Wednesday, 7 September 2022

The Ice House at Kew - by Jeannie Waudby

Since 1840, Kew Gardens has been a public Botanical Garden. It's now also famous for its Millenium Seed Bank which conserves over 2.4 billion seeds from all around the world, and when the Princess of Wales Conservatory was built a time capsule of seeds was buried under it by Sir David Attenborough - all plants facing extinction. In the 18th Century, these gardens encircled Kew Palace and the White House (now demolished) which were home to Queen Charlotte and George III and their large family. Echoes of the life they led can be seen in Kew Palace, Queen Charlotte's cottage, and in the kitchens.
I've visited Kew over many years and in recent years the kitchens and Ice House have been opened to visitors. I always find the spaces where servants worked and lived more interesting than ballrooms and galleries. The kitchens served the White House so that cooking smells would be separate. Lavish meals were prepared, including cold desserts: ices, syllabubs and jellies. But how did they keep them cold before electricity? This is where the Ice House came in. It's a brick-lined structure covered with earth and grass so that it looks like a mound with a tunnel entrance from outside.
It was built in the 1760s with beautiful arched brickwork above a pit where blocks of ice were packed between layers of straw and sacking. This was the Palace's giant 'fridge'. It was actually very efficient and the ice could stay frozen for months. It's not a new technology. Ancient Romans and Persians used the same system from 1800 BC.
But it was very labour-intensive, so in Georgian times only the very wealthy could afford the luxury of ice-cold drinks and food. In those days the ice was hacked out of the lake in blocks and carted to the Ice House to be packed into the pit. This was an extremely unpopular job and it must have been very hard for workers to keep their fingers from freezing as they laboured in the depths of winter in a place designed to keep in the cold. Then, fetching ice for the kitchen must have also involved cold hard work hacking out blocks and perhaps making them smaller before carting them the 400 metres to the kitchen. This is an image from the information notice outside the Ice House.
By the 19th Century ice from Siberia was brought by canal. It's strange to think of a time when ice had to be harvested and stored now that we can easily freeze it ourselves. Back in Georgian times, it was a natural resource from the winter lake and the colder weather, and the energy used came only from human beings.
Standing in the cold silence under the Ice House dome, I thought what a great setting for a story scene it is, and I used it in the 19th Century book I have been working on. This made me think of this week's writing challenge.
WRITING CHALLENGE Set your story in this brick Ice House. There are two characters inside. They have a wooden cart, an ice pick and a lantern, as well as lots of ice, sacking and straw. But the door is locked - from the outside! This seems like a scary scenario, but it doesn't have to be. You could make it funny, moving or even romantic. What happens?
Jeannie Waudby is the author of YA love story/thriller ONE OF US and has been working on a YA novel set in Victorian times. @JeanWaudby

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