Charming Chilterns: The Icehouse at Ashridge House

Delving deeper into local history

Walk reconnoitres (recces for short) are important, even if I know the route well as things may have changed since I last walked the route. On Wednesday I recced one of the walks (again) on the Charming Chiltern holiday for September – the Ashridge Estate day. I have planned a first day packed with interest and miles, 12.5 miles to be precise, and a circular walk leaving from the hotel door, up into the Ashridge forest and passing lots of interesting places.

Leaving our base of The Kings Arms hotel, the walk goes through St. Peters Church graveyard and onto Castle Street, passing lots of historic buildings including the Berkhamsted School complex and two pubs – The Gardeners Arms and The Boote – both now private houses, sadly. At the canal, we have the Canadian totem pole, the Crystal Palace pub, the railway station and track, with Berkhamsted castle is visible from there as well. Decision point already! Rather than commit harikari, by sightseeing on the first day of the Chiltern tour, I decided that a separate optional sightseeing walk was needed on the afternoon of the arrival day for those interested, otherwise we’d never get out of Berkhamsted!

ice cubes

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I know the walk well, so the recce was principally to reacquaint myself with an old friend – an icehouse. Before the electric fridge-freezer, icehouses were an old-fashioned means to store ice in winter, for use throughout the summer months of the year. Icehouses have been created by us humans all over the planet at various stages in our history, and the storage and transportation of ice was big business before the discovery of electricity, and the ability to harness it ushered in a new age. In 17th Century Britain, an icehouse was often built outside the main Manor House or local village. It was built mostly under the ground with inner walls made of brick and usually near to a water source, like a pond or lake, or where ice and snow could be collected from the ground and packed into the icehouse. Food could be stored and kept fresh in the icehouse, and ice could be transported in iceboxes to the main house for keeping things fresh in the kitchen, and for cooling drinks on a hot day.

While leading walking groups in Sorrento we’d hike past huge square holes in the ground, relics of the Italian version of an icehouse, in the hills surrounding Mount Vesuvius. When working as a forester, I remember seeing my first icehouse at the Gaddesden Estate in the neighbouring Gade Valley, and then much later another in Frithsden, a mile down the road from Ashridge House where today’s stands.

Icehouse design and construction methods differ. Historic England advises that this icehouse was built around the early 1800s, a period of great change at Ashridge House. This icehouse also differs from the other two local ones, as it is larger and has a covered walk-in with a huge piece of Hertfordshire puddingstone over the entrance.

Ashridge Icehouse entrance

The fact that there is a large icehouse next to the historically important Manor of Ashridge is not very unusual, and there is more to this icehouse’s past than an association with this manor house. Its location holds other secrets, as I found when I returned there on my visit. Examining the site in more detail, I noted:

(1) The woodlands surrounding the icehouse are largely old trees, mostly beech and oak.

(2) Two minutes’ walk away there is a visible dry depression in the landscape, this is marked on the map as a pool or pond, which would have served up the ice for the icehouse. In addition, in the summer it could have served as a fish-farm.

(3) Just beyond the pool are some ancient Sweet Chestnut (Castanea saliva) trees, about 10 in total, although some have fallen. They are, in fact, all dying and at the end of their natural lifespan now.

(4) The Ordinance Survey map names this area ‘Hardings Rookery’ – a place for nesting corvid’s high in the trees? I thought so but no, this assumption may have been wrong. One of the two definitions of a ‘Rookery’ is “a dense collection of housing, especially in a slum area”, so maybe the area around the icehouse was more correctly an area of dwellings, alongside an icehouse, fishpond and some sweet chestnut trees.

I have heard differing reports about the longevity of the sweet chestnut tree, from 400 years to well over 1500, but maybe given suitable conditions the average lifespan could be 600. These ones are coming to the natural end of their lifespan which could mean they were planted as early as 1450, well before the present icehouse and during the time when the aristocratic Egerton family bought Ashridge House. The Sweet Chestnut is not native, but it has perhaps been here since Roman times and was brought here to provide sustenance through it prolific seeds (or nuts).

Evidence points to Hardings Rookery being a small dwelling / post or village which has now vanished, established because of its proximity to the Manor, with resident workmen and women who served the manor and traveling salesmen who sold their products. Later, the obvious place to build an icehouse would be at this dwelling next to the rookery by the chestnut trees, because of the availability of workers to transport ice to the main house. With the advent of electricity at the house, though, the village and icehouse became surplus to requirements.

This post is describing a walk I did in early April but have only just come to writing about it, but in the last week I have returned with a group to see the ice house as part of a bigger walk. I noted that The National Trust have put a natural barrier of branches around the old trees to stop us walking too close, protecting both us and the trees. I also noted wild garlic springing up there. 

I have read that human history in the south east of England goes back some 500,000 years and that humans in some early form were walking over the chalk geology from France to England long ago when the UK was connected to Europe. In terms of time, it puts the ice house in perspective.

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