After Port Eynon we took the scenic route through Wales and crossed the border to Chester. This region is the hub of British salt-making in the post-medieval era (but with strong earlier precedents). The towns of Northwich, Middlewich and Nantwich are particularly well-known hubs of the industry and after a day spent in the archives of the Cheshire Public Record Office we looked forward to a visit to the refurbished Lion Salt Works.
This is a relatively late salt works (19-20th century) now restored for visitors. The works feature exhibits on the life and labours of salt makers, as well as the pan houses, stove houses, brine pump, cistern, salt crushers and cutters and ancillary buildings such as the smithy and manager’s office. The surrounding area is replete with the infrastructure (canals), consequences (flooded pools or ‘flashes’) and by-products of the salt industry (e.g. cottages constructed from waste materials). All in all a very stimulating museum and a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
From Cheshire north to the Solway Coast and a series of salt-related monuments some of which are comparable, and others in total contrast to our Irish sites. One site with Medieval connections to Ireland is the Cistercian abbey at Holme Cultram. Established by monks from the Scottish abbey of Melrose in 1150, it in turn fostered a daughter house at Greyabbey in Co. Down through its connections with the De Courcey family.
Previous survey work around Greyabbey has revealed the extent of the importance of marine resources, including the identification of a series of extensive fish traps that serviced the monastic diet and acted as a source of revenue. In Holme Cultram the monastic economy focused on sheep, fishing and the production of salt. Excavations around the site have produced evidence of trade in the form of salt tokens or weights. Salt was produced on the Solway by a process known as sleeching, whereby salt-impregnated sand and silt was taken from the foreshore and leeched to produce brine. This was then boiled to win salt. At Newton Arlosh (part of the Holme Cultram estate) there survives a series of sleeching mounds – the remnants of this process. These sandy mounds lie above the flat saltmarsh of the Solway and although rather amorphous, some features retain subtle traces of kinches (filtration pits) and reservoirs.
Sleeching as a process has not yet been detected in Ireland (Greyabbey is one of the few sites inspected for similar evidence) and the survival of greater documentation on salt-making around British abbeys is clearly an important component of the evidence. Nevertheless given the right environment and conditions such a process may well have been employed at monasteries across the Irish Sea.
Other notable sites on the English Solway coast include the Crosscanonby kinch and rock-cut bucket pots near Maryport, and brief visits were paid to these. We learned from the current excavation underway at Holme Cultram that we had just missed a salt-making demonstration and field excursion led by British expert Andrew Fielding by about a week. Rotten luck, but onward to Scotland!