Arenberg Castle’s 18th-century ice house put to the test


Can a 200-year-old ice house still keeps blocks of ice whole? Leuven aims to find out in the great Arenberg ice house experiment

25 tonnes of block ice

Before the days of electric refrigeration, the only way to have ice in the summer was to collect it in the depths of winter and keep it frozen, for example in an ice house. At least that’s the story. This week an experiment began at Arenberg Castle in Leuven to see if these ice houses really work.

The ice house at Arenberg Castle is thought to have been built between 1780 and 1820. It consists of a brick-lined pit, covered with a dome and a thick layer of earth. Now grown over with trees, all you can see from the surface is a piece of wall with a door that appears to lead underground.

Regionaal Landschap Dijleland, a local organisation working on nature and heritage projects, restored the ice house last year as part of the Arenberg Festival. This involved pulling some 15 tonnes of rubble and other debris out of the pit, and rebuilding the entrance.

Now the idea is to see if it really can keep ice frozen into the summer. Originally the ice would have been collected from frozen ponds or rivers, but for the purposes of the experiment commercially produced ice has been used.

Public invited to re-opening

This week some 25 tonnes was delivered to the Arenberg estate, sawn into blocks and then slid along a chute into the pit. There it will stay until 8 September – Open Monument Day – when the ice house will be opened up again so the public can see how much ice remains.

In the meantime, the researchers will follow what happens inside. “With the help of sensors and a webcam, we can keep a close eye on the melting process,” project officer Wim Aertsen told VRT. “We will hopefully also find out which factors influence the melting process.”

Regionaal Landschap Dijleland has a longstanding interest in ice houses and similar underground structures, such as military bunkers. Flemish Brabant still has some 50 ice houses, connected to castles, stately manors and townhouses. Past projects have involved restoring them and fitting them out as winter refuges for bats.

Photo: The newly constructed entryway to Arenberg Castle’s Ice House