In 2015, when Steve saw the ruins of an ice house on the Waterperry Estate, he also saw its potential. But to restore it, there were many obstacles to overcome. For over 20 years Steve has helped maintain Waterperry House in Oxfordshire. Read on to hear about this unusual project. Steve Pegrum is a senior philosophy student in London.
Waterperry Ice House
Steve Pegrum, London
Having been a caver I have developed a fascination for anything underground. So when I heard there was an ice house at Waterperry in Oxfordshire, I was interested. It was exciting to discover that, except for the tunnel, it was in excellent condition. Waterperry House now belongs to the School as a retreat centre but it has a long history going back to the 11th century. The gardens, shops, café and museum are all open to the public and it struck me that the ice house could be an interesting addition to the repertoire.
What is an ice house?
In the days before refrigerators, ice houses could store winter ice for use during the summer months. The typical ice house is made of brick and comprises a cone-shaped well in the ground, covered by a domed roof. The entire structure is covered with soil for insulation and accessed via a tunnel.
Why was ice so important?
Imagine an age before refrigerators, where fish, meat and dairy products would deteriorate rapidly in hot weather. Imagine a life without ice cream! There were many commercial uses but domestically, ice was useful for food preservation and cooling drinks.
How did you get involved with the ice house?
Feeling strongly that the Waterperry ice house should be restored, I asked the Waterperry museum curator, ‘Why doesn’t someone do something about it?’ He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Yes, why doesn’t someone do something about it?’ I knew then who that someone was!
We soon obtained the required permission to do the work, but the big hurdle was raising the money for materials. I produced an information leaflet, built a website and gave talks to my fellow students in the School which brought enough funding to make a start.
The Ice Trade
Research for the talks revealed much about ice trade history. Before 1850 the UK was in the grip of a ‘mini ice-age’, and sourcing ice was no problem – winters were cold enough to freeze the Thames! However, as winters got warmer, ice became more difficult to come by.
In 1806, a young Boston man called Fredrick Tudor had the idea to export ice. He purchased a brig, filled it with ice insulated with sawdust, and started a trade. This eventually turned him into a millionaire transporting ice from the great lakes to destinations as far as India and Australia.
Other companies emerged like the Wenham Lake Ice Company exporting ice from Wenham Lake in Massachusetts. It became very popular in the UK due to its purity. The company set up a shop window in which a block of their ice had a newspaper behind it – the ice was clear enough for passers-by to read the news through it! Queen Victoria ‘would only have Wenham Ice’.
Norway saw an opportunity and changed the name of one of their lakes to Lake Wenham. Then, being a lot closer to the UK, they were able to export Norwegian Wenham ice at a lower price. By 1900 they were shipping a million tons of ice a year to Europe, half of which came to the UK. That’s a lot of ice!
Was the ice house restoration difficult?
The tunnel was a problem as it looked like it could collapse at any moment. Two thirds of the 9-metre tunnel needed to be rebuilt. But first we would have to remove the 3 metres of earth above it. With some assistance and a lot of digging, the tunnel was eventually revealed.
There was still the steep ‘cliff’ of earth which would be a danger for anyone working on the tunnel below. Above it were trees and a water tower so shoring it up had to happen quickly. With no spare cash for employing builders, I turned to my fellow students for advice. Some very large timbers, 8 acrow props and many kilos of cement later, we had the cliff beautifully propped up.
Lighting the ice house
Another problem was the lighting. It needed a mechanical ‘time switch’ so that the lights would be on for around 10 minutes for viewing, then turn themselves off. Unfortunately, with the damp environment of the ice house these only lasted a few weeks.
One evening I was driving home from Waterperry when I needed to clear the mist on the rear window. I pressed the button, which I knew would switch itself off after 10 minutes or so and…..there was the answer! I purchased an appropriate relay for a car de-mister plus a waterproof ‘bell push’. When wired up, it all worked brilliantly.
We needed something to prevent the viewing public from falling from the ‘balcony’ into the well. The solution came from noticing the window balconies of Waterperry House. I built a model and made a series of drawings which I took to a blacksmith who had clearly never worked from a drawing before. For a long time he kept staring from my model and back to the drawing. Finally he exclaimed, ‘I know what you need – you need a manger!’ What he eventually produced was perfect!
How has philosophy helped you?
Many years ago one of my philosophy tutors said, ‘You will never be asked to do something you’re not capable of doing.’ This has stayed with me and it’s what propelled me through this project. I’ve learned to take courage and relax in the face of difficulty. Don’t be daunted by what appears to be impossible.
I was also introduced to the practice of falling still when there was a problem. Better to wait for an answer rather than let it play on my mind. If it appears that an inner voice is directing, then just go along with it and all will be well. It’s something I have delighted in over the years, and it worked for all the difficulties I encountered with the ice house.
We hear many wonderful concepts in philosophy, but concepts mean little unless put into practice. Restoring the ice house has provided the perfect opportunity for practice and the whole experience has been joyful.
Opening the Ice House
After hundreds of hours and much voluntary assistance, the ice house is now open to the public. It receives great reactions when I explain its history and workings. Although plenty of ice houses still exist, few are as interesting as ours. It is yet another part of the Waterperry tapestry. Visitors seem genuinely appreciative of the love, care and attention with which it has been re-created.
Watch this video for more information on the ice trade and early refrigeration.
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