The English obsession with weather means we have one of the oldest sets of climate records in the world

. They reveal a very different London than the one we know now. In the 21stC, London and particularly the City, possesses a distinct micro-climate created by the buildings, the heat and gases they produce and the underlying geography. Why is it always windy in Farringdon, and at Bank? Why is it bizarrely still in Paternoster Square? Why is the air quality on Holborn regularly the worst in Britain when it has less standing traffic, and certainly less buses than the King's Road? Who knows, but one thing we do know is that London is much warmer than it was three centuries ago. Hundreds of thousands of centrally heated buildings and offices spill heat into the air, meaning if it does snow it doesn't settle and it never gets cold enough to really freeze. Three hundred years ago, the City of London froze regularly between December and March, and the 1690s recorded six winters when the temperature was consistently below 3'C for more than three months; definitely the sort of weather when a man like Samuel Pepys would have worn two shirts, a waistcoat and a jacket.

The streets weren't salted, but many were paved so they became treacherous in freezing weather. Horses had sacks tied to their metal-shod feet, and 'slippers' fitted to the wheels of their vehicles to prevent dangerous sliding. Working men wore hobnailed boots, sometimes with sacking tied over them (with the studs poking through) for a bit of extra grip. Many gentlemen would resort to them in freezing weather, although the sacking was unlikely. Women did not wear pattens in icy conditions (I have tried on a pair of pattens and attempted to walk around in them, and I am not convinced anyone wore them in the street let alone worked in them as they are lethal). Where there streets and passages were just mud or dirt and on the banks of the Thames, duckboards were put down for people to walk over. It was not uncommon to find vagrants, or unfortunates who had frozen during the night, including one man in the Fleet ditch, discovered standing upright, but dead and solid. The price of coal rose, and the poorest Londoner's had to cut wood from the common land, if they hadn't already.

Before Bazalgette's Embankment the Thames was a wider, slower river with gently sloping muddy banks, again covered in duckboards, which must have been very slippy in wet and icy conditions. The bridges were shored up with wide wooden 'sparrows' which trapped debris and slowed the current, making it easier for ice to form. Sets of stone steps jutted

out to the water, where people could hop on and off the little boats plying their passenger trade. When the Thames froze all river traffic stopped, but some people were not quick enough to get out of the water: in the hard winter of 1771 the Thames began to freeze and 'a waterman...had his boat jammed in between the ice and could not get on shore, and no waterman dare venture to his assistance. He was almost speechless last night and it is thought he cannot survive long'. The couple of days it took for the Thames to freeze completely must have been a dangerous time. The watermen, some of London's poorest workers would have wanted to keep trading as long as possible and some traded their lives for the opportunity of one last fare.

The Thames froze more often than is commonly thought, due to it being fairly shallow, but it froze in chunks as the picture in the gallery from 1677 shows. Whilst dramatic and great fun, it meant that it wasn't easy to venture out onto the ice, and was unsuitable for one of the famous Frost Fairs for which the Thames is so well-known. Frost Fairs have been recorded since Elizabethan Times, when it was customary to push a printing press out onto the ice as a test, and if it held, souvenir cards were printed off and sold as a memento of the occasion. Booths and cook-stalls were set up, selling skates made from whalebone, puppets, gloves, hats and scarves as well as hot chestnuts and pork sandwiches from spits, along with sticky gingerbread and baked apples eaten from newspaper with a spoon. There were street performers, puppet shows and other entertainments such as singing. Sometimes, as in 1683, the freeze was so solid that the Thames became a miniature shopping village and the booths were arranged into 'streets'. I'd imagine the overall feel was like that of the German Christmas markets with their covered, but portable wooden stalls.

The most famous Frost Fair is that of 1814, but I think the one of 1683 sounds more fun, despite the fug caused by the smoke of coal-fires hanging heavy in the air. The souvenir card in the gallery records the following carried out on the ice (including booths set up as 'branches' of land-based businesses):

The Duke of York's Coffee House The Tory Booth (?)

The Roast Beefe Booth The Half way House The Musick Booth The Printing Booth The Lottery Booth The Sledge drawing coals The Horne Tavern Booth The Toy Shoppe A boat drawn by a horse A boat drawn on wheels Bull-baiting and Bear-baiting Boys sliding (proof that some things never change) Nine-Pinn Playing Sliding on Scates

You can see from both pictures there seems to be little or no snow on the ground (but lots of dogs and cats). Even the earliest Frost Fairs had merry-go-rounds for children, boatswings and pony-drawn rides, but life off the river probably wasn't quite so much fun. One of the greatest problems during freezes such as this is that the ground froze to depths of two or three feet, making the drawing of water from the wells in the streets difficult, if not impossible and ice had to be gathered and melted, then boiled for domestic use. One group of people not complaining were the ice merchants who used this weather to fill their under-ground stores and cellars with the cold stuff, packed in straw so that it could be sold in warmer weather. By the 1720s, the demand for ice had become great enough for dealers in 'ice and snow' to be making a living.

The thaws, when they came, were sudden and terrifying. I can find no accounts of booths falling through the ice, so the stallholders were savvy enough to realise when to get out, but there are stories of a ship, moored to the quay of a public house which pulled down both when it fell back into the thawed river in 1789. There is also the piteous tale in the Gentleman's Magazine in 1763 of a wretch, 'with skaits on..found frozen to death upon some floating ice over against the Isle of Dogs.'

The Thames froze for the last time in 1814 and was solid for four days; solid enough to lead an elephant across the ice near Blackfriars Bridge and erect fairground rides. The innovations of the Victorian period, such as the new London Bridge and the Embankment caused the river to become narrower, deeper and faster thus ending London's life on ice.