Lion Salt Works

Kate Harland

Cheshire West & Chester Council

Lion Salt Works

Ollershaw Lane Marston Northwich Cheshire CW9 6ES United Kingdom

Cheshire, United Kingdom

National Lottery Best Heritage Project 2016


A Restoration For The Future





Lion Salt Works, located in North-West England, is one of the last open-pan, salt-making sites in the world and historically, its salt was exported in vast quantities around the world.  Produced here for centuries,due to the huge deposits buried deep beneath the Cheshire plain, salt has also been a key factor in influencing the industry, environment and landscape of the region as well as the lives of salt working communities. Thelocal,national and global significance of the site was recognised after closure in 1986 and it was designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument in 2002, giving it equivalent legal protection as Stonehenge.  It is one of only four similar sites world-wide.


Salt is the difference between life and death.  The sodium in salt is essential to life.  Roman legionaries were paid a salt ls"salaryrs" giving resources to preserve meat or dairy produce and cure leather. Salt is now also used in a wide range of chemical and industrial processes, most notably plastics and glass, detergents and water treatment.   Only 14% of total salt production is used for road de-icing and food production.  

Salt was one of the key geological drivers for settlements in Cheshire.  Over 300 million years ago, small sea-lakes, lying along the equator, were repeatedly filled and sun-evaporated over a period of about 45 million years, leaving two thick layers of pink, sand-filled rock salt.  Continental shift sandwiched the layers of rock salt, known as Northwich Halite.They now lie under mid-Cheshire, are 25-33M thick and are topped by a 40M layer of mudstone.  Rain water percolates the mudstone and runs along the top salt layer, the Wet Rock Head, emerging through fissures as brine springs ndash; the brine is eight times saltier than sea water.  For the Romans, boiling brine to make salt was far easier than mining rock salt.

Salt mining continues in Cheshire as well as brine salt production, although current techniques prevent the extreme problems of subsidence.  During the 1700s, salt miners left pillars of salt in the Bottom Bed to retain geological integrity.  The cavities filled with ground water and dissolved the rock salt to a stable brine of 26%. Some open pan producers began to pump mine-cavity brine for the boiling pans.  ls"Flashesrs" occurred when the salt pillars dissolved and the ground collapsed into the mine often taking with it buildings and canals.  The Adelaide Mine, next to lion Salt Works, collapsed in 1928 and the surrounding area continued to subside for decades.

Roman and Medieval lead salt pans demonstrate that the process of boiling, evaporation and ls"drawingrs" salt didnrs"t change, but got bigger as demand increased. More effective means of brine pumping increased brine supply. Improved transport, on canals and rail, built international markets from America to New Zealand.  Different consistencies of salt could be produced for different markets:  Lagos Salt, for the African market, was a fine crystal salt made during a hot boil; larger crystal ls"fishery saltrs" was made on a cooler boil and used for packing and preserving fish.

The language of the salt-making process is unique andpoetic.  The brine stream, called ls"Roaring Megrs", was pumped to a storage tank using a nodding donkey. The tank fed brine to the pans which were heated according to quality of salt required.  Wallers, lumpmen and lofters used rakes, skimmers, mundlingsticks, lofting spines and happers and to draw the salt from the pans, pack into blocks, move through the hotties for drying and finally up to crushing and packing areas. 

The Thompson family ran the site for six generations, from 1894 to 1986, and built a series of pans responding to changes in transport, fuel costs and market demands.  All were built with minimal foundations, never designed for a life of more than 30 years.  The lack of investment contributed to the eventual demise of the business along with the collapse of the African market, subsidence and a decreased brine supply.

The Lion Salt Works Trust realised the significance of the site and galvanised support after closure in 1986, keeping the dream alive for a restoration. During the early months of 2000 Donald Insall Architects and Cheshire West and Chester Council began to investigate the possibilities for restoration with Heritage Lottery Funding.  Initial surveys digital scans highlighted the instability of the structures.  The key issues for DIA were: to provide new accessible visitor facilities within the historic buildings; to integrate structural solutions while retaining the integrity of the site and to maximise the life-span with minimal on-going maintenance costs. DIA worked with Richard Fowler Associates and Cheshire West and Chester Council to create a high quality regional visitor attraction offering an understanding of the salt-making process.

Builders, Wates Construction, took over the site in 2012 and the highly skilled teams worked incrementally on the complex set of collapsing buildings, often re-learning old methods of construction, to meet the challenges of safety and building integrity.  Council curators and Beck began the installations for a layered interpretation scheme and throughout the entire process an archaeologist was on site to make sure that everything was recorded.  In total, restoration took four years.  The museum offers the visitor a history of the site before recruiting them to the work-force, preparing them for work in the original pan-houses.


In April 2015, Lion Salt Works restoration was Highly Commended by Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors for ls"expertise, precision and carers" and on the day of opening, 5 June 2015, was awarded for skilled architectural oversight and restoration demonstrating the ld"highest quality restoration and building re-userd"  ( Heritage Award, 2015 North West Regional Construction Awards).  In March 2016 the museum won the Conservation Category of the Civic Trust.In September 2016, the site won the National Lottery Awards for Heritage. This is one of the UKrs"s most prestigious awards and was given following a national public vote. In August 2017, Sandford Awards recognised ld"the excellence of its imaginative teaching and inspirational learning activities with schoolsrd".

Visitors have embraced the site and volunteers offer added-value roles, particularly tour-guiding, oral histories and family events.  We respond to the ambitions of visitors and facilitate their interpretation with partner organisations. Volunteers drive the temporary exhibition programme with site-related displays: modern salt production; WW1 salt-workers; 1930s railway posters based on the local railway; brickworks and terracotta.  The site is an Anchor Point of European Routes to Industrial Heritage and is home to the annual Salt of the Earth event.Other groups have developed additional interpretation through theatre, photography, poetry, information panels; a virtual reality film of a salt workers love storyand, in September 2017, Live and Local used the site for a community festival. 

The practice of museums giving information and controlling access ischanging rapidly with the desire of the community to be in control of its own heritage.  Museums staff facilitate this process and are using the Lion Salt Works experience as a modelfor community engagement in other museums.  Lion Salt Works is much more than the restoration of a building; it has been claimed by the community as a secure foundation forthe future of civic pride and cohesion.


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