What a glorious day we had for our first trip of the summer season! We all met at the boat lift for the experience of transitioning from the heights of the Trent and Mersey canal to the deeps of the River Weaver navigation. The guide on board the boat, who was very informative told us that the canal was much shallower than the river which was 16ft deep. Why would you waste time and energy excavating a canal to deeper than needful for the draught of the boats? Another interesting fact about the River Weaver navigation was that it became extensively polluted by salt which, with what we learnt on the rest of the trip was unsurprising.
You enter the lift by means of an aqueduct and the lift is constructed on an island in the river. It was built in 1875. There are actually 2 lifts in caissons; the height of the lift is 80ft and it is an impressive structure . After slowly and gently moving along the aqueduct you enter the lift. The boat then drops almost imperceptibly to the River Weaver. We could stand up in the boat and look over the half caisson containing the boat as it descended. It is the world’s oldest boat lift and it was constructed to reduce the time taken to take bulk goods to Liverpool and Manchester. It has during its history been modernised and it was computerised in 2000. It was originally operated by water but owing to salt contamination it is now run on hydraulic oil. Gradients in waterways are usually managed by locks but there isn’t sufficient water in the canal to create a series of locks which could cope with the drop so that is the reason the boat lift was built. When originally opened there were chutes for the goods to be transferred.
The lift was designed by Edwin Clark in the 1860s but construction did not start until 1873. It is a little known fact that by 1855 80% of canals were owned by railway companies. They were still an economic force in the transportation of goods. The guide, as a little aside, described the difference between barges and narrow boats; the former are 14ft wide and the latter 7ft wide.
After having safely settled on the river we were then taken for a short river cruise. The river has now been cleaned up of it’s salt contamination to a great extent and is now a haven for wildlife although as the day was so hot much of the fauna was conserving it’s energy though we did spot some ducks and a heron patiently waiting for its next unsuspecting meal. The guide explained that much of the land round about had been subject to subsidence because of the around 200 saltmines in the area which had resulted in “flashes,” lakes of which there are many in the area. Some of these flashes had been reinstated with clinker etc. After the tranquil trip on the river we went for lunch and in the afternoon we went to the nearby Salt Works museum.
We there were taken on a booked tour by a very knowledgeable guide who one could tell had a great love and understanding of her subject. She commenced her introduction by telling us something of the geology which had resulted in the great amount of salt locked into the sub strata in this small part of Cheshire. There are 2 seams of salt both approximately 25 metres deep separated by marl. There are also many brine springs and streams. In 1894 local entrepreneurs Ingram and Thompson decided to sink a borehole to see if they could tap into a brine spring. Brine is 8 times more salty than normal seawater so there was obviously great potential. They were successful so having obtained the land on which a pub called the Red Lion sat they demolished the pub and started their salt works. They did however build another pub for their workers in which the beer was laced with salt not just so they would drink more but to replace the great amount of salt they excreted during the very hot and laborious work of salt making.
There were indoor salt pans and outdoor salt pans of which examples could be seen. The salt made outside was coarser as it was heated to a less intense temperature and the workers on this operation were known as wallers. This type of salt was produced for fish preservation and for industrial uses. The indoor pans produced fine salt typically for table use. This factory also produced Lagos salt which was exported through Manchester to Nigeria , the delta in Lagos was deemed unsuitable for salt making . This factory remained in production until 1986 when it was considered unprofitable.
The guide gave us a tour of the premises. We started in an introductory area where there were examples of Roman and Medieval salt pans: the Roman one was made of lead and the Medieval one of iron. Interesting artefacts were medieval leather shoe soles which had been tanned using salt. There was also part of a salt boat constructed out of a single huge trunk. Then we entered the works proper through the offices etc. to the works themselves which were much larger and more extensive than was readily apparent from outside. There were many different processes that the salt went through and the work was exceedingly hot. It was very hot on our visit because of the weather with no furnaces going! The men that worked these indoor pans were known as lumpers as they made fine lump salt. The work could be dangerous because of the possibility of falling into the bubbling salt and heavy bags being hoisted and loaded. In the factory there were interesting and informative tableaux and information boards along with giant photos showing the extensive subsidence caused by the many salt mines and salt works in the locality. We could see 2 flashes close by from the upper floor, peaceful and serene and in our time full of wildlife. Indeed there is still a fund in operation in the Northwich area to deal with the extensive subsidence issues. The integration of the salt industry was also in evidence here as a branch line from the mid-Cheshire railway entered the works yard.
This was a most rewarding excursion which gave us insight into what was, for most of us, a little known industry and which was so important in the development of the Industrial Revolution.
Words by Jeanette Dobson
Photos by Chris Birkett
Posted by Wendy Ferneyhough