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Of Beauty and of Brine


Foraging near the Lion Salt Works

Notes from workshops, meals and walks with the volunteers of Lion Salt Works, a walk led by local forager Sam Webster and an interview with volunteer Ron Dunn.

'Cold Salads Grass Would be'

We’re walking round Ashton’s and Neumann’s flashes, just to south west of Lion Salt Works, with local forager Sam Webster and a group of the museum’s volunteers, looking for ingredients for a meal (The Great Salt) that I’m planning to cook later in the year for volunteers and museum visitors. Really, both Sam and I are hoping to find halophytes – salt tolerant plants, possibly even edible ones, that are rumoured to grow around the flashes.

A layer of brine sits beneath the surface of the earth in this part of mid Cheshire. When the last ice age melted,1

a massive splurge of glacial freshwater

soaked down to a shallow seam of solid halite – rock salt - just below the surface, dissolving it into brine.  Above the seam, faulting and permeable sands provided a pathway for this brine to reveal itself in natural brine springs which bubbled up from the earth ready to be collected and boiled until completely evaporated, leaving salt crystals remaining - a process which continued unchanged for many centuries,2 and formed the basis of the Lion Salt Works’ commercial production of salt until 1986. 

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Brine springs and spillage from salt extraction have created pockets of inland salt marsh in the area surrounding the Salt Works. A rare ecological category, these patches of salted earth can support halophytic species of fauna - sea plants incongruously flourishing inland. I have a prosaic plan to find some edible ones, and to make a salad from this salted landscape.
A Cheshire folk song imagines our culinary fate if there were ‘no salt beneath the soil’ in Cheshire:3

‘without salt ‘cold salads grass would be’

The word ‘salad’ derives from the Vulgar Latin salata: salt, the shortened form of herba salata: salted herb. The Romans, who (as was their way) efficiently overhauled salt extraction in this region, were also salad pioneers, transforming raw vegetables and leaves with salted dressings. I am sure I can capture all of this context in a dish, if only I can pick some inland sea vegetables!

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Salt shakers made with volunteers

Populated by silver birch, orchids and discreet signage the landscape we walk through with Sam feel new, unestablished – and so it is. This flashes are some of the most recently reclaimed industrial land in the area, born out of the subsidence which wracked this part of mid Cheshire as industrial salt extraction flourished. Beneath the shallow seam of salt and brine, there is a deeper seam of halite, only discovered in the late 17th century. Its discovery heralded salt extraction on an industrial scale, and resulted in the destabilisation of the ground beneath people’s feet.  

‘I mean it was built on salt, and it fell down into salt…'


The earth has never been entirely stable in this part of Cheshire. Ground surface movement is characteristic of any area with shallow underlying salt, because salt is always ready to dissolve. We know this from seasoning our pasta water, or stirring salt into our soup. A quick stir or a little heat is all it takes, and water will absorb more and more salt: until it’s seasoned, then saline, and then salty enough to be called brine. Sea water is around 3.5% salt, but cold water can hold around 26% salt before becoming saturated. 
I find a note on a tablecloth after a lunch that I cook for museum volunteers, with instructions for testing brine strength:

To test brine strength, put a fresh egg or potato into the brine. If it’s salty it will float.

Salt raises the density of water. The more salt in a solution, the greater its density, until it can hold an egg or a potato or a body. If you are a salt producer, the saltier the brine the more efficient your production. Floating eggs indicate profit.5

The brine beneath Cheshire is far more salty than sea water. It’s a salt producer’s dream - a saturated solution – as salty as it gets. As it can’t absorb any more salt, undisturbed, it can sit stable underneath the earth without dissolving the solid rock salt around it. But any surface water which trickles through to the brine will dilute the solution, allowing more salt to be dissolved, and a gradual eating away of the halite seam. Which sees the earth above inevitably shift.

The salt industry’s insatiable appetite for this finest of brines brought about catastrophic ground movement on an entirely different scale. ‘It was like a gold rush’, says Ron, of the rapid expansion of the Cheshire salt industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. By the 1800s there would have been between 70 and 90 different salt manufacturers here. Salt works, like Lion, pumping up and boiling ‘wild’ brine, but also rock salt mines, exploiting the deeper halite seam. The geology supporting homes, factories and roads was hollowed out and dissolved at an unprecedented rate.


Salt spoon made with volunteers, and hand drawn map of the flashes.

