In a wooded Warwickshire valley, sitting in silence and a little way back from an old carriage drive, is an oddly shaped yet picturesque building. Obviously from another age, it sits snugly amongst Yew trees with its fully restored lime mortared brickwork and thatched bonnet – the building is an 18th Century Ice House no-less!
After a long and crumbly time, and following a restoration project that lasted over two years, the Compton Verney Ice House is once again adding to its already impressive 240 years of history. Built as a practical yet pretty addition to the grounds in c1771, the building is the key architectural feature in an area known as the Ice House Coppice, which originally functioned as it does now; to screen the mansion for visitors arriving from the southern entrance and approach drive.
Whilst the ice house would have looked pretty to distant spectators in the landscape, something akin to a hermit’s cottage nestling in a green wood, its location also suggests it was to appear briefly to guests travelling around the coppice by horse or carriage. I suppose the first Georgian visitors reaction to the thatched building might have been intrigue, yet for others who knew an ice house when they saw one, it might have hinted at the level of hospitality on offer.
Although the design and construction of an ice house is relatively simple, their introduction to country estates in the 17th to 19th centuries was of great benefit to kitchen staff, and a huge leap forward: longer storage of perishables, preparation of cooling summer ices and drinks, and creativity with iced table decorations etc. Furthermore, the cooling benefit of ice was surely a boon for patients suffering high temperatures.
Ice houses were the forerunners to the refrigerator, which although under development were many years away from a useable form. Simply put, ice houses provided temperature regulated spaces, chilled down through the use of ice ‘cropped’ during the winter months. Clean ice would have been collected throughout the winter, and compacted into the insulating brick lined pit. The Compton Verney ice house had its nearby lake for an ample supply of ice, although shallow ponds were dug at other locations to provide a source of ice – a great winter job for gardeners I’d expect!
Physically, the front door to the Compton Verney ice house opens to the east, and whilst the building was meant to be seen from this direction; the warmth of the morning sun wouldn’t have been welcome, and a secondary door is believed to have been necessary to further insulate and protect the contents within. What’s more, evergreen Yew trees were planted around the building for shade.
We believe the ice house had fallen out of use in the 1800’s, and with the roof timbers removed, the dome had been hidden away under soil and undergrowth. Trees had been planted to conceal the house further, and the pit had been used as a dump for rubbish.
The dereliction of many ice houses commonly occurred due to the availability of commercially collected ice in the late 1800’s and the subsequent invention of refrigerators. Maintenance to many ice houses across the country therefore ceased, doors were locked and pits were filled in. The reduced use of Compton Verney over the years, heaping of soil over its dome and subsequent plant growth interestingly ensured its longer term survival.
In 2010, Compton Verney engaged John Goom Architects, who employed Sibbasbridge to carry out restoration of the ice house. On site, the contractors were supported by the grounds team who facilitated the work. A detailed archaeology report investigation was commissioned, where the remains of the derelict structure were measured, excavated and recorded. This information formed the basis on which the ‘lost’ parts of the structure could be replaced.
Wildlife, bats in particular were a key feature of the project, and mitigation was necessary due to the ice house being a frequent resting place lesser horseshoe species whilst out foraging. Timing for intervention with the building was carefully planned, along with morning checks to ensure no bats had taken residence during the evening – fortunately we had a clear run, and no bats appeared to halt progress. The finished design includes special access arrangements for bats, and a light system for minimal disturbance. Bats have since returned to the building on regular occasions.
Restoration was made possible due to committed effort by Compton Verney, and with considerable support from Natural England. The ice house restoration created employment for architects, builders, ecologists and archaeologists. We planted semi-mature trees around the perimeter to fill gaps in the shade canopy, and our visitors can for the first time in decades enter the structure and peer down into its depths – I hope you’ll agree its restoration has been a huge success.
Just think of the estate workers of the past, on frozen wintry days, cutting and heaving chunks of ice up from the lake. Barrowing the seventy-odd metres up to the ice house.
Let’s hope they had a nice warm stove awaiting their return home…
Information regarding the architects and archaeology can be reached via links within the text, and an information board is positioned on site for info. The ice house is listed as number one on ‘brown’ ‘Historic features in the grounds’ listing.