Canadians know that each year the city of Ottawa puts on a glorious festival dedicated to winter pursuits: ice skating, ice sculpting, and fooling around in the snow. Winterlude takes place 4-21 February 2011 and recalls the kermis and winter fairs of old.
Not for a long time have winters in England been cold enough for the Thames to freeze over, although – paradoxically – global warming may be changing all that. But between the 15th and 19th centuries frost fairs were regularly held on the River Thames at London where the then slower moving and shallower river froze solid. Apparently, during the Great Frost of 1683–84, the Thames was completely frozen for two months, with the ice reaching a thickness of 11 inches.
English writer, gardener, and diarist John Evelyn, a contemporary of Samuel Pepys, described the frozen river in his Memoirs: “Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skates, bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tippling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water.”
There is a famous waltz by Émile Waldteufel (right) called Les Patineurs (The Skaters). In 1874 Waldteufel played at an event attended by the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. The Prince was enthralled by Waldteufel’s “Manolo” waltz and invited him to perform at Buckingham Palace in front of Queen Victoria. Les Patineurs followed in 1882, inspired by seeing a Parisian skating rink in the Bois de Boulogne.
In Ottawa, the water in the Rideau Canal is lowered to permit freezing. People perform on “the world’s longest skating rink” which runs right through the heart of the city. Elsewhere, Confederation Park is the venue for ice carvers from around the world to come and turn blocks of ice into works of art which by night are illuminated with coloured lights. And there are outdoor activities at “the biggest snow playground on the continent”.
I am reminded of children’s author Robert Munsch, who quizzically wrote:
“The great Canadian winter
Is not so very cold.
I once knew a kid who didn’t freeze
Until he was ten years old.
And just last year in Ottawa,
When cleaning up the ice,
They found two people still alive
And they said winter was nice.
So don’t stay inside when it’s snowing,
Don’t stay inside when there’s ice.
Go out and get frozen like a brick
And then you’ll think winter is nice.”