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Rock Salt Core, The Lion Salt Works & Weaver Hall, West Cheshire Museums Collection.

Imagine living or working on ground held up by insubstantial pillars of salt, above huge cavities, carved out by rock salt mining, which are sometimes hollowed out some more when ground water gets in to lick away at mine walls. Mines with weak, leaky roofs, because the ground has always shifted here and is porous and faulting, so that sometimes they are simply flooded, creating vast reservoirs of brine. And the need for brine is so voracious that this brine, this ‘bastard brine’ (as it was really, truly called), is also pumped up by salt producers, leaving space for yet more ground water to percolate down and further eat away at supporting walls and pillars.

There is a slower kind of subsidence, which reveals itself in ever widening cracks, in leaning doorframes, and the need for support structures. Buildings that lean, and descend slowly downwards, but this region also become a place of sharp falls ‘as you’ve heard, says Ron, there are stories about walking up the steps into the shops one day, and down the next’ and disappearances: bits of land, roads, homes, pubs and Salt Works collapsing into enormous craters which would appear overnight. And almost overnight the sinkholes, flooded, became lakes – or as they are locally known: Flashes.

‘And the land is all wasted and covered with lime’


We find plenty of edible plants as we walk around the flashes with Sam to guide us. We learn how to make laundry detergent from horse chestnuts and ‘hogweed cheese’, but the land doesn’t turn over any edible halophytes to us. And as our fellow walkers talk, unfolding some of the history of this place as we taste leaves together, I learn that salt’s greatest impact on its plant life is probably a less linear one, that to understand the landscape here, we must understand the history of salt transformed.

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Foraging notes and edible hoard.

All life depends upon salt, everything. And from this one tiny thing, thousands of other things can be made. It’s important for people to know how much has been shaped by the product we get out of the ground here – how much has been shaped by salt.

When they found the new seam of halite on the William Marbury’s Cheshire estate in 1670 ‘that was basically the birth of the chemical industry as we know it,’ Ron tells me. Soon salt was to be extracted, not just for culinary uses, but for use in manufacturing processes, or to be transformed into other, more profitable, products.
Salsola soda is a delicious, spinach-like halophyte native to the Mediterranean, also known as barilla, agretti, Friar’s beard or saltwort. When burnt, the ashes of salsola soda can be washed in water to form an alkali solution. This solution, boiled dry, was named soda ash, after its plant source. Soda ash (sodium carbonate) is a vital ingredient in glass making, as well as in the soap and textile industries. Industries at the heart of the industrial revolution and industries which you can trace from Northwich to the Cheshire and Lancashire textile mills, to Warrington and Port Sunlight (soap) and to St Helens (glass). In the 18th and 19th centuries it was discovered that the demand for soda ash, its natural sources no longer sufficient, could be met by the chemical manipulation of common salt, and Alkali production and its dependent industries spread outwards like a game of join the dots from the salt fields of Cheshire.

Brunner Mond 1893

‘Pure Alkali’ a 1903 poster from Brunner Mond, the Alkali plant established in 1870 in Winnington near Northwich
‘…the Strongest and Purest. Carbonate of Soda, Bicarbonate of Soda, Soda Crystals.’

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Salt samples, a commemorative gift for a chemical company employee.
The Lion Salt Works & Weaver Hall, West Cheshire Museums Collection.

Land of various white powders, I think, its geology distilled into seasoning, raising agent, cleaning product. But don’t let me forget to tell you how dirty it was.
Old photos of the interior of the salt works show orderly stacks of blocks of white salt and clean white walls. The whole place must have gleamed. The steam which rose off the salt pans, surrounding the works and those who work there may well have had beneficial effects on the respiratory systems of workers – the equivalent of inhaling saline steam to ease blocked synuses. Salt is antibacterial, used to preserve food and to clean wounds, because, like most plants except my elusive halophytes, most bacteria are not salt tolerant. They meet their end when all the moisture is sucked out of them via biology’s great equalizing process, osmosis.7 Salt’s bi-products have also long been associated with cleanliness and hygiene: sodium bicarbonate can remove coffee stains and rust, and keep teeth white.


