Up up and away


Who’d have thought a few days trip to explore the River Weaver would have turned into a several weeks staycation in a marina. Much as we have been grateful for the friendship and sanctuary, and not to mention convenience of Northwich Quay, we are confirmed continuous cruisers, and we’ve been desperate to be on the move again. With Firecrest restored to being a fully self sufficient boat again, we crept silently away this morning. Well it would have been silent if we hadn’t had farewell waves from our neighbours, perhaps they were glad to see the back of us.

Leaving Northwich Quay Marina mooring

Despite the early cloud it soon looked like a promising day as we approached the Anderton boat lift

Approaching the lift

And at 11:30 It was our turn to be swallowed up by the cavenous structure

We were to share our passage up with Leo, whom we hadn’t met before but they immediately recognised us from having read our blog, thankyou Leo, it’s always nice to meet our readers (And again we apologise for not having comments or contact enabled, that’s one step beyond my technical comprehension).

Nestled in with Leo

Strangely we found going up more exciting than coming down, I think it’s because we were much more aware of the opposite caisson descending.

I hope it doesn’t collapse

But it’s always fun to see your counterbalance midway

One up one down

And to wish them well for the river 50 foot below

Looking down onto the weaver

But we had had our fill of rivers for this year. Back to Canal life. Our plan is to head south. It doesn’t feel right on such a balmy day like this but we only have 6 weeks before the planned winter closures start in November, and we don’t want a last minute rush or to get caught by any other imposed lockdown. So we turned right as we left the lift and manoeuvred though all the boats enjoying this very pretty area and past the Lion Salt works that we’d walked up to.

The Lion Salt works from the canal

And from the 19th century salt chemical works onto the 21st century salt chemical works, as we cruised through the TATA plant at Lostock

21st century industry

One of the pipe bridges had been enhanced by some fancy iron cut outs recognising the regions salty chemical heritage.

It didnt take Eric long to translate the formula.

Sodium Chloride + Water = Sodium Hydroxide + chlorine + hydrogen

The canal continued to be dominated by its mining heritage with boat yards, historic wharfs and flashes but after a few miles we were in truely beautiful rural England,

The Trent and Mersey Canal at its best

And we were happy again.

Eric and Cheryl at our best

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.