The Lion Salt Works

This little heritage museum on the banks of the Trent and Mersey Canal is well worth an hour or two, the £6 entrance fee and a 40 minute walk up from our Northwich Quay Marina mooring. Usually there are guided tours with knowledgeable local people who really know their stuff but alas we just had to follow the arrows.

The lion salt works

Although it is no longer producing salt, the buildings and much of the machinery are still in place and you really get a feel for the sweat and toil that went into making something we all take for granted. It might be a natural product, but it doesn’t grow on trees. I could impress you all with my scientific knowledge, but the museum posters sums it up so well.

Here’s the science

Cheshire Salt production began as soon as early man realised that the briney water in some of the ponds could preserve food. But through the centuries the surface ponds have gone, used up, evaporated,or drained away. In the 18th century rock salt was discovered underground, and this became a profitable mining industry. But that became uneconomic and in the late 19th century, commercial salt production returned to what had been the old cottage industry method but on a grand scale. And this story is told at the Lion Salt works.

The pumping station

Shafts were sunk to the underground salt layer. Water was pumped in to create a stream which dissolved the rock salt to make brine.

What lies beneath

This was then pumped back into holding tanks and then into sheds with boiling pans the size of a tennis court.

The boiling salt pans

Coal fired furnaces on the ground floor underneath the pans, were stoked to a specific temperature, not only for the water to evaporate off, but, and this is the clever bit, by varying the temperature and the length of time the evaporation takes, the shape and size of the salt crystal is controlled, thus creating different qualities of salt that could be used for differing tasks.

At 38°C fishery salt is a very course, hard to dissolve crystal, used for preserving fish. This salt is taken straight to the warehouses to dry out.
93°C produces a course large grained common salt used in the chemical, manufacturing and pottery industry. It took up to a fortnight for the evaporation to be complete.
110°C produces the fine salt where the pan was ‘doped’ to aid the quick formation of fine crystals used in home cooking, in mediaeval times the doping ingredient was a preciously guarded secret for each salt producer, it could be anything from ox blood or pigs urine, but the Lion Works used egg whites, animal jelly or soap powder, though I’m still not sure I really want to know.
The men that looked after the pans were skilled at their trade, known as lump men. But it was a dangerous tiring job. It was like working in a sauna, except that the salt would chaff their skin. They risked their lives raking the salt across the boiling water, cause they wouldn’t survive falling in.

Hard physical labour for the lump men

Once the desired crystal size had been obtained the salt was raked to the edge, scooped out and packed into block shaped moulds.

The blocks of packed salt were taken to the drying room for several weeks.

The drying room with a heated bricks

And then taken by conveyor belt into a milling machine to be ground back into usable crystals.

The milling shutes

You can see how the wood has been corroded by the salt.

The milling shutes

At the end of a gruelling shift the men and women would nip across the road to the pub to rehydrate themselves and they would also add salt to their beer to compensate for what they’d lost through sweat.

The final stage of the operation

The finished salt was then bagged and taken by barge to the Mersey ports to be shipped all around the world. Nigeria was one of the largest importers of lion salt, but when the country fell into civil war in the early 70s business dried up. The Lion Salt works closed It’s doors in 1986.

The rock salt used for gritting roads is still mined at Winsford about 5 miles downstream. But as we all know too much salt is bad for us, so as Firecrest’s repairs have now been completed, and with some covid lock restrictions still being in place, we have decided to cut our losses and abandon our plans to explore the River Weaver and Winsford.

Hopefully there won’t be any more subsidence causing canal breaches like this one outside the lion salt works in 1907, cause once we get cruising we don’t want any more stoppages.

I’m glad we weren’t moored there.

But Weaver, we’ll be back…

Our Sojourn in Northwich

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…..

Quite an assortment of buildings. We like the one imitating our canal life, a “narrowhouse”

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.

White coal

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.

Imagine waking up with a bump

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.

Necessity the mother of invention

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.

The Winnington ICI plant opposite the Anderton boat lift

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.

Neumann’s flashes

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.

The Anderton Boat Lift, going down

When we are so close, it would have been wrong not to take this opportunity to enjoy another one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways, the Anderton Boat lift. And then spend a few days exploring the River Weaver. But thanks to Covid, everything is running at reduced hours to allow for social distancing, so we enjoyed an extra unplanned night on the 48 hour Anderton Nature Park mooring before we could go down.

