Frozen in time: The icehouses and the unfolding story of Studley Royal.

Mark Newman, National Trust Archaeological Consultant

There are very few days when its not an incredible privilege to work as an archaeologist for the National Trust. The work it engages us in is unparalleled in its diversity, and in its value. Unlike so many working archaeologists, we’re not just “sanitising” archaeology out of the way of a commercial development. What we do helps ensure the survival of so many fascinating but vulnerable traces of past lives, of our country’s history – and even more excitingly, we help to bring their stories to life for our supporters. It’s like being given the opportunity to discover an entirely new NT property within a property over and over again. 

Sometimes the stories being revealed come as a complete surprise, when entirely unknown archaeology emerges. Other times we’ve known that the story is there to be discovered, but we’d never had the time or resources to explore it. The Icehouses project probably belongs in the second camp – but who knows what we’ll find!

I first saw the Icehouses on an evening stroll in September 1988, within the first few days of coming to work for the NT, while I was living in a volunteer’s hostel in the deer park. It’s difficult and odd to recall now how little we really know about the history of the estate, and the Aislabie family’s development of it, back then. What we knew was mainly just the headlines (and subsequent investigation has proven several of those to have had the accuracy of the Sunday Sport rather than the Financial Times!).  But it was clear that the park was rich in archaeology, much of it relating to a vanished medieval village, but other elements obviously belonging to more recent times. Most overt amongst those were the icehouse domes looming on the skyline above the main avenue through the park. They were also amongst the sorriest, the brick domes breaking through the failing soil and turf cover, and the haphazard work blocking the entrances with soil, old fencing and rubble, all speaking of neglect and disregard.

Over the years, we’ve done the decent thing by the site, and its been tidied up considerably. A combination of great pressure on resources for conserving the estate and modern Health and Safety requirements necessitated further infilling of the entrances. I never managed to be there at the right moment to peer in through holes smashed through the bricked up doors, but each time we closed them up again, and ultimately brought up more soil blocking to make the vandalism harder. Meanwhile the original soil capping lacked stability, and continued to erode: the icehouses are too prominent a lookout point for the deer in the park to ignore. And what do they care if their hooves speed up erosion?

But gradually research began to tell us more about these relicts of the comfortable Georgian country life of the Aislabies. Careful study of the estate accounts held at the Sheepscar archive in Leeds revealed payments for the building of an icehouse in 1754. In 1756 the “old icehouse” was reported as being filled. So they were of two different dates, then – and comparatively early for structures of this type. Rather unexpectedly there were payments for thatching in 1754 and again in 1763 – its not at all clear how this was done. Did the icehouses have a separate hat-like roof? How long did that last for (tree stumps showed that the mounds had once been planted – a common means of sheltering icehouses from rain, which might seep in and melt the contents)?. Simple archaeological observation of the eroding mounds showed how they had been built of contrasting – onion-like – skins of soil, again to direct warming rainwater away from the building’s contents.

But neither documents nor surface archaeology tell you the whole story. There comes a point when, if you want to know more, you’ll have to dig. And, of course, if you plan to repair, then digging is very likely to be part of the work programme anyway. The key is to do the digging by archaeological means, and learn as much as possible from it. So that’s precisely what we propose to do.

What will we learn? Well, that’s hard to say at this point in proceedings. It would be interesting to learn when the buildings went out of use – no one seems to know. What was thrown into them before they were sealed up? Studley Royal House burnt down and was demolished in 1946. Where did its rubble go? Is there half a mansion waiting to be found in the icehouses? Are these typical icehouses of their period or are they of a unique design? How exactly did they work – and what uses did the Aislabies put the ice to? We might get answers to all of these questions, or none of them, or indeed answers to questions we’ve not yet thought to ask.

At the most practical level, the first stages of the archaeological work will simply tell us a lot more about how the structures are built, and therefore how we need to consolidate them to preserve them and make them (visually) accessible to people in future. Another point of interest in the park, and another vivid ghost of the lives of the Aislabies.

Thank goodness for the Higher Level Environmental Stewardship Scheme, administered by Natural England. If it wasn’t there to support such work, it might have been another 24 years before we’d have had the resources to do this on our own.

Mark is the National Trust’s Archaeological Consultant in Yorkshire and the North East Region. He has been Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal’s archaeological adviser for the past 24 years and compiled the archaeological and historical landscape survey of the property. Mark advises on the archaeological impacts of all development work on the property, and manages research work carried out in house or delivered by external contractors. His history of the estate “Wonder of the North” is in preparation.

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One Response to Frozen in time: The icehouses and the unfolding story of Studley Royal.

  1. Simon Gore-Smith says:

    This is really fascinating to me. I grew up in Ripon and we used to walk to Fountains almost every weekend. My grandfather told me the icehouses were lime kilns, but having seen the icehouses on the Rufford estate in Nottingham, it makes so much more sense. There used to be a hole in the top of one of them (the Studley ones) and I remember my brother dropping a stone in and counting to see how deep it was. I can’t remember what he counted though!

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