Ice has always been a popular commodity, and over the centuries various ingenious systems were developed to store naturally occurring ice, be it regularly supplied from the local mountain top or annually supplied by Jack Frost.
In 400 BC Persian engineers had mastered the technique of storing ice in the middle of summer in the desert, and some examples of these magnificent structures still remain:
Yakhchal (Ice Pit) in Yazd, Iran Exterior and Interior (dome) of Yakhchal in Meybod, Iran
In Europe a system was developed to store annual ice in underground chambers, insulated with straw, and this reached England in 1619 in Greenwich on the command of the first King James. A drawing made in 1772 by Hieronymus Grimm gives us some idea of what the entrance looked like:
However, these ice 'houses' did not really become popular until 1660 when King Charles II had one built in Green Park for supplying ice to Buckingham Palace.
With the advent of ice all year round came the delights of ice cream and other chilled deserts, and soon all the aristocracy wanted their own ice houses. By the end of the 18th century the majority of stately homes sported at least one.
Whilst there was a wide variety of style, the most common one comprised a conical underground chamber (for better insulation) with a domed roof, with access via a hole in the roof for feeding in ice, and a tunnel to one side for removing the ice. There would be a drain at the bottom to ensure the water from melting ice was taken away - an essential feature. The walls were double layers of brick with a cavity between - the earliest use of cavity brick walls in the UK.
This is a typical example:
They would be built near to some water source (river or pond) that would freeze in the winter. In some cases ponds would be built specifically for that purpose, and the spoil used to build a mound over the ice house.
Although built with much (or all) underground to insulate, and with double skinned brickwork, the main insulation was straw, with which the floor and walls would be lined, and a thick layer of which would be placed on top of the ice, leaving space above for ventilation.
Note the drain at the bottom. It was essential to drain away all melt water - and some form of trap would be used to avoid pests such as rats getting into the ice house.
Eventually people realised that the expensive underground structures were not really necessary, as it was the straw itself that did the work, and ice houses began to be replaced with above ground wooden structures, heavily insulated with straw. These were very much cheaper to construct and soon no one bothered to build the delightful brick structures anymore.
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