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

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

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.

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