It was remembered throughout the British Isles (and much of Europe, too) as the "great winter" of 1683-1684. In parts of England and Scotland, snow drifted to heights of 20 feet. Animals and people perished from the cold. The frost, as the freezing temperatures were called, lasted longer than it had ever lasted.
The Thames was frozen for two months and the ice in the river was 11 inches thick. In Manchester, the ground was frozen to a depth of two feet; in Somerset, four feet. Sea ice accumulated between Dover and Calais. John Evelyn, the celebrated diarist, whose fame as a gardener survives in Crabtree & Evelyn, described the long winter as "incredibly severe" - citing fogs so dense that people were compelled to stay in their houses.
This was the winter memorably preserved in Richard Blackmore's Lorna Doone. Published in 1869 and never out of print since, this historically accurate romance novel describes the struggle for survival of man and beast amid the worst moments of the Little Ice Age that gripped Europe in varying degrees of exceptional cold throughout the 17th century.
Blackmore's account of "the frost" is impressive even for readers who think that they have experienced extreme snow and cold. The narrator recalls his own excruciating labour to save a few sheep buried alive deep under the Somerset snow - digging out two at a time, and carrying them, one under each arm, through perilous drifts to the shelter of a barn.
"Of the sheep upon the mountain and the cattle on the upper barrows," the narrator says, "scarcely one in 10 was saved - do what we would for them and this was not through any neglect but from the pure impossibility of finding them.
"The great snow never ceased for a moment for three days and nights. And then, when all the earth was filled, and the topmost hedges unseen, and the trees broken down with the weight, a brilliant sun broke forth and showed the loss of [everything]
"Our house was quite snowed up. The kitchen was darker than the cider-cellar. Windows fell inwards from the weight of the snow. We were obliged to cook by candle-light [in daytime] we were forced to read by candle-light. The kettle by the fire froze, and the crock upon the hearth. Many men were killed, their cattle frozen rigid in their head-ropes.
"That night, such a frost ensued as we had never dreamed of … Then I heard that fearful sound, which never had I heard before and neither since have heard - the sharp yet solemn sound of trees burst open by the frost-blow. Our great walnut lost three branches. The ancient oak was rent, and many score of ash trees. But why should I tell all this? The people who have not seen it (as I have) will disbelieve, till another such frost comes again, which perhaps will never be."
Or, on the other hand, which perhaps will come again - according to one British scientist who says that Europe will experience again something akin to the Little Ice Age winters of the 17th century. In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. earlier this year, University of Reading physicist Michael Lockwood asserted that Europe should expect unusually cold winters for decades - and that it stands an 8 per cent chance of experiencing a winter as harsh as the Great Winter of 1683-1684.
Prof. Lockwood says the winter of 2009-2010, itself exceptional, is an example of what Britain should expect. In January, NASA released the startling image of England, Scotland and Wales all simultaneously covered in snow - a phenomenon Prof. Lockwood attributes to recurring cycles of low solar activity.
"We have just had what could be called a very cold winter," he says. "I wanted to see whether this was coincidence or whether it was statistically robust." From his analysis of temperatures and solar cycles, he and his associates determined that it was, indeed, "statistically robust." (With continuous temperature records for 350 years, Britain has the most comprehensive record of temperatures in the world.) Prof. Lockwood says that Britain's present decline in winter temperatures started in 1985 and is now halfway back to the Maunder Minimum, a term that describes the 50-year period of the coldest of the Little Ice Age winters. By this reckoning, the next Maunder Minimum should begin in 2035 - meaning really rough winters for the subsequent 50 years.
He hastens to add that this long-range weather forecast does not mean that global warming isn't happening. He says definitively that it is. His calculations apply only to Britain and much of Europe. Whatever. This much is certain: Arbitrarily assuming a long series of harsh winters in Europe, people's belief in global warming will be severely tested in the century ahead - especially when they see "frost blows" splitting ancient oak trees asunder.