Many designed landscapes from the late 17th century until the early 20th century contained an Ice House. Before commercial and then domestic refrigeration became commonplace foodstuffs were mostly preserved by salting, smoking, drying, pickling or bottling. However, aristocrats could afford to build an Ice House which would keep ice, harvested in the winter and packed in straw, all through the summer. Fresh meat and fish could be preserved for longer but also the ice was used to impress guests with the luxury of serving chilled drinks, ice cream or sorbet in the heat of the summer. Ice harvested from any nearby river, pond or canal was not pure, indeed salt was often sprinkled on the ice to lower the temperature still further, so it was not directly consumed but used in buckets as a coolant. Some stored ice was imported from Norway and later Canada which was considered pure enough to be used in drinks.
The external design of Ice Houses varied but in essence they were usually a brick lined pit approximately 5 metres deep with a drain at the bottom and a domed top with an entrance. This would often then be thatched to provide further insulation and sited deep in the woods for shade and so usually set at some distance from the mansion. If the woods were too far distant to be convenient as at Grey’s Court the Ice House was surrounded by a clump of specially planted trees. Two of the Beech have been felled and the Ice House has been dated to c.1817.
A very much grander topping for the Ice House was built at Penrhyn Castle, just outside Bangor. It is conveniently placed within the main ‘castle’ complex and has a 23m tower which housed the game larder above it.
Although originally the preserve of the rich on their country estates by the late 18th century ice was being sold commercially. A fascinating commercial ice well, constructed by Samuel Dash around 1780, has recently been discovered in Park Crescent, Regent’s Park, just 8m above the Jubilee line tube. This was much more substantial than the ‘domestic’ examples at 9.5 metres deep and 7.5 metres wide. It probably had wooden doors clad in leather and stuffed with straw to insulate them. Originally the ice came from the surrounding rivers and canals and so would have been heavily contaminated but by the 1820s a new ice merchant took over. William Leftwich imported much purer ice from Norway and transported it up the Regent Canal and sold it in small quantities for domestic and medical use - so the luxury of making ice cream became more widespread.