The Great Frost

As reported in the Kendal and County News and Lakes Courier
February 1895

The Arctic Weather2nd February 1895
Ambleside: Great Storm9th February 1895
Windermere under Ice16th February 1895
Editorial: Windermere under Ice23rd February 1895
Town and Country Talk"
Skating on Windermere"


In his Autobiography(pp. 46-47) Arthur Ramsome recalled the Great Frost of 1895 as a happy interlude in his unhappy schooldays at the Old College in Bowness:

... I had the great good fortune to be at school at Windermere in February 1895 at the time of the Great Frost, when for week after week the lake was frozen from end to end. Then indeed we were lucky in our headmaster, who liked skating and wisely decided that as we were not likely to have such an experience again (the lake freezes over only about once in every thirty-five years), we had better make the most of it. Lessons became perfunctory. After breakfast, day after day, provisions were placed on a big toboggan and we ran it down into Bowness when we tallied on to ropes astern of it to hold it back and prevent it from crashing into the hotel at the bottom. During those happy weeks we spent the whole day on the ice, leaving the steely lake only at dusk when fires were already burning and torches lit and our elders carried lanterns as they skated and shot about like fireflies. I saw a coach and four drive across the ice, and the roasting of an ox (I think) on Bowness Bay. I saw perch frozen in the ice, preserved as if in glass beneath my feet. Further, here was one activity in which I was not markedly worse than any of the other boys. On a frozen lake in the grounds of the three Miss Fords at Adel, a kindly foreigner, Prince Kropotkin, had guided my infant footsteps. I had learnt to move on skates and was thus better off than most of the boys who had never skated at all. Those weeks of clear ice with that background of snow-covered, sunlit, blue-shadowed hills were, forty years after, to give me a book called Winter Holiday for which I have a sort of tenderness.

The Great Frost is not only the inspiration for the frost in Winter Holiday, but is remembered in the story as a benchmark against which all subsequent frosts are to be judged and found wanting. For example, in chapter 15, Mrs. Dixon says:

"It'll never be what it was ... Not what it was in '95, with coaches with four horses and horns blowing crossing the lake from side to side. But it's a rare frost for all that."

and again in chapter 16, talking about the ice-yachts:

"Bonny sight it was and all. There was three or four of them on the lake in '95, and racing for a silver cup."

It is interesting to compare Ransome's memories of the Great Frost in the Autobiography, and as transmuted into fiction in Winter Holiday with contemporary newspaper accounts. Here in the pages of the Kendal and County News for February 1895 we find the crowds of skaters, the toboggans and sledges and ice yachts of the children's story, though no coach and horses, alas, and the ox seems to have beee roasted in an earlier century. Reading these accounts it is possible to detect a note of exasperation on the part of the 'natives' with the weather and with the crowds of skaters who flocked to Windermere (Who was to stop them evading the train fare between Windermere and Kendal? Who was to pay the expense of fishing out their bodies when they ignored the danger flags and went though the ice?), tempered in due course by the prospect of financial gain ('This means a rich harvest to the district if the frost holds out long.') Of the contemporary accounts of the Great Frost, the one which comes closest to Ransome's remembered delight and eye for significant detail is that by an 'outsider', the anonymous correspondent from Manchester.


Saturday 2nd February

Early on Wednesday morning a fall of snow, the heaviest for many years, fell in Kendal and district. Persons going to business on Wednesday morning had to tramp through a foot deep of snow. By now there is quite two feet of snow on the ground. Outdoor labour is suspended, and the working classes are clamouring for the opening of a soup kitchen. Traffic on the high roads and around Kendal is blocked, and carriages cannot continue their avocation. Great anxiety is felt by farmers with regard to their sheep on the fells, and it is feared that scores will perish. Great destruction has also been caused among the grouse and other game on the moors.

The frost has been abnormally severe, as many as 33 degrees having been reached. The River Kent was frozen over early in the week, and on Thursday a number of skaters disported themselves on the ice from Gandy Mills to Stramongate Bridge. Tobogganing has come in for a fair share of patronage, the Castle Hill and Ghyll Brow being the favourite resorts.

