As the song goes – ‘I’m dreaming of a White Christmas‘ and these days it’s a rare event. But back in the good old days when snow, frost and ice was the norm one of the favourite activities was ice skating. Many of the old Christmas cards showed such scenes of folk slipping and sliding across a variety of frozen lakes, ponds, and in some cases rivers. Very few show people skating up and down frozen streets but in 1878 the people of Tavistock were granted such a treat. Well that is some people, normal pedestrians weren’t so enthralled with the prospect.
Here is one account of Christmastide in Tavistock from when folk really did have a ‘White Christmas’ with their very own ‘Beast from the East’;
“Not for very many years has Tavistock experienced the rigour of such weather as we have had for the last ten days. We may adopt the description of the American, who of similar weather in his own country said; ‘first it blew, then it snew, then it fris, and then it snew again,’ and we may add, then it firs again. Fortunately the blowing ceased very early and left us in the enjoyment of calm,cold, as otherwise the temperature would have been almost unbearable. We should have to conform to Russian or Arctic customs, or more properly habits, and have gone about either furred or blanketed up to the yes. On one day the calm was changed for a fierce east wind, and the cold penetrated to the marrow of the bones, at least of rheumatic bones, which alas are too common to be deemed peculiar. The aspect of the country, and especially of Dartmoor, resting under a canopy of snow, was very picturesque, and were it not for economical or other considerations we should rejoice in its continuance. But the white mantle brings suffering to man, and to bird, and beast, and therefore the sooner it vanishes the better.
It was in the streets of the town, and adjacent roads, however, that the full effects of winter were displayed. These became, because of a partial thaw and succeeding frost, simply a sheet of ice, along which it was both difficult and dangerous for man and horse to travel. Corking was needful of both. It required no common courage to face the perils of locomotion, and happy was the pedestrian who reached his intended terminus without a tumble, more or less severe. Bruises and sprains were not infrequent, but happily we have not heard of any broken limbs. The devices for safe walking were numerous and ingenious, from straw bands to the scientific ice-creeper (today’s equivalent of crampons). For the latter the demand became enormous, and the iron mongers’ shops were besieged by multitudes who preferred spending a bob for their heels to receiving one for their nobs. Elderly ladies were conspicuous by their absence, but a few elderly gentlemen of stout composition might now and then be seen with extended arms and protruding rear, struggling with the difficulties of their novel situation. Nor ‘pride’ in their port, no defiance in their eye,’ it was hard to believe the ‘lords of human kind’ were passing by. Rather they looked like forked radishes with the forks very far asunder. But as so often happens in this world, the misery of one man is the pleasure of his neighbour, and if the walkers were afflicted and despairing, the skaters were joyful and triumphant.
He must be getting well up in years who can remember the time when people could skate easily through the streets of Tavistock but during the week this has been a sight of daily occurrence. The New Road especially has been the scene of this display. Skaters of all sizes and of very varying degrees of proficiency have exhibited their skill or the want of it to admiring crowds. The surface was none of the smoothest, but such a chance occurs too seldom to permit us to be critical or over nice. Carpe diem, and the injunction was eagerly obeyed. The rarity of ice and the greater rarity of suitable places have repressed our skating talent, and therefore our strictly native performances were more remarkable for perseverance than success. The men and women who had enjoyed the opportunities of a happier, that is a more wintry clime, could easily be distinguished from our native artists; but whether skilled or otherwise everybody threw their soles into the pastime.
The efforts of those who were making their first attempts provoked as usual the laughter and sympathy of the spectators. It was the case of Mr. Winkle many times repeated. A lady and gentleman who skated in company, linked arm in arm, were the observed of all observers, and their cultivated understandings excited general admiration. Certainly the lady was, in the most innocent sense of the word; the fastest of her sex we have seen for some time. As for the ardent youths who strove, and sweated, and sprawled, and at frequent intervals strewed the earth in heaps, who shall describe them? Undismayed by the prospect of dislocation or fracture they rose after every downfall to renewed exertion, while their faces expressed that mingling of agony and joy, which they only know who try skates for the first time. Truly it is a fearful joy. The common heading of the weather and the crops, might in the case of our young friends be changed for the weather and croppers. Fortunately though they tumbled much, they were hurt but little. Their worst enemy is a thaw. How changed life would be to them if only they could have more skating.
One of the most conspicuous incidents of the streets was the difficulty of driving the fat cattle to the railway station. The poor beasts were completely beaten, and it was not until the road was strewn with straw and ashes that they could advance up the perilous hill. One bullock fell near Vigo Bridge and so injured its leg, that it had to be killed here instead of Plymouth. Although the season has been quite an exceptional one, the cold has been greater than at any time during the last forty years. At present there is a thaw, but we fear it is not likely to last, and that we are destined to pass a winter of unusual severity. Should this be so, the sufferings of the poor will be greatly increased, and their need of help very urgent. May a word to the charitable be sufficient for them.” – The Tavistock Times, December 20th, 1878.