Storing salt at The Lion Salt Works

Now that furnaces no longer burn underneath the pan houses, now that the Salt Works overlook a car park, canal and butterfly garden, it’s easy to forget that the gleaming white blocks were produced by an industry which blighted the land with coal smoke. The form of salt extraction practiced by­ Lion Salt Works was satisfyingly simple – wild brine, pumped up through boreholes and boiled – an ancient process, which seems as natural an industry as any. But it burnt so much fuel that ‘during medieval times, when it was all forest here, wood was so important to salt makers that wood thieves could face the death penalty,’ says Ron. By Victorian times, of course, it was coal smoke that engulfed this region: ‘a forest of chimneys, and all there would have been to see was smoke.’
And then the chemical industry, and new ways to pollute. In particular a kind of lime sludge, waste product of the Solvay (alkali production) process.8 But for this the Weaver Valley, pockmarked with sinkholes and all those lakes, offered up an easy disposal solution, and in the 1950s and 60s vast quantities of lime waste were dumped into the flashes.
‘Cheshire is pretty flat,’ or was, says Ron, ‘but you walk along and see these huge tree covered embankments. They add a bit of interest to the landscape, there’s often a glorious view from the top. But if you saw them from the air you’d realize that they run in straight lines.’ Not natural landscape features, then, but bund walls: terraced structures built of ash to contain the lime waste beds, and to seal the flashes off from the world, until their time came for regeneration and reclamation.

I like the fact, though, that the bicarb industry raised the land full of hills.

Of Beauty and of Brine

Sam and I had walked the flashes in the summer and seen the orchids: the white and pink flowers of Marsh helleborine, and the cylindrical spikes of Common fragrant-orchid. Birdsfoot trefoil, ‘granny’s toenails’ or ‘eggs and bacon’ proliferates in some of the clearings. All are lime loving plants, more commonly found in chalky soil. ‘The flashes are now an alkaline landscape’, Ron explains, ‘just like the South Downs where they have all that chalk – and it’s because of the chemical waste. It’s quite unique for the North West’ – a rare inland calcereous grassland.9

Marsh Orchid
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Marsh Orchids

On the young leaves of birdsfoot trefoil the increasingly rare and unpromisingly named Dingy Skipper butterfly lays its eggs, so that its caterpillars can feast on their only preferred food plant. Brought here by way of the alkali industry, the butterfly has become almost a mascot for local conservationists, a symbol of nature adapting and recovering this post industrial landscape. George Martin, another museum volunteer, shows me round the museum’s butterfly garden. He’s a collector of many things (including ‘handshakes’ he tells me), and this garden is another collection, of buddleia, 38 different species. It’s an irresistible attraction for butterflies and butterfly enthusiasts, the kind of things that bring visitors to this part of the world now, along with the migrating birds which colonise the flashes.

Salt is still being extracted by the chemical industry, which owns much of the land. Gone are the days of ‘wild’ and ‘bastard’ brine, this is an era of sinkhole free ‘controlled brine pumping.’ On my walks back and forth between Northwich station and the museum, I pass one of the pipelines which crisscross the area, transporting brine to be processed. Ron has an optimistic take on these: ‘you see the pipes everywhere. They’re overground here so that they’re easy to maintain, and they’re one of the reasons the land is still so open and undeveloped…. that and all the waste. Without this industry, and without the waste, there would probably just be industrial estates, housing, roads, here, instead of which we have all this land, we are surrounded by all this beauty.’  His words remind me of that Cheshire folk song again, ‘A Song of Salt’, its lyrics a ‘rhapsody saline’ which can hardly have been true for many of the centuries in which it was sung:

And Cheshire is the favoured land/ Of Beauty and of Brine.

A few weeks later, we end The Great Salt, our final meal at the salt works with:

  • Umeboshi, Japanese fermented plums, for their very high salt content (20%) (and for protection from food poisoning)
  • Sherbet, for soda and nostalgia
  • A banana, to combat the effects of over consumption of salt (potassium helps)
  • And a lament, to acknowledge the many things that have disappeared or dissolved in getting to this place:

Farewell to the Brine10

Written by Pete Coe, who was born in Northwich. A version of the song was performed at the Lion Salt Works by Chester folk band The Time Bandits:

"The story was ended before I was born
Of a land that was fertile with cattle and corn
Milk in the dairy and plough on the hill
Cheese for the market and corn for the mill

Sour the milk, bitter the wine bid farewell to the brine

But the big men who moved to the north end of town
For the rock salt and brine which lay under the ground
With pithead and pumphouse and money to hand
They bought out the farmer and ruined the land

Sour the milk, bitter the wine bid farewell to the brine

But the mines are all flooded, the pitshafts all filled
But the ground keeps on sinking, it's not safe to build
And the land is all wasted and covered with lime
Give thanks to the men who came to pump brine

Sour the milk, bitter the wine bid farewell to the brine

And streets that are empty and houses that slant
Are blackened by smoke from the chemical plant
It's good for employment, I heard the men say
But what will you do now they're moving away

Sour the milk, bitter the wine bid farewell to the brine

Now the boatyard stands idle all reddened with rust
And the wind from the river scatters the dust
And the timbers are rotten and fall to the ground
There's never a workman and never a sound.

