Having found ourselves stranded with a broken down boat, we’ve had plenty of time to explore Northwich. It’s not a place I’ve ever visited before and I really had no knowledge of its who’s how’s and why’s. We knew the Romans had been to Chester so it stands to reason that this little Cheshire town would probably also have a story to tell. And our first impressions were right. The town centre was full of beautiful intricate of black and white timber buildings…..
But hang on a minute, a lot of them have construction dates on them , 1890, 1909 etc, and as far as I knew the Tudors had long since gone out of fashion so what was going on here. Luckily Tim and Pru got here before us and had televised their visit to the area, so I did have my suspicions There two local museums and being closer, we decided to visit the Weaver Hall workhouse first.. Here’s my potted history of Northwich, a town built on salt.
The Romans set up camp because of the easy river crossing and the brine ponds. They called it Condate, (which means confluence, in this case of the rivers Dane and Weaver). Salt/saline was a valuable commodity to them, there’s even some thought that the word Salary derives from the latin Saline. Lead pans used for salt evaporation have been found in local archeological digs. Another clue to its history is Watling Street, the long Roman M1, passes through Northwich.
The Romans left and during medieval times the town became known as Northwich, “wich” being the term given to places associated with salt production. In 1670 the Smith-Barrys of Marbury Hall discovered rock salt underground when they were looking to further their fortune with coal, so changed their business plan and salt mining began.
However in the late 1800s it became uneconomic to physically mine salt so production was changed to pumping water into the mines to create brine, which was then pumped back out and evaporated much like the canny Romans had done, except on a much much larger scale. It didn’t take long though for the consequences of the mining made themselves known.
Rock salt mines leave 30% behind to create structural support pillars. However, pumping water into the mines caused these structural pillars to dissolve and consequently by the 1880s large parts of Northwich suffered severe subsidence.
Undeterred by their sinking town, those masterful Victorian engineers devised a system to shore up the remaining buildings and rebuilt a town full of mock Tudor buildings, hence the dates that caused us such confusion originally. Although the mechanics can’t be seen a lot of the high street buildings have steel supports which could be jacked up to relevel buildings that were collapsing. In recent years the mines have been backfilled to prevent further problems.
Of course there’s a lot more to Northwich than salt. The by-products led scientists to create new products. ICI, the Imperial Chemical Industries was the amalgamation of three companies in 1926. Polythene was created here in 1933. A mixed blessing in this age of environmental awareness.
Northwich however doesn’t present itself as an industrial wasteland. The mining subsidence has allowed the creation of naturalized open land and flashes, which the community can enjoy.
Again, we’ve been hampered by Covid from exploring inside the buildings as we’d choose, but much as we’d have preffered not to spend a few weeks here, Northwich hasn’t been such a bad place to break down.
There loads of interesting facts about the salt industry in the Lion Salt works, I hope my salty tale has whet your appetite to stop off here to discover more, I’ll share our visit to the other museum, The Lion Salt works in my next post.