Historic ice house keeps its cool, but only just

Summary

An experiment to test a historical method of ice preservation at Arenberg Castle was challenged by a long, hot summer

Cruel summer

An experiment to test the 18th-century ice house at Arenberg Castle in Leuven has proved a success, but only just. When the ice house was re-opened last Friday, the 35 tonnes of ice put there in January had dwindled to just a few blocks.

“There’s roughly a metre there, so about five tonnes,” project leader Wim Aertsen told VRT, on hand for the opening. “But I’m glad that at least something is left.”

The castle’s ice house, built between 1780 and 1820, consists of a brick-lined pit, covered with a dome and a thick layer of earth. The idea was that ice collected in the winter, from frozen ponds and streams, would stay frozen in the pit until the summer, when it could be used in the castle’s kitchen.

Having restored the ice house last year, local heritage organisation Regionaal Landschap Dijleland set out to see if it really worked. In January it filled the ice house with some 35 tonnes of ice, packed it with straw and locked the doors.

You didn’t have this kind of hot summer in the past, and that must have played a role

- Wim Aertsen

Sensors and a webcam kept an eye on conditions inside, and by June there was very little sign of melting. Temperatures at the top of the cellar had risen from four to six degrees centigrade, which was not a problem.

But then came a long, hot summer and the temperature inside rose to 12 degrees. “You didn’t have this kind of hot summer in the past, and that must have played a role,” Aertsen told Het Nieuwsblad. “Then, unlike most other ice houses, this one has no ventilation. As a result, the moist air cannot escape, which makes the ice melt faster.”

So while some ice survived the summer, it seems unlikely that this ice house can reliably preserve ice for a whole year.

Photo courtesy Regionaal Landschap Dijleland