See inside Great Yarmouth's mysterious Ice House
- Credit: Archant
Today, ice houses in Great Yarmouth generally serve 99s with Flakes along the Golden Mile, but for centuries, the town’s Ice House served a very different purpose.
Thousands pass the curious thatched building at the Southtown end of Haven Bridge every day with no idea what it is or that it was once key to the fishing industry in Yarmouth.
Filled to the rafters with ice from the Norfolk Broads or from Norway, two foot square blocks would be sawn from the miniature iceberg by the river’s edge to pack the holds in boats going to sea or in boxes headed for market.
Now leased by Out There Arts, the Yarmouth-based independent arts development charity, the old Ice House will shortly be given a very cool new lease of life.
Ahead of the exciting new plans, the building will open for pre-booked tours during Heritage Open Days in September to offer a rare glimpse into Yarmouth’s past – and future.
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Hidden in plain sight, this building was once at the heart of Norway Wharf, which could accommodate hundreds of fishing boats and thousands of herring workers who landed, packaged and delivered Yarmouth’s ‘silver darlings’.
Ice was key to the fishing industry as before any form of refrigeration was available, preservation techniques had, by necessity, involved salting, curing and brining.
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The practice of storing ice had been commonplace since medieval times when ‘ice pits’ were used, but the first purpose-built ice houses were built in the 1600s – King James I commissioned the first modern ice house in Greenwich Park in 1619.
In the 18th century there was a huge increase in the number of ice houses being built, mainly serving great manor houses and their estates or those with deep pockets in London.
By the 19th century, the smaller ice houses were replicated on a far grander scale to support industry: there were once 10 ice houses along the River Yare which were built between 1851 and 1892 – two remain standing, one at Ice House Hill in Gorleston, the other in Yarmouth (there were once two in this location, it is the larger of the two that remains, the smaller was demolished in the 1960s).
The ice was brought to the large store by boat from South Walsham Broad, or if the winter was kind, from Norway or Greenland and would stay frozen as a large mass for many months.
On the opposite bank to the town hall and built at the same time as the South Town Railway Station, it played a vital part in delivering fresh fish to Billingsgate Market in London, putting Yarmouth firmly on the map.
With a capacity of 42,588 cubic feet, the Grade II-listed building could house 1,000 tons of ice – it is the only one of its kind in the country, an icy national treasure.
Local historian Roger Silver, who runs Cobholm Miniatures on Broad Row, will be leading the Heritage Open Day tours and has written extensively about the Ice House.
He explained that the idea for commercial ice houses came from Alexander Dalrymple, an official of the East India Company who in the late 18th century discovered ‘snow houses’ in China where fishermen replenished ice to enable them to transport fresh fish inland.
“They were so well insulated that ice would last for months, if not years, on end,” he added, “thousands of tonnes of ice would be stored here, it would be stacked up to the rafters with layers of straw or sawdust in between.
“What looks like a window facing the river was actually where the door was and in order to access the ice, workers would climb the stairs outside and walk across a board to saw off huge chunks.”
When hard frosts permitted, ice would be harvested from the Norfolk Broads, offering work to men whose normal day job was curtailed by bad weather and a bargain to the Ice House owners who could save money by lessening the ice order from Sweden, Norway or even America.
Roger added that the process of ‘harvesting’ ice from the Broads was known as ‘dydling’ and that in addition to ice’s essential role in the fishing industry, people in Yarmouth would also buy ice for their own use.
“We have examples of a wife buying ice for her husband when he had a fever,” he said, “that kind of detail is so interesting. It’s very important that we keep this kind of history alive. The Ice House was vital to Yarmouth.”
Sold to JH Bunn (now Brineflow Ltd), the Ice House later became a grain store and was renovated in 1980 – it has been leased to Out There Arts with a right to buy.
Out There, formally SeaChange Arts, is based at the Drill House in Yarmouth, a Grade II listed property converted for their use in 2015, and runs community-based events and classes for circus and street art performers.
Every year the charity hosts a free street festival - Out There - with international circus artists in a weekend of nationally and internationally renowned events and workshops.
Joe Mackintosh is chief executive for Out There Arts and artistic director of the Out There International Festival of Circus and Street Arts and said the charity’s plan was to continue helping Yarmouth’s regeneration through the arts.
Keen to expand and be able to offer space for training and its circus school, the Ice House plans also include the transformation of the space into somewhere that performances can take place.
The last reported wherry-load of ice from the Broads was in 1899 and ice supplies continued from Norway until 1910: it may be that the next time ice returns to the Ice House, it will be in a drink served from the planned café or bar.
“At present we’re using the building as a storeroom but we want it to be so much more for us because it’s a wonderful space with one of the best views in Yarmouth and its not in a residential area which means we can do lots more here," said Joe.
“Whenever we are here, a stream of people come and ask if they can look inside the building so it’s clearly somewhere that fascinates the community. By repurposing the building, lots more people will see it and appreciate it."
After necessary modernisation in regards to safety, access and toilet facilities, a balcony with riverside views, an extension and a bar will be added.
The balcony will be an echo of a former structure which led from the water’s edge into the ice house in order to access the ice supplies within the building.
“I hope that in time, Yarmouth will become the UK Capital of Circus – we already host an incredible annual festival of circus and street art, we have the wonderful Hippodrome Circus, we have a circus school and our circus classes,” said Joe.
“There is nowhere else in the UK with such incredible links to the circus.”
He added: “It is a privilege to be able to work from two of Yarmouth’s wonderful old buildings and bring new life to them. We are so excited about the future and what we can do here. And of course, we will be keeping the Ice House name…”
* Find out more about Heritage Open Days here.
* Find out more about the Out There Festival here.