Extreme Weather in Abingdon: Snow and Ice

It has become something of a cliché: people grumbling that when they were growing up, they had proper winters, not the rain and slush which prevails these days. However, it appears that people have been saying that for a hundred years or more, so it is probably more a matter of viewing your childhood through rose-tinted spectacles and imagining that in the good old days every winter presented a postcard-worthy wonderland.

It is true that our chances of a white Christmas are slim year on year. It is also true that there have been several winters recently without any snow at all. But it can go the other way as well: we all remember the “snowmageddon” of a few years ago, and the astonishing satellite image of the British Isles almost uniformly covered in white. Without delving into the statistics, it is safe to say that extremes of winter weather have been experienced by people in the past and the present. In this blogpost I want to present some of the snowiest and iciest winters Abingdon has known.

The most extreme (and the furthest in the past for purposes of this post) was of course during the aptly named Ice Ages. During this period an ice sheet advanced and retreated several times over Northern Europe. At its furthest extension it came down over most of England, leaving only the southernmost areas uncovered. Even when the actual ice had retreated, the climate was still rather chilly, which is why the animals living here in those days, like the mammoth and the rhinoceros, were “woolly” ones. But of course this ice did not descend on Abingdon suddenly. The ice sheet moved incrementally, over hundreds of years, and we have to speak of “climate” rather than “weather”.

A Woolly Rhinoceros in an Ice Age landscape, depicted by Charles Knight in 1916. These animals lived in the Abingon area.

Then there was a period of history called the Little Ice Age. The term is usually applied to the 200 years between the 17th and early 19th centuries, although really it started much earlier, around 1300. It was a period characterized by a global cooling, although it did not bring only cold weather, but rather a succession of extreme weather events. At times it caused heatwaves and dry winds. The cold winter of 1665 was followed by an intensely hot summer, and in September of 1666 the Great Fire of London broke out. The destruction it wrought was no doubt exacerbated by the dry conditions.

A depiction of the frozen Thames in 1608. (STC 11403 Houghton Library, Harvard University)

In the winter of 1703, such violent gales swept through southern England that the event became known as “the Great Storm”. The roof was blown off Westminster Abbey, and the Eddystone lighthouse tumbled into the sea. This was followed by many years of bitterly cold winters.

What caused the global cooling of the Little Ice Age is still a matter of debate. One cause that has been identified is a temperature gradient between an area of high pressure over the Azores and an area of low pressure over Iceland. When the high pressure dominates, the temperatures are mild, but if it’s the other way round, temperatures plummet. The theory is that Western Europe was subjected to a see-saw between these two influences.

Another contributing factor were probably volcanoes. Massive eruptions release sulphate particles into the atmosphere. The beginning of the Little Ice Age was a 50-year period during which there were four such massive volcanic eruptions. In 1816, known as “the year without summer”, the culprit can be identified as Mount Tambora, a volcano in South East Asia, whose eruption in 1815 was the start of renewed volcanic activity.

Towards the middle of the 19th century, the Little Ice Age came to an end and global temperatures started to rise again. Even so there were still several hard winters which produced plenty of ice in Abingdon, including a freezing of the Thames. The ice on the river was so thick and solid that it supported stalls, crowds of people walking and skating, and even the roasting of a sheep or ox. In the museum collection are some of the bones of a sheep which was roasted on the Thames by the people of Abingdon in 1891.

A rather indistinct photograph of the 1891 sheep roast on the frozen Thames in Abingdon. The sheep is probably roasted on the wooden contraption in the background.

For some researchers, the end of the Little Ice Age is marked by the winter of 1894/95, the “Great Frost”. December 1894 had been relatively mild, with even some audacious flowers poking their heads out of the soil. January 1895 turned cold again, however, with plenty of snow showers and even some “thundersnow”, i.e. thunderstorms with snow instead of rain. There weren’ t massive amounts of snow, but a covering of three to five inches. In February the wind turned easterly, and the weather became even more frosty, but dry and sunny. Average temperatures were extremely low, with only a few years recording even lower ones. These are the conditions in which canals, ponds and the Thames froze over. This caused a severe disruption to shipping, and hardship for many people as there were shortages of coal, a peak in unemployment and increased incidences of illnesses like pneumonia. But there were the aforementioned amusements as well. In London, thousands of people skated on the Serpentine in Hyde Park. There was skating and other fun on the ice in Abingdon as well, and you could travel for example to Sutton Courtenay entirely on the ice.

Towards the end of February temperatures rose again, and a thaw set in. 1895 was the last year in which the Thames froze.

Skaters on the frozen Thames near Abingdon Lock in 1895. The large “Danger” sign in the background is perhaps a hint that the ice was not as stable as it had been earlier in the winter.

Skating is the most prominent pastime in conditions like this, but how long have people been using skates? For a very long time, it turns out. They first skates were invented in the Bronze Age, in the Scandinavian countries and also in Eastern Europe and Russia. They looked quite different from modern skates, though, and they were used differently as well. Instead of having metal blades, they consisted of pieces of bone, usually from the leg bones of horses and cattle. These were strapped to people’s boots with leather straps. Because they had no edges, they were slippery to stand on and could slide in all directions. This meant that you couldn’t push off with your feet to gain momentum. Instead you propelled yourself forward using a stick. Otherwise bone was a very good material to use as it is smooth and slightly greasy, which reduces friction. It is likely that people didn’t skate for fun in those days. Rather, the skates were a means of transport in regions where lakes and rivers would regularly freeze over in winter.

The first skates with an iron blade were invented in the 13th century. This meant a change in skating technique, as the skaters could now push themselves forward with their feet. It took a while for the new style to catch on all over Europe, but eventually everyone had switched to blades.

Three skaters, pictured in 1925 by an unknown photographer. Their skates are clamped to their shoes at the front and fastened with straps at the back.

Perhaps children had been having fun on the ice before that, but it was in the 18th and 19th centuries that skating as a sport and for fun really took off. Skates could be mass produced and were cheap, variations like ice dancing, figure skating and speed skating were invented.

20th century innovations were steel blades instead of iron, integrated boot-and-blade skates instead of strap-on skates, and toe picks, the little toothed section at the front of the blade which helps the skater to push off or spin on the ice. Specialised versions developed for speed skating and ice hockey.

Whatever style of skating you favour, you will not be able to exercise it on the river in Abingdon these days. Conditions like “the Great Frost” are now a thing of the past.

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