Sour the milk, bitter the wine bid farewell to the brine."

About the Lion Salt Works and Fairland Collective

Lion Salt Works is a former open pan salt works in Marston, Cheshire, in the Weaver Valley, near the town of Northwich. It was active until from 1894 to 1986, producing salt by boiling and evaporating brine pumped up from beneath the Cheshire soil. In 2015 the site was reopened as a museum, following extensive renovations. Tours of the site are led by volunteers – a large pool of experts and enthusiasts whose stories of life and work in this place are a fascinating resource for visitors trying to understand its industrial and cultural past. 
Fairland Collective met with groups of volunteers during a number of workshops, lunches and a walk, lead by local forager Sam Webster. Their knowledge and storytelling abilities helped us to begin to grasp the complex histories of the area’s salt-shaped landscape. Ron Dunn, a volunteer who we met during one such walk, also generously agreed to an interview on the subject, much of which is transcribed here. Thanks to Ron Dunn, George Martin, Sam Webster, Pete Coe and to all the volunteers and staff of the Lion Salt Works who contributed to this text.

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

Professor Cynthia Burek and Dr. Ros Todhunter, ‘What is Salt’ in Cheshire RIGS February 2016 [accessed online] <>

Go to footnote reference 2.

Salt has been extracted in the Weaver Valley for culinary and preservative uses since the Iron Age.

Go to footnote reference 3.

Cheshire Wyches, 'A Song of Salt', in  Egerton Leigh, Ballads and Tales of Cheshire. London: Longmans and Co.1867.

Go to footnote reference 4.

Lion Salt Works Oral History Transcript Barry Griffiths, 2016, collected by Lion Salt Works/West Cheshire Museums. Full copies of these interviews can be found in Cheshire Record Office.

Go to footnote reference 5.

They would also be nicely seasoned, and museum director Kate Harland tells us that salt works employers used to boil eggs for lunch in the brine, a workplace diversion which harks back to the Roman use of brine as seasoning, where brine – muria -  was served at the table, in the same way we serve salt in saltcellars, for meat or fish to be plunged into it and seasoned. Brine was also used as a forfeit, because the Roman’s were the original frat bros. At the end of a meal, ‘enigmas’ might be proposed to guests, with a delicious dish of some sort served as rewards for those who could guess the answers, whilst those who couldn’t would have to drink a cup of muria without taking breath.

Go to footnote reference 6.

Pete Coe, from Farewell to the Brine. Published : Backshift Music PRS MCPS, from the CD “The Man in The Red Van”. BACKSHIFT MUSIC  BASH CD63  © 2017

Go to footnote reference 7.

Halotolerant bacteria are rare, but sometimes delicious, as it happens. The lactic acid bacteria found in fermented foods, for example, happily survive a life in brine.

Go to footnote reference 8.

Kinhan A Ibrahim, 'An Investigation of Historical Chemical Industry Ash and Lime Waste, and Local Catchment Chemistry, from Near Northwich in Cheshire, United Kingdom, 2015.'

Go to footnote reference 9.

LCT 14: Salt Heritage Landscape [accessed online]

Go to footnote reference 10.

Pete Coe, from Farewell to the Brine.  Published : Backshift Music   PRS  MCPS From the CD “The Man in The Red Van”. BACKSHIFT MUSIC  BASH CD63  © 2017­­­

Niamh Riordan, Fairland Collective.

Niamh Riordan is a Liverpool based artist, who also has a background in cheese selling and maturation. She is a producer and facilitator with Human Libraries, a programme of artist-led workshops and residencies in Sefton Libraries, where she cooks and collaborates on a regular series of food activities and library-cooked lunches. She is part of Fairland Collective, a group of artists and practitioners who collaborate together between Ireland, the UK and France, producing projects that recognise and prompt creativity in daily life. These projects often use cooking and meals to engage networks of people and communities.