The Ice House

Bethlem Wood Library is working on Bethlem Gallery’s Mental Health and Justice project. This is the first year of a four year, Wellcome funded provision for public engagement. Our artists with lived experience programme will be focused on two concepts that have been central to the mental health reform movement: the concept of support in decision-making and the concept of decision-making ability.

The ‘How do we? Why do we?’ event was the first public event in the Mental Health and Justice project at Bethlem Gallery. It coincided with some early and new explorations of the Bethlem site. During previous research, whilst studying past maps of the site, the words “Ice House” appear, enigmatically written across a copse, giving only a vague sense of place. Behind the farm and next to the lakes is about as precise as could be worked out. Before Smeg arrived, Ice houses were Victorian fridges. Prior to the Bethlem hospital being built, there was a large estate called Monks Orchard House which stood on the site and the ice house would have preserved food for the estate’s household. These ice houses were mostly built in the form of buried, inverted eggs. The pointed end would be at the bottom with a drain to take away melted ice, the rounded end would be at the top and above ground with an entrance attached. Ice would have been cut from nearby frozen lakes in winter and stored in the ice house and food preserved in this way.

There are no obvious signs of an icehouse remaining. There are though the remains of a structure, deep in a copse behind where the farm and the lakes used to be, several courses of
brickwork, a sycamore tree now resting a long limb across the top, and a slight hollow in the

On many estates an ice house is a preserved and listed building, restored and opened to the public because Victorian ingenuity, labour and heritage are valued and preserved.

Searching the immediate area there are more signs of brickwork but no coherent sense of the outline of the ice house. Pushing a stick down in between the bricks it is apparent that there are significant voids. On the strength of this the Library obtains an endoscopic camera, small enough to fit through the narrow gaps, lighting the empty space. The hoped for intact ice house fails to materialise; the image of a family of badgers, perhaps, inhabiting the space, feet up, watching the tv remains in the Library. Instead there are multiple voids, narrow, restricted. The fixed focus of the endoscope produces passages of blurred indecipherable images suddenly interrupted by startling clarity of brickwork, roots, leaves, a mouse even. Extraordinarily, there is riotous colour – more so where there is no clear focus, bright blues, reds and yellows, sparkling as though we are seeing crystals.

In one void the camera abruptly reaches the end and a shape is visible, clearly, unmistakably a walnut; in fact half a walnut.

For more information on the Mental Health and Justice multi-disciplinary research initiative please visit