Saturday, 13 September 2014

Salt of the earth!

Chris and I visited the Lion Salt Works at Marston, Northwich about 30 years ago, while it was still a going concern. They produced pan-dried salt and sold it; we bought a packet and a 'Lion Saltworks' salt holder. Lion is the last surviving pan salt works and it closed in 1986 whereupon it was purchased by Cheshire County Council to prevent its demolition. With the help of a lottery grant of £5m and a similar amount from Cheshire West Council it is being restored and will re-open next year. But only as a museum, not as a working salt works.

As part of Heritage Open Days 2014 Lion Salt Works was open today to allow people to see progress so far, and most impressive it is. Malc and I fired up the little bikes this afternoon and headed down there to take a look.

The pan salt process involved pumping natural brine from the Cheshire salt beds (one at 300 feet down, the other at 150 feet) laid down by long ago evaporated inland seas which covered the area at different times many millions of years ago. Ground water erodes the rock salt to form brine, and it is this which is pumped to the surface by steam engine and 'nodding donkey' pump (latterly an electric pump was used instead) and stored in a tank. The brine is fed to large iron open pans in wooden pan houses. The pans were heated by coal brought from North Staffordshire by canal and the over a period of several days the water was boiled off to leave the salt crystals in the pan. The salt was then dried, crushed and ground in a mill, and bagged for dispatch to customers by canal or rail.

General layout of Lion Salt Works. The steam engine (in the blue building with chimney) pumped brine from below ground into the storage tank next to the narrow boat on the canal. From here it was piped to the pans in the wooden pan houses (wood so it wouldn't corrode in the salt-laden atmosphere). From the pan houses the 'dogs' of wet salt were moved to the stove houses where the hot gasses from the pans passed through flues under the steel floor to dry the salt dogs, the gasses and smoke exiting from the smaller chimney. The salt was then ground from solid blocks (the 'dogs') to consistency for table or preservation use.

Our Honda C90s parked in the bike rack at the salt works while Malc retrieves his 'snap' from the top box

A stove house refurbished as the visitor centre, seen from the tables where we had our snap 

The steam engine, a single cylinder horizontal, and in front of it the electric motor which later replaced it 

These are rare now; a railway salt wagon. Hornby Dublo model railways used to produce one in yellow, with a grey roof, and 'Saxa Salt' in red script on the side shown below.

Hornby model salt wagon

An iron salt pan, made of riveted plates so plates which corroded away could be replaced. The brine was piped into the pan and coal furnaces beneath it boiled off all the water over a period of several days. As the salt crystals formed they were raked to the sides using the rake shown, and packed into elm wood (later fibreglass) 'salt dog' molds to go to the stove house for drying. Later, the pans were heated by oil firing.

Furnace doors under a salt pan

Wet salt being packed into 'dogs' from the pan, back when the works was operating

The remains of the stove house. The channels were flues for the hot gasses from the pan furnaces to heat steel plates forming the stove house floor on which the salt dogs were stacked for drying.

There were tours of the site, and this is our guide standing by a 'dog' of dried salt. The salt mill is behind him, where these dogs were ground

The salt mill. Salt dogs were introduced at the top, and ground to powder which exited the mill by the chutes, to be bagged for sale. 

The brine tank, showing signs of corrosion and subsidence of its brick base, where new courses have been inserted to keep it level 

The 3-tube 'Cornish' boiler which powered the steam engine. It was in daily use until as late as 1980.

The composition of Northwich brine. Modern vacuum process salt works purify the brine before evaporation to extract all but the sodium chloride. Pan salt such as that from Lion Works contained the other salts and trace elements which gave it distinctive flavor. 

It's good to see projects like this going ahead, celebrating our recent industrial past and educating future generations. Hats off to Cheshire West Council for having the initiative to make it happen. We'll be back next year to see the finished museum.

And if anyone has any spare time - they are looking to recruit volunteers to run the place when it opens officially, next year.

Malc and I fired up the little bikes and headed home - via a refreshing pint of excellent Sam Smiths bitter at the 'Bird' at Knolls Green on the way.


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