The Anderton Nature Park visitor mooring

It was a bit of a grey day when we set off but we’d donned our life jackets and set up the VHF radio so were all set to experience this magnificent Victorian Structure and river life. We paid our fee of £5 and arrived at holding mooring on time. We were greeted by the team, who explained the sequence before being allowed under the bridge and into the first caisson.

Leaving the canal

Under the guillotine closure, that dripped goodness knows what onto us, and onto the iron aqueduct protruding over the River.

This felt a bit like walking the plank only we were still in our boat

Each caisson can accommodate two narrowboats, but this time we were travelling solo. We passed under the machinery housing and tied up as instructed.

Scarily high

80 feet above the River Weaver meant the views were impressive

That’s the river Weaver down there

But looking up, it was really the structure and mechanics above us that we were over awed by.

The overhead pully system remains for show

Surrounded by ironwork we were given a final safety briefing and a short history lesson before our descent.

The lift was built in 1875 to facilitate easier transport of goods, particularly for the potteries of Stoke on Trent and salt from the Cheshire Salt pan. It had been costly, time consuming and dangerous transferring goods between the river and the canal so the two companies from the river, and the railway, (who ran the canal) cooperated, and the lift was born. Essentially it consists of two water filled caissons (iron troughs), as a boat enters a caisson, water is displaced so the weight stays the equal in each side. The caissons are then sealed. A small amount of water is released from the lower caisson causing the upper one to descend. Only a small amount of additional power is required to complete the full cycle. Over it’s lifetime there have been various improvements from the original hydrolic ram system and counterbalancing weights. A lot of the original mechanics have been retained as artifacts on site. There is an interesting summary on wiki that is worth reading the detail.

We waved to our ascendants as they travelled upwards and we travelled down,

It’s the first time our narrowboat has been counterbalanced by a little cruiser

And after about 10 minutes we reached river level

Our guillotine was raised and we cruised out onto the river Weaver

And onto the River

It is really from this position that you can really begin to appreciate the ginormity of the structure and understand why it has the nickname “the catherdral of the canals”

It’s huge

By the 1970s commercial traffic had dried up and the lift was being used mainly for recreational craft. In 1983 corrosion was severe enough to declare it unsafe for use. It was uneconomic to repair so permenantly closed down. Thankfully a group of enthusiastic volunteers formed a trust and various partnerships raised sufficient funds for it to be restored and reopened in 2002. CRT now run an award winning visitor centre and viewing area on site.

From the viewing area

Although I think it is more for gongoozler and family picnics than for boaters, I liked seeing the coming together of 3 centuries hard work. The Victorian boat lift from the 19th century, the ICI factory on the south bank, that arose as an off shoot of the salt works in the 20th century, and now the 21st century priority, leisure.

Something for everyone

The cost of maintenance will always be high, so the on going future of the lift will always be a balancing act, can we as a country afford to maintain this engineering masterpiece. I hope so, but I would urge boaters to use it as soon as possible, it’s not an experience to be missed. We’ll be back soon.


Our next stop, shortly after Shipley, was Saltaire.   We’d heard about this “model village” that was now a world heritage site, but we weren’t prepared to be as awestruck as this. The canal cuts right through the middle of the site and were were graciously permitted the grand total of 6 hour mooring along side the famous mill.

Saltaire Mill
Saltaire canal passage

Frustratingly there’s loads of mooring with rings immediately before this little section but there’s a concrete shelf just below the water level which means you can’t get close enough to step off safely. But gripe over, we took our 6 hours then found an idyllic spot about 1/4 mile beyond which meant we could stay up to 14 days and really absorb the atmosphere of the place.

Mooring below Hirst lock

Saltaire grew out of the vision of Titus Salt, entrepreneur and philanthropist. A very sucessful local business man, manufacturing cloth in Bradford, he naturally wanted to expand his empire. Being an upright Christian man with a strong social conscience, he was concerned by the squalid living conditions of his workforce.  Seeing the ecconomic potential of both canal and railway, he set about building a new mill along the banks of the River Aire. And so in the 1850s “Saltaire” was born.

Looking over the allotments on Victoria street

A purpose built town,”model village” where the whole production of cloth, from fleece to fabric, was done under one, albeit very large one, roof.  And the 4000 employees rented well built houses with amenities for their health and wellbeing. I suspect it was still a very hard life. There were strict rules about moral conduct, but Sir Titus recognised the financial benefit of caring for his community, and it was undoubtedly a better life than living in the slums.

backsteets of Saltaire
One of the back streets

The town was meticulously planned, generally speaking the higher up the ladder you climbed, the more space you got. There were libraries, schools parkland and playing fields, even a hospital and alms houses for those unable to continue working. Strangely though, the bath houses were never accepted, so they were converted into more living accomodation.

