's captain to attach his vessel by cable to their house's main beam. A miller's son revives a flock of frozen birds with the warmth of his breath in 1809. In each anecdote, Humphreys expands and improvises on a fleeting moment from a life long past. The characters, often unnamed and many captured in first-person monologues, have a presence far more substantial thanthe 1,000-odd words allotted to them. Images and themes recur throughout: the Frost Fairs erected upon the frozen river, the groaning of the ice. Forty vibrant protagonists give depth and variety to this magical collection. Agent: Bill Hanna/Acacia House

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 6.10(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt


Matilda is under siege. For more than three months now she’s been barricaded inside this castle in Oxford while her cousin, Stephen, circles the ramparts with his men, waits for slow starvation to force her out and into his capture. They have eaten all the horses and burnt all the furniture. They have retreated through pockets of cold, to a small room without windows at the base of the tower. At night they huddle together like dogs. 

 Matilda is Queen of England, but her cousin has stolen the Crown, and now she is locked into battle with him. She has been locked into battle with him for almost seven years. 

Stephen would never have been able to race to London to claim the Crown if Matilda had been in England at the time, not stranded in France with her child husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, who everyone agreed had descended from the daughter of Satan. She would never have had to marry a fourteen-yearold if her brother, William, had lived, instead of drowning in the Channel in 1120 on the White Ship, rowed across by drunken men who, in their drunkenness, hit a rock and holed the boat. Their father, Henry I, King of England, was so grief-stricken that he never smiled again, and decided to pass on the throne to his daughter, Matilda, even though it was unheard of for a woman to inherit the Crown and govern the realm. 

Matilda would never have had to think about being Queen if her father hadn’t died suddenly. Her father wouldn’t have died suddenly if he’d listened to everyone around him and not eaten such a huge helping of stewed lamprey eels. 

It is night at Oxford Castle. UsuallyMatilda makes the rounds, visits her men slouched by the narrow windows, their longbows leaned up against the stone, but tonight she is too weary, cannot think of anything appropriate to cheer them further onwards in her service, towards their very deaths, so she goes instead into the interior of the castle to find her maid, who will prepare her for sleep. 

Her maid, Jane, is not in the room at the base of the tower. Matilda finds her out in the courtyard, staring up at the sky, Matilda’s nightshirt slung over her arm. 

“Look, ma’am,” she says, as soon as she sees the Queen. “It’s snowing.” 

So it is. Big, lacy flakes that swim down out of the darkness decorate the shoulders of the Queen’s maid. 

“Ma’am,” says Jane. “The snow is the same colour as your nightshirt.” 

Matilda takes her three strongest knights. They make a rope out of their leggings and they wait until the hour is the darkest, the snow is the thickest. They are lowered to the ground from one of the castle windows by the men they have left behind. All four of them are dressed in nightshirts and they move like ghosts, softly and slowly, towards the edge of the river. 

The Thames is frozen. Matilda saw it freeze. These days and days of the siege, she has spent a good deal of time looking out at the enemy camped on the edge of the river. A week ago the temperature dropped, and now Stephen’s men walk up and down the ice on horseback. They have even built two fires there, near the shore. 

In order to get to the other side of the river, Matilda and her three men will have to walk between those signal fires. They move in single file, a man in front, then Matilda, two men behind her. They move slowly and carefully, do not speak, keep close together. 

Through the swirling snow, Matilda can see the glow of the fires, can hear the voices of Stephen’s army. If they can just pass between those fires they will cross to the middle of the river, out past the sentries, and from there they can walk to the other side. Matilda is equally opposed and equally supported by the people of Britain, and there will be someone who will help them, give them horses so they can ride to Wallingford, where her ally, Brien FitzCount, is waiting. 

They are almost at the fires when a sentry on horseback comes towards them. They instantly stop, locked into position, heads bowed against their chests. They are wearing white bonnets and white nightgowns. The snow erases their bodies, but perhaps it doesn’t completely erase their outlines, for the sentry halts before them. Matilda can hear the horse breathing, can hear it snort. The horse knows that they’re there. She raises her head a little, can make out the upright figure of the man in the saddle. She sees him lift his arm, thinks he is going for his sword, but he blesses himself instead, blesses himself and rides right past them. He must have thought that they were ghosts. 

 In that moment when Matilda is standing perfectly still, trying to be invisible, she realizes that this is what she’s learned from the three months in the castle. She’s learned how to watch and wait. She’s learned how to choose what burns, how much heat there will be in her maid’s sewing box, in the wooden bowl that used to hold apples. She saw the river freeze, that moment when the water took hold of itself and wouldn’t let go. All this time she thought the siege was chaos, but she can see now that it was really calm masquerading as chaos. If she gets away, the control she thinks she has in riding to Wallingford, in going back into battle against Stephen — that will prove to be the real chaos. 

Matilda holds her breath. She lets it go. The horseman has passed and the knight in front of her has begun to move them, once more, across the frozen river. There is nothing to do but go forward.  


When Thomas goes into the storeroom behind the alehouse, he sees immediately that they are in trouble, rushes upstairs to wake his brother. 

“Robert,” he says, shaking the blanket-covered lump on the bed by the wall. “Robert, wake up. The ale has frozen solid.” 

It has been cold since Candlemas, and now, in the middle of February, the cold has just kept tightening its grip. It has moved deep inside every house, deep into the heart of every man. 

Robert shucks his blanket in one angry movement. He cannot bear any more. There will never be a spring. He will never get warm. He sits on the edge of his bed, his head resting in his hands. A low moan escapes his lips. 

Thomas is over by the small frost-encrusted window. “I suppose,” he says, his back to his brother, “that if the mighty Thames can freeze over, then something as trifling as ale could freeze as well.”

 “We’re ruined,” says Robert, into the bowl of his hands.His breath snaps back at him, the only warmth there is in the room. 

“I suppose,” says Thomas, “if we slept with the jugs of ale, we might be able to keep them warm.”

 “We will perish,” says Robert, but Thomas doesn’t hear him, because he is still speaking into his hands, transfixed by the feeling of his own warm, used breath on his face. 

“I doubt,” says Thomas, “that anyone will hold us to fault for such a thing. There has never been such a cold winter.” 

“Cold winter,” says Robert, from the bed. “Freezing cold bloody awful winter.” 

Thomas turns from the window, his face lit up with his sudden good idea. “I think,” he says, “there’s profits to be made here.” 

At the mention of money, Robert perks up, lifts his head, and looks towards his younger brother. “How?” he says. 

“When ale is frozen, it expands.We can’t sell it as we used to, but we can —” Thomas pauses for effect, even though he doesn’t need to, for Robert is listening intently. “We can start to sell it by weight instead of volume.” 

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Meet the Author

Helen Humphreys is the author of Leaving Earth, a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the City of Toronto Book Award; Afterimage, winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize; The Lost Garden, finalist for the CBC’s 2003 Canada Reads competition; and the forthcoming Coventry. Wild Dogs won the 2005 Lambda Award for fiction, was one of NOW magazine’s Top 10 Books of 2004, and has been optioned for film. Humphreys lives in Kingston, Ontario.

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Frozen Thames 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good read