The second week in February 2012 saw a fall of snow and weekend temperatures plummet to -11 degrees. With both the medieval lake and the restored 18th century one completely frozen over it was easy to see just how the ice house at Lydiard Park was used.
Ice houses were introduced to Britain in the early 17th century. James I had one built in Greenwich Park in 1619 and another at Hampton Court in 1625/6. The one at Lydiard probably dates from about 1743 when Sir John, 2nd Viscount St John spent his wealthy wife’s dowry on remodelling the mansion house and landscaping the grounds.
The Lydiard ice house is of the Cup and Dome variety, the most popular 18th century model and apparently the most expensive. The better the brickwork the more successful and efficient the ice house where ice was packed in, sealed by layers of straw or reeds and could be expected to last up to eighteen months.
Cited away from the house in the shade of trees the Lydiard ice house follows text book plans with a brick lined underground pit and domed roof to control the circulation of air.
Ice would be gathered from the frozen estate lake during the exceptionally cold winters of the period and used in the preparation of food, particularly the 18th century novelty dessert, ice cream. Popular flavours of the day included elderflower, jasmine, pineapple, tea and white coffee. The building was also used as a larder, preserving meat that would otherwise have to be salted.
There are an estimated 2,500 ice houses in England alone but detection of lost houses is difficult due to the nature of their construction. The one at Lydiard Park has fared well though, enjoying a makeover as part of the 2005 £5 million Lydiard Park Project.