Come in from the cold
The icehouse at Rycote has been restored in honour of the 300th anniversary of Capability Brown’s birth. Mark Hedges is impressed
The icehouse is the most recent historic building to receive attention in Mr and Mrs Bernard Taylor’s exemplary revival of their estate at Rycote in Oxfordshire (Country Life, September 10, 2008).
It’s thought to have been built as part of landscape alterations in the 1770s involving Capability Brown, whose tercentenary year this is, and its opening on August 30 was the culmination of a process that began in 2007 when debris was cleared from within the structure. The work has been completed with the advice of Donald Insall Associates.
The icehouse stands just to the south of the 15th-century Rycote Chapel. From the exterior, which is of new construction, it looks like a small thatched hut with a battlemented gable above its doorway. The treatment of the gable and the handmade brick echo the architectural forms and materials of the nearby house.
Internally, the building comprises a deep brick-lined pit, about 15ft across, which tapers downwards to a central drain. Access to the pit is down a corridor that would originally have been sealed with a door to maintain the temperature inside.
Icehouses proper—as opposed to temporary structures for storing ice—began to appear in england in the 17th century, the first perhaps commissioned by James I at Greenwich in 1619. By the 18th century, such buildings had become commonplace and J. C. Loudon’s Encyclopedia of Gardening (published in many editions from 1822), for example, gives directions for the construction of one with an accompanying diagram. he recommends that the structure be capable of holding two years’ supply of ice in case a mild winter prevented it from being recharged.
The purpose of these buildings was to preserve natural ice, collected from lakes or as snow during winter, at a low temperature for long periods. It was used for the preparation of food as well as for preserving game and even for cooling rooms.
As it was loaded into the pit, the ice was compacted as a single, solid block—it would have to be smashed off with iron tools. Where necessary, salt or water could be used to help fuse the snow or ice together. This block was supported from beneath on a grille or wagon wheel set in the base of the pit above the drain.
The real trick of preserving the ice lay in keeping it both cool and dry. To this end, an airlock was created in the drain to prevent the ingress of warm air. A small gap was left between the block of ice and the walls of the pit, which allowed meltwater to run off and into the drain with minimum contact with the remaining ice.
The history of this icehouse is not well documented and it could have continued to operate after the demolition of much of the house in 1807. Certainly, such buildings remained in widespread use throughout the 19th century. From the 1880s, however, both mechanically created and imported ice gradually came to dominate the market. Nevertheless, the correspondence pages of Country Life were still offering advice about the correct management of these buildings in 1911.