With the upcoming release of my lastest book, The Salt Routes, I thought a sample may whet your appetite. I traced and followed these routes from the two major sources across large stretches of England reaching places as far apart as Bristol, Princes Risborough, Brailes, Burnley and Knaresborough. Along the route I found clues that the salters had brought their wares this way for centuries. Sometimes I encountered modern obstacles forcing me to detour, others would have troubled our ancestors too (such as the Thames, Trent & Mersey), conversely some areas will have changed little since pre-Roman times.
Here is a sample from the introduction and does not include any of the routes. Any comments, particularly from those who have purchased a copy, will be much appreciated.
"The sources of salt were few, although clearly being an island and surrounded by salt water helped those on the coastline. Inland some salt was extracted in the northeast around Teeside, another long term source was found in Somerset, later another mine was excavated at Carrick Fergus in Ireland. However the two main sources were Cheshire and Droitwich in Worcestershire and these will provide the focal point of our journeys.
These deposits come from an ancient sea which was flooded and dried out as land and sea levels fluctuated during the Triassic and Permian geological periods around 220 million years ago. This left a bed of salt which naturally is deepest at the lowest depths of the sea. It is this band of salt many feet thick which is all that remains of the nameless sea which covered a huge swathe of the country from Teesside in the northeast across to Cheshire, Shropshire and down to Somerset and Dorset, with the western edge reaching out as far as Northern Ireland. Those who maintain that common salt is not as good as sea salt should note the huge salt deposits in Britain are all derived from some of the oldest seas on the planet, salt laid down when the seas evaporated long before it had a chance to be polluted by burning fossil fuels. Indeed many of those lifeforms which provided the fossil fuels had not yet existed.
This ancient sea was enclosed by dunes, for Europe was then much further south close to the equator and a hot sandy desert extended across much of the world's smallest continent. The planet's crust is not solid but made up of several tectonic plates, areas of the fractured crust which float on the liquid magma at the earth's core. Slipping and sliding against, over and under one another along fault lines these are the reason for earthquakes and the hotspots for volcanic activity. Creeping northwards at just inches per year, the basin was repeatedly flooded and evaporated under the burning sun.
Other outcroppings of the salt have been discovered Essex and Lincolnshire, doubtless extends under the North Sea and has been mined on the Continent at sites such as Lorraine in France, De Panne in Belgium, at Hallstatt and Hallein in Austria, at Halle in Germany, and at Krakow in Poland. Note these names, Halle, Hallein and Hallstatt are all from Celtic hall meaning 'salt'; the Hallein Salt Mine is in the region of Salzburg, a meaning 'salt castle'; The same word is also seen in English place names Halsall, Halstead and Halwick. Another link between the Celtic and German comes from the Celtic grava meaning 'grey hairs' and once used to describe those Celtic officers responsible for regulating salt and which is preserved in the German title Graf the equal of a Count or Earl.
The extent of the salt brine lake beneath Droitwich has never been understood. However the two points of extraction, at Droitwich and Stoke Prior, are undoubtedly fed by the same source for it was shown that they were always at the same depth and of the same concentration. These figures never changed, no matter how wet or dry the season.
Gathering salt began in prehistory when sea water was evaporated by throwing it on to hot rocks around a fire and scraping off the resulting crystals. Prior to the arrival of the Romans, the Britons were evaporating brine in pottery pans supported on mud bricks over a wood fire. These pans were approximately two feet square and approximately half an inch thick, clearly these dimensions show the pans were produced solely for salt production as they would have been virtually useless as anything else.
The Romans arrived and produced their own pans, made from lead. While lead may have been more practical, not only longer lasting but also more efficient heat transfer, today we would also question the wisdom of using a metal which would have brought the real danger of lead poisoning. One Roman salt pan is on display in Warrington Museum, measuring approximately three feet by one foot and six inches deep.
The majority of routes we shall be following are based on evidence from the later Saxon era and a Saxon pan has been uncovered too. Measuring two feet square and three inches in depth, this would have held seven gallons of brine and produced fourteen pounds of salt. We know from Domesday that a fully laden horse carried fifteen boilings which, multiplying this out, comes to approximately two hundredweights and thus a train of ten pack animals carried a ton of salt overland.
Each packhorse carried eight of the conical containers which characterises Droitwich salt, four on each side. As salt is so readily soluble it is these containers which mark the salt as being from Droitwich, an important clue when there are no recorded salt rights. These containers were called mitts and, as was common during medieval England, another example of a measure of dry goods by volume rather than weight. Unlike other measures such as bushels and pecks, used to measure grain, a mitt was only used for salt and hence would have been always around two stones or twenty-eight pounds in weight.
Even if the salt had survived to the modern day it would have been difficult to state exactly where it had come from, yet evidence can be found. Documented records of settlements with salt rights, place names refer to salt in the roads, hills, streams and stopping places along the distribution network, and archaeologists have discovered evidence of the baskets or mitts which carried the salt. Such archeological remains have been found at thirty-five sites in England, while Domesday quotes sixty-eight other manors with rights to receive salt from Droitwich, none of which are more than a few miles north of the town. This shows the settlements north of here received their salt from an alternative source, which is clearly the Cheshire wyches. It is clear there was no healthy competition between the two, the lines had been drawn early by the Saxon feudal system and were not crossed.
Sometimes salt was linked to a single destination and it takes a little detective work to find out the association. For example, north of Redditch in Worcestershire is a Salters Lane which appears to be heading for Bordesley Abbey. This is the only road or lane out of fifteen documented between 777 and 1042 which cannot be placed on a known salt route. Furthermore, there is no reference to salt rights for Bordesley Abbey in any of the usual documents. Yet the trail can be followed between the two places, linked by Christianity.
In a charter bearing the seal of Richard I, the gift of land at Droitwich is made to Bishop Simon (1125-50) of Bordesley Abbey. Along with the land came the salt pit, while in a contemporary document the annual value of the salt to the abbey (while the source is not named) is given as four pounds and eight shillings.
Such routes did not simply run from A to B but, like the tributaries of major rivers in reverse, filter out into an array of routes and thus serve whole regions. Furthermore these tendrils often weave intricate patterns and interchange. These were not bus or train routes and did not follow either timetable nor the same route every time. To show this we shall be travelling alternatives branching off a from the main route.
While there are no maps of the early routes, we can safely assume that the roads of today naturally follow a line at least close to the earlier tracks. Stand back and take a long look at any map of the country and see how A-roads, canals, and railway lines all follow similar paths. Not only do they avoid the obvious hills and mountains, the valleys and rivers, but take every opportunity to stay on as even a path as possible.
Engineers are well aware how much it costs to go over or through an obstacle when compared to a flat plain or nice gentle inclines, while any cyclist or walker will soon feel the hill. Similarly the earliest travellers were in for the long distance and would have taken the easiest path, through a valley cut by the river, or along the ridge of higher land and away from avoiding the wetter lowlands. It is difficult not to see the wild animals following the same routes, moving from one feeding ground to the next as the seasons progress. Keep this in mind as we follow a number of routes across the country in the following pages, it will make the reasons for each track easier to understand and follow.
This book not only contains details of the salt routes, but also looks at some of the people and places for whom salt extraction was a way of life, a very tough way to earn a living indeed. We shall also look at some of the uses of salt and, as we will see, how this simple compound is linked to so many aspects of life in the modern era, throughout recorded history and long before. We shall see how it affected cultures, empires, language, economies and even the climate."