Friday, May 28, 2010

A Bit of a Chill!

In Ashdown village there are the remains of an icehouse. Trust me, they really are under this pile of weeds! 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. A spell of several hard winters towards the end of the 18th century also encouraged their use.

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 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.

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.

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! 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. Was the ice perhaps brought from Shrivenham or Lambourn? It would be fascinating to know.

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