The North-Eastern Railway and the Cockermouth, Keswick and Penrith Railways are blocked with snow. Midland, London, and North-Western and North-Eastern trains on Wednesday night nearly all arrived at Carlisle about an hour late, and much delay was caused at the station on account of frozen points. Men were employed at all the railway points in the vicinity of the stations endeavouring to keep them from being frozen. The limited mail from the north was 40 minutes late at Carlisle. The snow was very deep in West Cumberland, and the drifts were 6 ft deep on some lines. Traffic on the Cleator and Workington Junction was wholly stopped. Snow ceased falling on Wednesday night, but the frost was intense.

Ambleside: GREAT STORM

Saturday 9th February

On Tuesday evening snow fell heavily, and on Wednesday it continued with unusual severity. In fact, it is several years since the district has experienced anything like it. The snow was bitterly cold as it fell, and was in a half frozen state. Coupled with this there was a keen wind which frequently carried the snow in a blinding shower. The streets were deserted, everyone who could staying in doors which was the best place under the circumstances. The snow plough went round early in the afternoon, but the continued fall made the condition of affairs almost as bad as before. No doubt everyone will be glad when the weather alters for the better.


Saturday 16th February

Not since 1879 has there been such a severe and prolonged frost as the present, especially with regard to its effects on Lake Windermere. The ice in the neighbourhood of Bowness became safe last Saturday, and even on Friday there was skating on the bay at Ferry Nab. Since then, the number of skaters frequenting the lake has increased daily, culminating on Wednesday with an estimated attendance of 2,000. On that day there were special trains from Lancaster, Manchester, and Liverpool, and hundreds of people came from Kendal and South Westmorland. There was a fair number of slight casualties, including one which befel the daughter of Mr Titus Wilson, formerly Mayor of Kendal. There have been minor accidents of various kinds. On Wednesday Mr G.H. Pattinson drove in a sledge, from the head of Belle Isle (or Long Island) and back again. After dark the ice has been lit up by bonfires made on the foreshore in front of the promenade, and a powerful electric lamp has been placed in front of the Old England Hotel, close to the lake. Tea and refreshments are being sold upon the ice. The lake has not been so thoroughly well frozen since 1879, though portions of it were "skatable" the winter before last.


Saturday 23rd February

The cynical philosopher who loves nothing so much as to see his fellow-men at a disadvantage, or as he would probably put it, as they really are, has no better opportunity than when the frost has bound over lakes and rivers, and everybody is skating. During the past fortnight there has been quite an ice carnival on Windermere. Thousands of skaters have made their way to Lakeland, and young people — and old ones too — have been able to enjoy themselves on the slippery surface to some advantage. In quiet corners they have been seen gyrating round an orange or a piece of red flannel from morning to night with an expression upon their faces which says more eloquently than words that so far as accomplished skating is concerned they are the salt of the earth. But amid all t he busy mirth the ice season has brought with its joys its bitter sorrows. Up to the time of writing three persons have lost their lives, although rumour would have us believe that several more have met the same sad fate. A number of persons have been reported missing, and in some quarters it is conjectured that that they have gone beneath the ice, but these rumours are unverified. Beyond one or two dangerous places which are flagged off, we have no hesitation in saying that the ice is as firm as the road, and with reasonable care no mishap need possibly occur. But whatever precaution is taken by the authorities there are those in the world who are nothing if they are not venturesome. As an instance of foolhardiness it is only necessary to mention that one skater this week went close up to a danger flag "to see what it was for." With such recklessness as this there is no wonder that accidents of a lamentable kind happen. We, however, wish to draw attention to the apparent irresponsibility of anyone to search for bodies drowned in the lake. Complaints have reached concerning this anomaly. The policemen give every assistance, but the duty does not devolve upon them, and there appears to be no fund from which to remunerate willing workers. We would suggest that a matter of such importance as this should be taken over by the County Council. It would scarcely be fair to saddle the Bowness District Council with the obligation as so little of the Lake is in the Board's district.

Town and Country Talk

Saturday 23rd February

On Sunday, the 17th, some hundreds walked from Kendal, Burneside, and Staveley to Bowness, and as many as 450 persons booked from Windermere by the 5.45 train, in addition to which a large number rode without tickets. The train stopped just outside Kendal station, and many of these latter gentlemen evaded the officials and got away without paying — a very discreditable proceeding, and one which the officials were not in a position to prevent. There were a number of persons who walked back to Kendal, and several char-a-bancs from the same place were filled with skaters.


