Okay, I'm cheating now and cross posting something that I put up on the Ashdown House blog a month or so ago. I've closed the Ashdown blog down now and I'll be posting stuff here instead in future and also posting archive articles I hope will be of interest. Then, in August, it will be all change again when my NEW WEBSITE and BLOG are launched - exciting times!
But for now, here is a piece I hope is interesting. It's also topical at the moment with temperatures in the UK set to hit 30C today and tomorrow. So pour yourself a cooling drink - iced tea? - and read on for a bit of a chill! Readers in the Southern Hemisphere might want a hot toddy instead, of course!
In Ashdown village there are the remains of an icehouse. Trust me, they really are under this pile of weeds! A weed covered mound is now often the only evidence for the existence of an icehouse on an estate. There are similar enigmatic bumps in the grounds at Lancing Manor in Sussex and at Sherborne in Gloucestershire, although at Sherborne some of the brickwork is still visible too.
Icehouses predate the refrigerator as a means of storing ice for preserving food. They consist of chambers wholly or partly subterranean and suitably insulated from above. The practice of building ice houses came to England in the 17th century via France following the Restoration, one of the first ones being located in Upper St. James' Park, now known as Green Park, in 1662. By the eighteenth century it became increasingly common for major houses to have their own icehouse. The one at Petworth, for example, was built in 1784. A spell of several hard winters towards the end of the 18th century also encouraged their use as ice was freely available in the UK for storage. Later, in the nineteenth century, the demand had increased and ice had to be imported from Scandinavia.
The ice would have been collected from the nearest convenient lake or pond and dropped into the pit of the icehouse, possibly layered with straw to make removal easier. The ice was used in the larder to keep foodstuffs fresh, in cooling drinks and for making cold confections in the kitchens. In the kitchen of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton there is a menu on display for a dinner dated 1817 and of the 22 sweets no less than 7 were made using ice. The Prince Regent had one of his icehouses in a chalk pit at the top of North Street in Brighton. In 1789 it was referred to as a "new-erected building called an Ice House with Tea Room and Summer House over." Naturally the Prince needed a bigger ice house than most people and he had two ice wells in North Street, another in the grounds of the Royal Pavilion and a third at the Castle Tavern. Details of all of these icehouses are on the wonderful Ice Houses website.
Most icehouses comprised a rectangular chamber that is situated at the same level as or very slightly below the level of the entrance, which has a single door. This is probably the type of icehouse that existed at Ashdown since there is little evidence to suggest that much of it was subterranean. Some of the more extensive icehouses, however, were several feet below ground with a flight of steps down and more than one door to increase insulation.
In the cold surroundings, the ice should be capable of being stored for more than a year, and an experiment was carried out at Levens Hall in Cumbria in 1980 when ice was kept in the icehouse for 13 months under conditions similar to those prevailing in earlier times.
The location of icehouses in relation to the main house was often quite arbitrary. This picture is of an extant icehouse at West Wycombe. In most cases they seem to be neither close to the source of the ice nor to the kitchens. A distance of several hundred metres is not uncommon. This is one of the reasons why there is no point in shouting for help if you accidentally got locked in there! I used this idea in my book Wayward Widow where the heroine gets trapped in the ice house and the hero, intent on rescuing her, manages to lock them both inside.
At Ashdown the icehouse was by the stables, a quarter mile from the main house and the kitchens, and the main mystery is where the ice was sourced. There are no lakes or ponds in the vicinity of the estate now although there would be some occasional pools in a wet year. It's not an appealing thought, however, that you might cut your ice - and find pond weed in your dessert or your drink! It makes me particularly grateful for the fridge and the freezer!