Hidden beneath a small metal grate in a south London park is a 250 year old marvel — subterranean ice well from the days before modern refrigeration.
And it’s occasionally open to the public.
The ice well was built in the private grounds of a manor house built in 1772 for the wealthy merchant, Thomas Lucas, and the ice well was added a year later in 1773 — which makes it 250 years old this year.
The ice well is something that was usually found in wealthy homes as a way of storing ice collected in the winter months in a cool underground space that was usually just about cold enough to slow the ice from melting so that it could be used in the summer months.
At the time the ice well was built, ice would likely have been collected from local lakes and ponds, although by Victorian times, there was a commercial trade in ice, often shipped over from Scandinavia.
In 1898 though, this particular manor house and grounds were bought by the London County Council, with the house turned into a library, and the gardens opened to the public.
There was some work to stabilise the ice well in the 1970s, but the main restoration and the new steps were added in 2000, making access much easier. The old entrance still exists, but is bricked up as it leads into someone’s back garden.
Now, the Lee Manor Society opens the ice well for people to visit.
Once the gates are opened, and secured, a small table set up with leaflets for sale, and a toad evicted to the safety of the local bushes, you’re free to go down those modern steps into the subterranean space below the park.
By manor house standards, this is a big ice well structure as most are usually just a small underground chamber, but this has several underground rooms, leading to the ice well itself.
To one side is a small room that you need to bend down to get into, and is thought to have been a store for coal or ash, but the main chambers are to the other side, and through a former cold store, and then a corridor, to the ice well chamber at the far end.
Where the rooms look conventional, the ice well is noticeably very different, being circular and deeper than the rest of the space. Unseen from where you can stand a small drainage pipe at the bottom would take away any melt water to stop it from melting the rest of the ice in the well.
Away from the storage rooms you walked through, this deep corner is quite an atmospheric space, feeling almost a bit spooky and ancient.
Candidly, you’ll struggle to spend more than five minutes down there, but then again, just how often do you get to spend five minutes standing in a 250 year old ice well?
The ice well is open on the first and third Sunday of each month between April to September between 3pm to 5pm.
Entry is free, but do bring 50p for the leaflet.
The ice well is in Manor House Gardens, a public park a short walk from Hither Green station, or a 10-minute bus ride from Lewisham town centre.
There’s also a decent cafe in the park if you arrive feeling peckish.
There’s also a huge ice well in the Canal Museum in central London, which is open on one day a year in the summer.