Saturday 23rd February

The following chatty and descriptive article by the pen of a Mancunian is worthy of reproduction:

"The office must manage its own affairs today," we said, as we read the telegraphic report that Windermere was one sheet of black ice and that the thermometer was registering 22 degrees of frost. We will not be cheated of a chance of 20 square miles of black ice, and we were soon steaming away from the blackened city into the clear country-side and its fields of spotless white. How the snowfields flickered into living diamonds as we passed swiftly by, how blue the sky, how black the distant hedgerows! Preston was reached, its river alive with boys let loose from school; Lancaster was passed, and it seemed as if the whole town was in promenade upon the Lune. Soon the hills of Lakeland shone like the far-seen scars of the Carrara hills way above these waters to the west. Sheets of dazzling ice upon the sand at high water mark and clouds of sea birds busy at some dead carcase washed ashore told us of bitter cold and death that would save from dying the sea birds near unto death. A farmer got into our carriage at Carnforth with a rook he had found dead, but sitting with claws hard frozen to the branch. "Yes," said he, "birds has a queer time of it noo, poor things; its mebbe best sleep as he could be taken, after aw." At Kendal the platform was packed with expectant skaters, more carriages were added, and then the lovers of black ice must stand up, for seats there were not. But everybody was in hearty spirits, though the long train did but crawl up the long incline, and impatient youngsters suggested that they might quite as well walk as ride. But Windermere station was reached at last, and we were soon spinning cheerily down on the top of a well-loaded omnibus. As we descended towards the village that clusters round St Martin's Church we saw people like black ants moving hurriedly to and fro upon the frozen level of the lake. Then the landings were reached, and such a scene presented itself as can only be seen in some old Dutch city in mid-winter. The whole interspace between the land and the island was powdered white from the innumerable iron heels of the skaters. Here a pony with its jangling sleigh bells dashed along; there fond fathers pushed their little ones in perambulators. A hurdy-gurdy man made music here, and yonder, on St Mary's Holme, a brass band blew its best, and risked frozen lips and frost-bitten fingers in the process. Tea, one was reminded, was obtainable here; oranges were possible there.

Presently a great boat-sail was seen to belly to the wind and an iceboat slid past. Big people, little people, middle-sized people panted against the wind, or turned and opened their coats and spun past without effort. Paterfamilias toddled past without skates, and screamed his threatenings to venturesome youngsters. Aged men puffed their pipes and solemnly talked of the frost of forty years ago. And when the clock struck it seemed as if all the school lads and lasses in Westmorland had heard that Her Majesty's inspector's future examination would be in the art of skating. It was in more senses than one a moving scene — such changes, such swift and incessant motion, such intricacies of gyre and curve, such health, such life, such happiness. Ah, how one's heart went back with pain to the Manchester slum! and how one could have desired an enchanter's wand to bring the artisan for one short hour from the factory room and give him heels of iron and the wings of the wind, and let him know what a six mile stretch of black ice could do to drive dull care away! We were determined to make for Ambleside and the head of the lake, take tea at Waterhead, and catch the coach to the 6 p.m. train.

Off we speed, warned by red flags to keep well over to the western shore. Away along beneath the haunted woods, where the spectral crier is heard to call for passage to the other side; away towards Bell ground and the slopes that the Castle of Wray crowns with a kind of baronial splendour. The cones of "Ill Bel" and Frostwyke and High-street rose up pure white against the eastern sky. The Roman legionaries must have shivered as they passed along that height in the year 250 A.D., for in that year Windermere must have been frozen as Old Father Thames was frozen. Away we spin now, not up the height, but over the neglected beauty of that range, for so marvellous are the mirror planes of this jet-black polished floor that the glories of snow and sunshine upon High-street dance right across the lake, and seem to be clouds of impalpable splendour coming up to us from the frozen deep. Now Wetherlam and Coniston Old Man rise up above the Furness fells to the west, and soon the Langdale giants, grim and grey like couchant lions, appear to the north-west in solemn winter beauty. But it is to the circle of the Fairfield range all eyes are directed. The sky was suddenly changed to gold and the ice floor went into burnished brass, and over the hills out Wry Nose way the sun sank slowly into a haze of its own making. The reeds at the mouth of the river Brathay stood pure gold, the trunks of the dark pines at the river's edge shone with a wonderful flush, and the faces of all the skaters as they turned to the west glowed and gleamed. Then, as we spun to the landing stage at Waterhead, the light faded from Wasfell and from Loughrigg, and the ice was deserted for the day.

