An ice-house was just that: a special insulated house to keep ice. During the winter, ice and snow would be taken into the ice house and packed with insulation, often straw or sawdust. It would remain frozen for many months, often until the following winter, and could be used as a source of ice during summer months. The main application of the ice was the storage of perishable foods, but it could also be used simply to cool drinks or allow ice-cream and sorbet desserts to be prepared.
Ice houses are found in ha-ha walls, house and stable basements, woodland banks, and even open fields
The most common designs involved underground chambers, usually man-made, and built close to natural sources of winter ice such as freshwater lakes. Ice houses varied in design depending on the date and builder but were mainly conical or rounded at the bottom to hold melted ice. They usually had a drain to take away any water. In some cases, ponds were built nearby specifically to provide the ice in winter.
The ice house was formally introduced to Britain around 1660, although there are occasional examples surviving from the medieval period. British ice houses were commonly brick lined, domed structures, with most of their volume underground. The idea for formal ice houses was brought to Britain by travelers who had seen similar arrangements in Italy, where peasants collected ice from the mountains and used it to keep food fresh inside caves.
Usually, only castles and large manor houses had purpose-built buildings to store ice. Many examples of ice houses exist in the UK some of which have fallen into a poor state of repair. Good examples of 19th-century ice houses can be found at Ashton Court, Bristol, Grendon, Warwickshire, and at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, Suffolk, Moggerhanger Park, Bedfordshire Petworth House, Sussex, Danny House, Sussex, Ayscoughfee Hall, Spalding, Rufford Abbey, and Eglinton Country Park in Scotland and Parlington Hall in Yorkshire. Game larders and venison larders were sometimes marked on ordnance survey maps as ice houses.
The idea was old even in Medieval times. Ice houses originally invented in Persia were buildings used to store ice throughout the year. An inscription from 1700 BC in northwest Iran records the construction of an icehouse, "which never before had any kind built." In China, archaeologists have found remains of ice pits from the seventh century BC, and references suggest they were in use before 1100 BC. Alexander the Great around 300 BC stored snow in pits dug for that purpose. In Rome in the third century AD, snow was imported from the mountains, stored in straw-covered pits, and sold from snow shops.