Underground Greenwich (8) The Snow Well

Cathy asked (an embarrassingly long time ago):

“I recently read a plaque fixed to the old ice house at Holkham Hall in Norfolk which said that one of the earliest such structures in England was the ‘snow conserver’ built for James I At Greenwich. Any ideas on where it was and what happened to it?”

The Phantom has been pondering on this. It’s clearly an early Ice House – which was the ultimate expression of wealth and sophistication in the 17th Century – a way to cool a drink, or create a fabulous dessert out of season to amazeone’s guests.

Thing is, I can’t find that there was ever one at Greenwich built by James. The first Ice house was introduced in 1660 by King Charles – but in St James’ Park – I wonder if some Chinese-whispers have been going on here? Charles enjoyed the first ice cream in 1662, or so the Internet, which is never wrong, tells me. It doesn’t tell me where, but I haven’t heard of an ice house built in the grounds of the Queen’s House.

However, I have also been thinking about a section in A.D. Webster, which does take this back to Greenwich:

“…on the west of The Obeservatory (was called) “Snow Hill” from the Snow Well there.”

Apparently this is yet another part of Greenwich’s underground heritage (Olympic organisers, take note…) – an old well in an ancient artificial hollow, between Crooms Hill and the Observatory. It’s about 26 ft deep (how big is that in ‘hands’? Think how many horses you could get in that hole) – the bottom part is lines with 16th Century bricks; higher up they’re more recent.

About 4ft from the bottom, a little passage leads off towards St Mary’s Gate (that’s the main Greenwich entrance.) It’s about 4 1/2 feet high and 30 inches wide (a tight fit indeed) but Webster doesn’t say how long it is. I assume it’s another conduit so it goes some way – perhaps towards the old Stock Well?

I don’t think any of this well is visible any more, but the ancient hollow had another use – there used to be a whipping post there for naughty sailors “in frequent use to a late period.”

As to how old the hollow is, Webster seems to think that from the name, it could be Roman. Who can tell…

Anyone got any more on this enigma?


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