Cover image for The frozen Thames
The frozen Thames
Delacorte Press ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Delacorte Press, 2009.
Physical Description:
186 p. : ill. (some col.), col. map ; 17 cm.
Contains forty fiction vignettes based on events that actually took place each time the historic River Thames froze solid. Spanning more than seven centuries, from 1142 to 1895, and illustrated with stunning full-color period art.


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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.

Author Notes

Helen Humphreys is the author of four collections of poetry & one previous novel, "Leaving Earth", which won the Toronto Book Award, was a "New York Times" Notable Book, & was published in six languages. "Afterimage" was inspired by an exhibition of Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs. Humphreys lives in Kingston, Ontario.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Kirkus Review

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 than the 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. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.



1142 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 t Excerpted from The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.