Victoria Street

Sir Titus demanded the very best and in true victorian style the buildings were ornately decorated. He managed to obtain the 4 lions that were originally intended to stand at the base of Nelsons column in London (The Trafalgar Square commission had been given to another sculptor after Milnes had made the Saltaire lions, hence the reason they were looking for a home.)

The Saltaire Lions

But perhaps one of the most impressive buildings is the congregational church, which is still an active place of worship. And very beautiful inside.

Saltaire church
The congregational church

Nowadays Saltaire has expanded and is home to more tourists than residents. As the British cloth industry was taken over by cheaper forgein imports, the grand mill fell into decline and disrepair. In the 1980s Johnathon Silver bought the mill and created a thriving environment for artists, visitors and small businesses. The most famous collaboration was with the artist David Hockney, another local man, who’s works are showcased in the many galleries. Hockney’s work is contemporary and not to everyone’s taste, certain aspects of his work are quite simplistic at first glance. But I enjoyed the grandeur of seeing whole series of large pieces displayed together.

Hockney exhibition

It wasn’t all expensive gallery, there was some fascinsting historical information and artifacts on display, in fact with several eateries, something for everyone.

Some of the old machinery

Mum was able to come down by train to share some of my explorations. We discovered 2 craft shops just off the main street, Barley Crafts and the Craft house, insentive enough to return, especially as the ladies at Barley craft insisted I stopped and had a cup of tea with them.  I was able to talk to people who had worked in mill before it closed production and had real living memories of how it was their grandparents day.

The Craft house pigs and Barley Crafts

Then we pretended to be promonading Victorian ladies and went to meet Sir Titus in Roberts Park.

sir Titus Salt
Sir Titus Salt in roberts Park

And his alpacas, Sir Titus was instrumental in popularizing worsted cloth made with Alpaca.

Saltaire alpacas

And finished the day with a traditional “Yorkshire Rascal”, now where did Eric go…

Enjoying a Yorkshire Rascal

The town is now a recognised World Heritage site, recognising the concept and the architecture. We spent several days just wandering around and left knowing there was still more that we hadnt seen.

Looking eastwards between the mills

We might get to see more of Saltaire next year because a film crew was making a feature for Netflix charting the rise of the Football association.

Not sure which century we’re in

Leeds, a creative city

I think Yorkshire is a very creative county, but there’s art and there’s art. Contemporary art seems to dominate Leeds at the moment, I like to think I’m quite open minded and able to see something good in most things. Sadly a lot of what I saw just made me shudder and laugh at the pretentiousness of it all.  One of Leed’s famous sons is Damian Hirst, (Although he was actually born in Bristol). His work is being showcased across the city this year, but in all honesty I’d rather it wasn’t. One of my favourite phrases is “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”

“Hymn” by Hirst

But each to his own, you might think differently.  I saw several of the sculptures around town but I don’t consider them worthy of gracing my pages. What I did like about the art in Leeds, is that it is all so accessible. The museums and galleries are free entry and interesting and even though I considered a lot of what I saw a waste of space. I was glad there were no obstacles to me coming back to look closer.  And I will admit I did like the juxtaposition of the sheep in formaldehyde standing in a room full of old oils.

Black sheep with gold horns by Hirst

Funnily enough most people ignored it, whilst I enjoyed watching the people. There was one piece I liked in the Leeds Art Gallery, a human form created by Anthony Gormley. The Brick Man was a scaled down model of the 180 feet version submitted as part of the regeneration for Leeds railway station. It was to be hollow allowing people inside, sadly it didn’t get planning permission.

The Brick man by Gormley

Next door to the LAG was the Henry Moore institute which I was really looking forward to seeing. But alas, it was full of installation exhibitions by other artists which left me cold, including a room with 3 trestle tables holding blocks of Shea butter, 2 were “representative”, 1 was “interactive.” I tentatively stuck my finger into the greasy mess and made my mark.. then I went off dutifully to wash my hands before I got a bill for millions for having touched something I didn’t realise was art.

A pile of Shea butter…?

This one, by the way, was one of the artists efforts and not to be touched…..
As I said not all of the art around Leeds was rubbish. This outdoor installation was a representation of flying birds made of of plastic milk bottles. I liked this one.

