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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Oxford

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Life before the freezer

The interior chamber of the Buckland House icehouse
© Ann Gladstone, July 2003
By the mid 19th Century, the popularity of ice for confection, food preservation and drinks was such that the wealthier estate owners would import their supplies from abroad too.

Wenham Lake in North America became famed for its purity. This was often in complete contrast to the dirty waters of local ponds and lakes in Britain - the source of much illness at times.

The British engineer, Francis Thomas Bacon was so shocked by the poor state of natural ice from British water, that he became heavily involved in developing technology for ice manufacturing.

It is said that in the process of this work, he trialled the longevity of food preservation by stuffing a chicken with snow - but, sadly, this experiment was never completed - he died a few days later.

However, with freezing remaining an important part of food processing, a patent for artificial ice manufacturing was eventually granted as early as 1842 in America. This was to bring a steady decline in the use of icehouses - but many remain as architectural testament to the era.

The icehouse at Buckland House is the first building sited on the visitor route around the lakes and landscape gardens, but any visit to the lakes is strictly by appointment or through the periodic open days through the National Gardens Scheme.

The three basic types of icehouse.
  • The pit - is normally circular, sunk into the ground below the level of an entrance passage, which is serviced with at least two doors.
  • The chamber - is usually rectangular and would be sited at the same level or just below that of the entrance - it would usually have only one door.
  • The shaft - would be circular, with only an access from the top. It would sometimes be referred to as an ice well.

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