The scene on Windermere Lake on Saturday, when 15,000 to 20,000 people went on the ice, was one never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it. The Lake was frozen from end to end, 12 or 13 miles, with a single break at the ferry, kept open by the ferry steamer, which couples the Kendal and Hawkshead highway. The ice was as smooth as glass, and 1 ft to 18in thick. The Furness Railway Company's steam yachts have been frozen up for some weeks. The London and North Western, Midland, and Furness Railway Companies have offered cheap facilities to the public, and thousands of people have thronged the lake from far and near. All the big towns and cities, including London, sent large contingents of visitors, with the result that all the hotels and private lodging houses were even more crowded than in the height of the summer season. This means a rich harvest to the district if the frost holds out long. From the summit of Biscay Howe, above Bowness, a vantage point which commands a view of the Lake almost for its entire length, the scene on Saturday was ever to be remembered. A perfect sheet of ice was seen north and south, dotted over either with skaters or with sleighs drawn by the otherwise "unemployed" men. The greatest life and mirth was evinced, and everybody seemed to enjoy the novel experience. The hills all round are covered with snow.

On Sunday there was a crowd of persons on the ice, no less than 450 booking from Windermere by the 5.45 p.m. train, in addition to which a number travelled without booking. On Friday forenoon there happened what might have proved a fatality but for the prompt action of one of our local clergymen. A son of the Rev Canon Jones, of Burneside, went skating to Millerground along with the Rev Robert Harley Law, curate of the same parish. A short distance from the shore at Millerground there is a large crack, indicating a weak place in the ice. Skating too near this, Mr Jones fell through into the water, seeing which, Mr Law skated up, threw off his coat, and leaning across the ice to Mr Jones, threw his coat sleeve to him, which Mr Jones got hold of, and was thus enabled to scramble out. The shivering and dripping gentleman took refuge at the adjacent cottage of Mr Baines, the Millerground boatman, where he went to bed pending the arrival of apparel, obtained from the village of Windermere. On Sunday the second fatality of the present frost occurred, the victims being two young men, companions, named Studholme and Wade. For particulars, we refer our readers to the report of the inquest, which will be in another column.

Today (Friday) will complete the fortnight of skating on Windermere. On Wednesday there were again large crowds of people on the ice. On the previous night there was a keen frost, which removed the effect of the sun-thaw on the previous day. The frost reached the extent of 18 degrees. Many people again visited Bowness from Lancaster. The fatality of Sunday evening did not seem to have much deterrent effect on the ardour of skaters. Curling went on merrily at the north end of Long Island. On Thursday evening there were indications of a thaw. Notices have been posted up by the local authorities apprising persons skating of the treacherous nature of the ice, and urging them to steer clear of the danger flags. The latter warning is by no means unnecessary, particularly as regards strangers, as we heard of a gentleman last week skating up to one of the red flags "to see what it was like."

In the winter of 1784-5 the frost was remarkably severe in this neighbourhood, and an ox of an enormous size was roasted at the Lake Windermere, near Rawlinson's Nab. An amazing concourse of people, of all ranks, from the neighbouring towns and villages assembled together on this important occasion. A select band of music was procured from Kendal, and many hogsheads of strong October were plentifully distributed. After this the gentlemen proposed a skating match for a hat of considerable value. The distance was two miles and a half, which the victor performed in nine minutes. One of these, just approaching the goal — such is the fickleness of fortune — fell prostrate on the slippery surface and dislocated his shoulder. The bets were very considerable. Afterwards there was a wrestling match, for a belt, in caulkered clogs, which offered infinite diversion. The evening concluded with an magnificent assembly at Low Wood Inn.

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