Chronicle tells of the day the Severn and the Avon froze over

A cold snap sweeping across Bristol this weekend has made everyone grab their woolly scarves and biggest coats – but these sub-zero temperatures would be positively tropical for the Bristolians of the winter of 1564

For then, and again in the winter of 1607-08, it was so cold for so long that the River Avon flowing through the city froze over completely.

And then, it got even colder that were any Bristolians brave enough to venture over the hill to Aust, they’d see that the River Severn and the River Wye froze over too.

These freak winter weather events are among many captured in a Bristol chronicle that has just now been deciphered and transcribed after it was painstakingly and delicately photographed.

The pages of the chronicle, which dates from the 16th and 17th century, were so fragile they couldn’t really be handled.

The chronicle came into the hands of Bristol’s official archive in 1932, but was so fragile, it’s hardly been studied.

So a team led by Dr Evan Jones at Bristol University’s history department, decided to preserve it with digital photography, before it was lost for good, so then, they could examine the pages at will, and were able to find out what it said.

And what they found was amazing – a record of all the freaky weather in Bristol over the course of 100 years or so.

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And they did have freaky weather then – because of something called the Grindelwald Fluctuation.

Northern Europe was already in the grips of this ‘Little Ice Age’, which lasted from roughly 1300-1800, when huge volcanic eruptions in the Americas covered the high atmosphere in dust and gases, blocked out the sun and cooled the Earth between around 1560 and 1630.

And not only was it freezing cold, but it also disturbed the weather more too – so there were great tidal surges like the one that flooded Bristol in early 1607, and some studies speculated could have been a tsunami.

That is mentioned in the Chronicle too, but one of the repeating factors were the harsh winters.

The author recounting one of the worst, in 1603, wrote: “This year of 1603 upon the fourth of October was the greatest snow that ever was known by the memory of man which continued four days.

“Very many trees of all sorts, especially of fruit trees, were thrown down by the roots and the limbs and boughs of many others were broken into pieces,” they added.

There were two Great Freezes in Bristol around 44 years apart. Both were so harsh that the Avon and the Severn froze over with thick, deep ice.

So much so that people walked across to Wales and had barbecues on the ice.

“People did pass on foot from side unto the other, and made fires to roast meat upon the ice,” the Chronicler wrote.

“When the ice broke away there came swimming down with the current of the tide great massive flakes of ice which endangered many ships that came up the Bristol Channel,” they added.

But it wasn’t just Big Freezes and tidal waves that afflicted the folk of Bristol at this time – drought was also a worry.

“This year from May to August in 1611, was the driest time that any man living ever knew,” the Chronicle said.

“For all the grass was starved and dried up like ground new-tilled, which starved many cattle, and would’ve starved more, but it pleased God to send a mild and warm winter to make amends,” it added.

chronicle tells of the day the severn and the avon froze over - Chronicle tells of the day the Severn and the Avon froze over
A centuries-old manuscript has shed new light on a series of freak weather events in the Bristol area between the 1560s and the 1620s An entry from 1564 that describes a big freeze and plague
(Image: University of Bristol)

The chronicle was typical of those kept at the time, and handed down the generations – a kind of community diary.

“Early chronicles were mostly produced by religious communities but as time went on town clerks and private families kept them as well,” said a spokesperson for the University of Bristol.

“They recorded the most memorable events of that particular year – such as wars, rebellions, plagues and fires.

“Dr Jones and his team concluded that 09594/1 was probably not begun until the late 17th century. It was then updated regularly until 1735 by different people (probably from the same family). It also includes detail dating back as far as the 13th century which would have been taken from older chronicles or manuscripts.

“What drew the researchers’ particular attention amongst the more expected entries, was a vivid series of descriptions of extreme weather-related events that occurred in the Bristol area from the 1560s to the 1620s,” he added.

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