The ice house at Knole

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Knole's ice house is an early example of the second big wave of ice-house building in the 18th century. It's tucked away among the trees, not far as you walk west from the main entrance to the house. Look for a brick domed structure, a bit like an igloo.

You can't go into it any more, but you can imagine the large storage space inside for holding blocks of ice underground. Like most ice houses in Britain of the time, it is domed and brick-lined,

History of ice houses

The Romans were the first to build ice houses, though not very widely here in the UK. Ice houses were usually built close to sources of winter ice, such as freshwater lakes. In the 17th century, grand country houses followed the fashion of having one built, and then ice houses fell from fashion until about the late 18th century.

Uses of ice houses

On country estates from about 1660, the ice was mainly used not to chill food, but for its own sake: for ice creams and increasingly popular desserts such as syllabubs.

Meat and fish did not need to be preserved on a large estate because they could simply be caught from estate lakes and ponds when needed. Ice was also used for medicinal purposes: to treat fever and inflammation. At one time, a common prescription for indigestion was being told to suck on ice.

The Knole ice house

There's a chapter about the garden and park in Vita Sackville-West's book Knole & The Sackvilles. A list of trees bought and work done includes the following item:

December 24, 1726
Getting 80 load of ice and putting it in ye Ice House   £1 15s. 3d.

By the 19th century, when ice houses were again at the height of fashion, ice came from many sources. It was brought in from the Fens in East Anglia, and from the north of England, especially the Lake District. Some even came from Scandinavia. And, by the end of the century, icebergs were being towed from Canada to feed demand.