Hidden in the undergrowth and trees in a corner of Audley End Park near Saffron Walden is the entrance to a brick building. Only one gabled wall, with a small sealed up doorway is visible of this partially buried structure. Anyone who happens across this would be forgiven to mistake it for a WW2 bomb shelter. But a bomb shelter it is not, this building’s story goes back much further than that.
Built in 1835/36 this is The Ice House and sitting next to the cottage named Ice House Lodge it suddenly becomes only too obvious. Ice House Lodge itself was built in 1828 and the Estate accounts at this time refer to payment for the “building of cottage by the Ice House” so it can be assumed there was an Ice House on this site even earlier in the 19th century.
The Ice House we see today at Audley End is constructed of brick, with walls of 2 – 3 feet thick and although it cannot be seen, a slate roof. Inside it is reported to contain a brick pit, 14 feet in diameter, 12 feet deep and surrounded by a 3 foot wide walkway around its rim. It is in here that ice would have been stored to provide the estate with a year round supply.
Before the invention of refrigeration ice was cut from lakes and rivers in winter and stored for use throughout the year. Purpose built structures were made to house the ice, typically partially underground and with heavily insulated walls. Ice could remain frozen here for many months and was then chipped into smaller blocks as required by the main house to assist with the safe storage of perishable foods. The good design of an ice house was important not only to take into consideration the storage and ease of access to the ice but also for the drainage of meltwater.
Introduced to Britain as early as the 17th century, although it is quite likely that the Roman’s used similar technology, ice house designs are varied. Mostly built within the grounds of manor houses and country estates some existing examples are quite ornate, beautiful structures, others domed like brick igloos and some with thickly thatched roofs. Typically here in Britain the Ice House was designed to be largely set underground.
Although externally not the most ornate of Ice Houses, the one at Audley End sits quietly hidden in the undergrowth, its sealed up doorway concealing the magnificence of 19th century technology within and who knows what other secrets of times gone by.