Ice House Hunting in Altrincham

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The South Trafford Archaeological Group surveying the top of the ice house mound in John Legh Park, Altrincham

At the beginning of this year I found myself, somewhat unexpectedly, in the role of Chair of my local archaeology society, the South Trafford Archaeological Group (STAG). One of the first things that had to be sorted was our fieldwork programme for 2018. As with any such society having a mixture of activities is important for the health and enjoyment of the group, especially for a society that celebrates its 40th anniversary next year. It’s thus useful to have some key research projects. In the case of STAG the group has a project looking at the archaeology of Altrincham – the origins and development of the medieval and post-medieval borough. Therefore, when we were approached by the Friends of John Legh Park with a request to help them explore the location of a possible ice house in the park this seemed an ideal opportunity to push forward the Altrincham Project and to undertake small small-scale excavation work. Archaeology is of course about far more than digging, but this project was a way of improving the Group’s skills and reconnecting us with our archaeological roots.

STAG had already done some initial survey work in the park a decade earlier. As part of the reconnaissance for the Dig Greater Manchester community project (2011-2016; see elsewhere on this blog) the group, led by the then Chair Derek Pierce, surveyed some of the earthworks relating to the park in 2009 and 2010. That work involved map work to locate the site of Oldfield Hall, a 17th century property rebuilt in the 18th century, and an earthwork survey of a mysterious mound at the southern end of the park.

The Altrincham historian Charles Nickson, writing in 1935, described the Georgian house as ‘a somewhat dignified mansion, of what was apparently red sandstone’ and also described other buildings within the grounds: ‘Near the entrance gates was a long range of stabling, the dairy and several cottages, used by the workmen on the estate, and nearby was a pleasant paddock set within a park railing. The ground sloped gently upwards on the other side of the house, and the summit was crowned with an ornamental summer house called “The Temple”, a name no doubt given to it because of its resemblance in miniature to an ancient Greek temple’. It was this ‘temple’ site that sat on top of the mound at the southern end of the park.

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Inside the ice house tunnel at John Legh Park. Note the writing on the left-hand wall.

Local tradition asserted that beneath the ‘temple’ lay an ice house and the STAG survey of the mound located the top of a brick arch in the western flank that could be the entrance to such a structure. An ice house was used to store ice throughout the year, with examples known from the late prehistoric period onwards. In Britain the ice house was introduced in the mid-17th century and reached a peak in popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries. Various types and designs were built but in a domestic context the most common forms were artificial underground chambers, close to natural sources of winter ice such as freshwater lakes. In the age before the gas and electric fridge it was a high status, expensive, structure. Thus, the main use of the ice kept in this way was to aid the storage of food stuffs throughout the year. Such ice, though, could also be used to cool drinks, allow desserts such as ice-creams and sorbets to be prepared, and of course provide ice to add to your gin or whisky!

British ice houses were commonly brick-lined, domed, structures, with most of their volume underground. The precise design varied depending upon the date and resources of the builder, though most of the 18th and 19th private examples were conical or rounded at the bottom to hold melted ice. From here a drain took away the water.

At John Legh Park archaeological stripping and planning of the top of the mound revealed a circular brick wall (handmade) roughly 4m across. This appeared to be the base of the dome for the icehouse. In the northern flank of the mound a single test pit was dug in front of the arch. This revealed that this feature was a blocked entranceway leading into a 4.1m long brick-lined tunnel. At the far end could be seen the arched entrance into the main ice storage area. Partially filled with rubble it wasn’t safe to enter but photographs revealed writing on the eastern wall, daubed in white paint, with letters and date, reading ‘opened 29/?/1960’.

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Cleaning the top of the ice house structure.

Several puzzles remain. Where did the ice come from? Probably from ‘The Dip’ in the middle of the park. This was shown as a pond on the 1852 Altrincham Local Health Board map. Where did the drain from the bottom of the ice house go? That is harder to know, although further survey may indicate the outlet. Who daubed the letters on the tunnel wall in 1960? It’s possible that they may still be alive and living in the Altrincham area. Finally, when was the ice house built? Research by the Friends of John Legh Park have so far not located any reference to the ice house. However, an approximate date might be guessed from the building materials used and the style of the ice house itself. The current excavations and survey have revealed handmade bricks of the early 19th century, whilst the form of the ice house, with a tunnel leading to a domed central vault, may also suggest an early 19th century.

Such small-scale fieldwork is the life blood of local archaeology societies and makes a substantial contribution to understanding the development of a local area. In this case STAG have confirmed that the mound in John Legh Park was built to house the ice house. The use of the highest point in the park probably aided within the drainage from the conical ice storage area. It also provided a convenient viewing point, hence the summer house in the style of a temple. Whether the two were contemporary structures awaits further research.

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