SAL EST VITA
Down to the Weaver via the Anderton Lift on Wednesday afternoon – and back onto the deep waters of a river. The Weaver, which is about 20 miles in length, has a dual personality: there are some fine scenic rural stretches as well as lengths dominated by old or current industry.
Right opposite the Lift is a huge industrial complex, formerly run by ICI, now owned by TATA Chemicals Ltd, its products being soda ash, sodium bicarbonate, calcium chloride and associated alkaline chemicals (website information). The Romans managed to extract salt in these parts and ever since then salt extraction and related chemical processes have dominated commercial and industrial activity along the Weaver Valley.
Not far upstream from the Anderton Lift is Northwich (“wych” or “wich” as in Northwich, Nantwich, Middlewich and Droitwich denotes a salt town) and salt has long been at the heart of Northwich’s history. It’s a black and white town
– but references to the Great Collapse can be mystifying. Salt mines in the area relied on rock pillars to support the excavations – but pillars were inclined to dissolve and collapse. Hence in the 1880s flashes appeared (lakes caused by subsidence) and buildings sloped downwards or gave way…
Northwich is in a period of change again; Waitrose has a prominent position opposite Town Wharf but in much of the town shops struggle to stay in business. A new waterside development looks very promising, but according to locals it’s to be car parking, ASDA and a cinema. Road works still seem to be in progress at the southern end of Town Swing Bridge (as they were in September 2014) and elaborate flood defences are being installed to protect property from the River Dane which feeds into the Weaver at Northwich. You sense that local folk are a very forbearing lot…
The head of the Canal and River Trust regulated waters at Winsford is about 6 miles beyond Northwich. The river passes through two locks (each one being a large chamber side by side with a smaller one). A boatyard on the outskirts of Northwich gives an indication of the size of the craft that used to ply this way.
Then, after passing the delightfully rural Vale Royal stretch, the shaft head of the Winsford Rock Salt Mine looms into view. Beyond that is a range of pinkish coloured hills – rock salt, mined from below and used in road treatments during icy weather.
There had been rumours of new moorings at Winsford: the Vale Royal lock keeper did a great deal of head shaking and finger-wagging. “You’re talking about the Flash. That’s shallow. You’re beyond C&RT’s waters up there. If you get stuck you’re on your own…. Get off at the bridge and walk over to have a look if you must!” The Captain was not to be deterred by such dire warnings; indeed he called lily-livered Boatwif (a compliant soul by nature) a wimp! Under Winsford Bridge Cleddau was sailed, the long stretch of Winsford Flash ahead. How idyllic it looked. Just to the left, in the park, was some new concrete and a rectangle of a mooring basin. Was it really suitable for narrow boats? Remember the lock keeper’s tale of the boaters taunted by drunken late night dancers during a fair… ? Begrudgingly the Captain acceded to Boatwif’s wishes /wimpishness; slowly he turned the boat and returned to C&RT waters. Later, moored up in glorious silence at the Vale Royal moorings the Arcturus crew described their own Winsford drama, having got seriously stuck while trying to moor inside the silted up basin… “You were right,” the Captain conceded graciously to Boatwif later that evening…
It was to be a short Weaver cruise only this time; by Friday evening Cleddau was in prime position, moored on the new pontoons below Anderton Lift, ready for a Saturday morning upward passage. Though human visitors had left the Anderton slopes, the rabbits were out to play, darting and scurrying to and fro.
It was 0950 on Saturday when Cleddau was waved into the caisson for what was to be a lonely ascent: no companion boat alongside in the tank, no boats in the descending caisson to cross with at the mid-point, no crowds of curious sightseers waving from the bank or the Visitor Centre viewing terrace – only a couple of early walkers on the bridge beyond the aqueduct that connects the Lift back to the Trent and Mersey Canal.
From Anderton (in rain) it is just a canal mile to the Lion Salt Works . There on a scrap piece of paper was SAL EST VITA (Salt is life), the motto which appears on the Northwich coat of arms. BBC viewers might remember the 2004 Griff Rhys Jones Restoration series in which projects in need of funding pitched for financial support. While not a winner the Salt Museum eventually gained Heritage Lottery funding and further support from Cheshire West and Chester Council. Now the site of derelict buildings has been transformed into a first class museum which explains open pan salt making. Salt brine would be pumped up from underground and boiled three times. Different types of salt would be made by boiling the salt at different temperatures and by adding different substances. An interactive presentation vividly portrays the harshness of working conditions.
There is industry-specific vocabulary of course: there were lumpmen, wallers and lofters using tools such as skimmers, lofting prongs and happers… The Lion Salt Works finally closed in 1986, when its last major market in Nigeria failed due to wars and political turbulence.
Salt has had long term effects of course on this landscape: there are the flashes, the factories, the paraphernalia needed to deal with the piles of rock salt,
the canal and river transport systems – and also damaged environments regenerating. Did you know, by the way, that silver birches are early arrivals in a recovering landscape? If travelling in the Northwich area make the fascinating Lion Salt Museum a Must See destination.
This has “graced the dining table” in recent days. The on-board salt cum pepper shaker had refused any more to deliver salt (corroded at the salt end) – so there was a hunt in Northwich for a replacement. Now though, it is that unusual thing, a useful souvenir!
Two days further on Cleddau is through Middlewich (forever remembered as the OfSTED town, ahead of its bumper Folk and Boat Festival this coming weekend).
At Wheelock, near Sandbach, there should be two visiting crew on Tuesday, ready to work their passage up Heartbreak Hill. Better have their waterproofs with them!
Miles and locks since leaving Liverpool: 116 miles 25 locks
Miles and locks back to home moorings: 26 miles 39
Monkton Moment*: 1 (A Monkton Moment* is a reference to / recognition of Cleddau’s Pembrokeshire connections)