The rain, it raineth everyday.
Yet this warm climate is a new thing to Britain. Once upon a time, ice skating on rivers was something you could actually do here.
All because of our Little Ice Age.
The Thames froze over and you could build a fire on it if you chose, and I have heard tell merchants actually did. Ice was plentiful: there were none of these milksop winters back then.
It occurred to people that if you did it right, you could store all that lovely ice so that, in the middle of a hot Summer, you could have ice in your drinks, and ice cream, and more importantly you could preserve food that bit longer.
They began to build ice houses. Usually subterranean, ice houses were cylindrical and brick lined to preserve the ice. It wasn’t a new idea.The Iranians had been doing it for more than 3,000 years, and the Chinese 700 years before Christ. Alexander the Great had one.
But James I built one in Greenwich Park in 1619 and it set off a rage of ice-house construction.
I happened upon Kew Ice House, wandering past it from King George III’s diminutive Kew Palace to the great greenhouses of Kew Gardens.
It sits silent, in the shadows of Kew, a stifling red-brick tomb. Walking in one is acutely aware that there is no other way out. Yet it is so perfectly constructed, this ancient brick dome underneath Kew’s turf. So often ice houses look decorative and rather lovely from the outside. But hey are strange, gothic places , hidden in the shadows far from the houses.
Every winter, it is said, great blocks of ice were cut from the lake nearby, and the ice house lined with straw before the ice was packed in to the strange domed structure, tucked away for the summer months.
Soon, Britain’s hunger for ice became insatiable. We got used to having ice around; and ice became a crop to be harvested.
It was only a matter of time before people began importing it.
But how? Wouldn’t the ice melt? How do you import a huge consignment of ice across seas and oceans to the ice houses of the rich and famous; to London’s food markets?
I’ll tell you exactly how.
The ice trade was like any other: they harvested it as a crop. They tethered horses to ice ploughs, and once the ice was cut into strips, hand saws were the only way to cut the ice in great blocks from the clean freezing lakes of Southern Norway.
Improbably large tongs were used to handle this coveted resource, and it was lifted by ice-cranes:onto an’ ice-railway’, wooden downhill tracks on which the ice could slide. It was a fairytale piece of logistics, where the ice would hurtle, untouched by human hand , on a track graced with curves, brakes and even viaducts, all the way to the ship.
From thence it sailed across the sea and up the Thames to London, to Regent’s Canal where two monumental ice wells had been dug to receive it.
The barges carried the ice away, far away, to the markets and the hotels and the great houses, for storage in those odd domed brick houses.
It was pollution which did for ice harvesting. Refrigeration was there in the background, well behind this huge business, but pollution began to creep into the natural ice and those giants of British hostelry, the breweries,began to grumble. The ice-making machines moved in, and the wholesale movement of ice from one landmass to another dwindled and died.
But the ice houses sit there still, damp in our torrential rain, abandoned and unsettling, deep in the shadows.
And they will probably be there, remains of a forgotten way of life, for centuries to come.
For a lovely picture of men actually cutting ice from a lake for an ice house, have a look at Steven’s ‘Cuttings’ post here!
Black and white images courtesy of TheCanalMuseum.org.uk