Ice house at the Convent Of The Sacred Hearts, Dorking Road
Ice houses were introduced to Britain from Italy in the seventeenth century with an increasing impetus after the Restoration. At first they were used principally to provide ice for summer desserts and cooling wines. Later on it was realised that they could also be used for food storage and preservation.
Ice was obtained from local sources, unless winters were mild, when it could be brought in from colder areas such as the Lake District, or the Fens. It was also imported in the nineteenth century first from Norway and, by 1840, from Wenham Lake in the United States.
Celia Fiennes, in her journal of her visits through Surrey in 1708–1712, says that in the garden of a house known as The Elms are ‘two mounts cut smoothe, between is a cannall, these mounts are severall stepps up under which are ice houses’.
The ice house uncovered by a small group of NAS members, who have been working on site for some two months, coincides in its location with the description given by Celia Fiennes, though no mound exists at the other end of the pond.
The ice house well is of brick-lined construction and is of a cup and dome type (imagine an ice cream cornet with a truncated bottom). It is in good condition and has internal measurements of some 5m from top to bottom, with a maximum diameter of 2.5m, which tapers down to 1.2m at the sump.
Melt water was a potential problem, alleviated in this instance by a lead drain, which at present appears to continue vertically downwards, and not into the adjacent pond, the level of which is at least 2.15m above that of the drain.
The covered entrance passageway was reached by descending steps, three of which are still in situ. However, damage, possibly caused by tree roots, is quite considerable, and there is much evidence of repairs having been carried out.
Cup and dome designs were used in the eighteenth century, and the general feeling among the excavators is that it could well be one of those ice houses described by Celia Fiennes. Unfortunately, virtually all the finds are modern – the discovery of a lager can near the bottom of the ice well does not assist with dating – so all we have to go on is the basic design.
NAS has applied to English Heritage for the ice house to be listed and we are currently awaiting the outcome.