Flying milk bottle birds

But the very best and most enjoyable were the animated Dinosaurs lurking in various shopping centres for the summer season.

Watch out the dinosaurs have cone to town

Eric and I obtained our Jurassic trail card and dutifully tracked down all five of the monsters and got our stickers and stamps. We like art that is interactive and touchable and these marketing gimmick dinosaurs are no less worthy than Damian Hirsts obscenities. Yet for all my inability to comprehend a lot of what I saw, I still consider our stay in Leeds to have been enjoyable and thought provoking. Having got the ball rolling

I am happy to say I remain open minded and am willing to look at most things.

Arriving in Leeds

We like to think of ourselves as country bumpkins at heart, we love mooring in the middle of nowhere surrounded by wildlife and the incessant birdsong. But oh boy do we get a buzz when we enter a big city, and Leeds was to prove no different. Canals by their nature, being part of the industrial transit system, tend to occupy the backwaters of most locations. There’s always dereliction, but sometimes  regeneration and always graffiti. But not all graffiti is offensive. And this was our welcome into Leeds.

Colourful welcome into Leeds

Leeds has its fair share of victorian factory warehouse buildings. It’s a tall city, but we quickly saw some highly desirable waterfront properties as we approached the centre.

Looks a nice place to live

Our aim was to moor in “Leeds dock” a regenerated wharf surrounded by trendy eateries and in our case pylon moorings with electrics. But alas, despite the potential for a lot more  visitor moorings CRT and the local management team only provide space for 3 or 4 visiting boats and we weren’t one of the lucky ones. So we had 24 hours outside on the island high wall.  (At this point we are still on the River Aire with weirs and flood locks) but this gave us a brilliant view of the Royal Armouries Museum. A pity the weather had turned everything dark and grey

Looking towards the Armouries

The following day we were on the ball waiting for spaces in the dock and were able to reach our destination.

Entering Leeds dock

And get one of the prized pontoon places

With 48 hours to go exploring our first stop had to be our overshadowing neighbour the Armouries. Especially as it was now pouring with rain. I was a bit sceptical at first, thinking that this huge purpose built building might just be full of guns, not my idea of a fun day out. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It is a fascinating venue, so much so that after a few hours we got museum overload and left before we’d seen it all. The impressive glass tower housed a display of historical weaponry, and whilst you could say that once you’ve seen one sword and spear do you need to see more, the impressiveness was in the way in which they were displayed. Symmetrically and artistically, as they would have been in castles and kingdoms of old. And of course with the view through the round window of Firecrest moored below.

And the view through the round window is firecrest

The displays weren’t only of weapons of war, but went way back to early mans esential hunting tools, and modern man’s non essential, but visually more impressive  hunting tools.

It didn’t stop at what we know now, there were futuristic film weapons for zapping aliens, just in case. And the beautiful swords from the Lord of Rings trilogy. We were treated to guides in costume giving talks and actual displays of sword fights. All in all it was a very impressive and well done museum, and the best bit is that it is free admission and we got a good view through the rain streaked windows of Firecrest.

Space to explore

One of Leicester’s attractions is the National Space Centre

We’ve seen the brown signs as we’ve whizzed by on 4 wheels but never had the time to stop and investigate. So now that we were close enough to walk into space, it was time to take that giant leap. We invited Tim to join us for the day as he has a degree in astrophysics, I thought he might be able to give Eric some intelligent conversation.

National Space Centre.

Tim and Eric discussing the practicalities of living on the ISS

It was an interesting venue, even though it was geared towards the millions of little aliens swarming beneath our feet from the many school visits taking place. We got a better view looking up

Satellite in the rocket tower.

But being true boaters, once we’d done space, we nipped across the road to the Abbey Pumping Station, a free entry museum, (unlike the expensive NSC) which showcases Leicester’s industrial and technology heritage in magnificent Victorian building

Unlike the space industry where, practicality and weight take high priority, the Victorians added finesse to their structures.

Both eras are awesome but beauty is subjective and if I’m honest I be hard pushed to say which venue I enjoyed more.

It’s a good half hours walk back into the town centre, more if you stop to enjoy the cherry blossom along the river. But there is mooring beyond the museum’s and I’d strongly recommend visiting both if you’re feeling flush, (and yes you’ll see how an astronaut toilet works) and definitely visit the pumping station if you’ve got an hour to spare.

National Space centre

Abbey Pumping Station