Sunday, 26 September 2010

More Salt Facts

Following on from last week's introduction to salt, which resulted a number of appreciative comments (thank you) here I produce a few facts - some may be known others not so well known.

The Salt Routes
is a journey through time as it studies the very earliest days of trade, following the routes on foot, bicycle, or even in a motor if desired.

Sodium Chloride, NaCl, occurs as rock salt or halite and is used today for much more than simply cooking. At the beginning of the 21st century, worldwide salt production was in excess of 210 million metric tonnes and hardly an industry on the planet does not make some use of this simple compound.
But where does it come from? The salt that is being extracted is the result of a dried up sea of some 220 million years ago, even when it is pumped up as saturated brine it is down to rainwater seeping down to disolved the rock salt or, in some cases, where fresh water has been pumped into the band of salt to deliberately produce brine. The salty sea derives its salt from the land, however there must have been a beginning to this cycle and the question remains, where did the salt come from? The answer is probably that it came from the land and was disolved over aeons as the land was continually washed by the rains and rivers. However there are those who maintain that the world's oceans came to our planet courtesy of the dirty snowballs called comets and, if this is the case, perhaps the salt came with it.
In ancient Egypt the preservation qualites of salt were realised. Bodies buried in the dry sand of the Sahara, with its high salt content, were soon robbed of their moisture and thus preserved. An example of the effectiveness of this simple technique is on view in the British Museum. Affectionately known as Ginger, after the tufts of ginger hair still attached to his head, the 5,000 year-old body of a man was discovered in the sands of Egypt and was even better preserved than the mummification processes later adopted for their pharaohs. Indeed it was these early burials which later developed into the mummification with which the ancient Egyptians are so well known. Some reports state how the bodies of the dead were immersed in brine for ten weeks before the embalmer got to work, while when she heard of the death of Mark Antony, Cleopatra ordered his body pickled in brine.
Salt was also used in the preparation of food left inside the great pyramids. The journey to the afterlife was a lengthy one with many tasks and trials to be overcome on the way. Clearly even the mighty pharaohs needed sustenance on the journey, thus it was that a selection of foods were left within the tombs. Clearly the food would have gone bad equally as quickly as the body and so it was heavily salted and wrapped, much the same as the mummy it was meant to feed.
The value of salt in ancient times is seen in in every major civilization that grew up around the Mediterranean. First came the Phoenicians, a people from modern-day Lebanon where there was little arable land and therefore they were forced to trade. What Lebanon did have was trees, the wood was used to build ships and the Phoenician navigators travelled all around the Mediterranean, are known to have visited Britain, the coastline around Africa and at least as far as India.
By creating channels they allowed the sea to flood the marshes, then dammed those areas and allowed the warm Mediterranean sun to evaporate the water leaving behind tons of natural salt. A simple process and one which is almost labour free when compared with the working conditions in the salt works of Cheshire and Droitwich.
Not only did the salt itself bring great wealth, but their skills as mariners saw them net great quantities of Mediterranean tuna on a scale never before seen. Tuna are fish of the open ocean and the problem had always been getting the fish to port before they started to rot. Salt enabled the Phoenicians to preserve their catch and cash in on a new market. Over one thousand years they rose in power and influence, establishing numerous cities including the most famous of Carthage in modern Tunisia.
One of the most valuable items they traded were the spices and, in this era at least, the most precious spice was pepper. The two items are still linked on tables all around the world and yet the irony is that the devaluation of salt was directly linked to the influx of pepper.
From around 600BC the Phoenician influence was in decline, hastened by something very much in the news in the 21st century - climate change. A few years of very extreme weather for the region, storms destroyed almost half of the salt pans, the rest were ruined by the incessant rain making evaporation impossible. As a result their economy was dealt a blow from which, at least collectively, they never recovered. The individual cities fell, eventually even the might of Carthage was no more.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Salt Routes

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."

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Ley Lines Across the Midlands

In 2009 my first walking book was published, a book which is virtually a prequel to my series on the origins of place names for it was my interest in ley lines which resulted in the eventual books on the origins of place names. It was probably only a matter of time before I turned my attention to the ancient trackways of England and, in particular, to my native Midlands. For those who may want to explore this further, I reproduce the introduction here. Copies are, of course, available in the time honoured 'all good book shops' or directly from the author if you drop me a line. Any comments would be appreciated..........

"Within these pages we will tread the paths walked by our ancestors some 4,000 and more years ago. The routes will take us through some of the loveliest countryside to be found anywhere, some with breathtaking views from the summits of hills, doen to the valleys below. Sometimes the trackways still pass through woodland, as they did when created to provide safe passage from one hill fort to another.
None of the original markers have survived or, if they have, cannot be shown to be originals. However, the markers which have replaced them are still seen, providing a history lesson everywhere we look; not only cultural history but natural history too, for a wealth of flora and fauna have made these regions their homes. Yet were it not for man's creation of these environments, England would still be one vast woodland; if so many of the plants and animals would never have thrived here, whether they had made their way to our shores or had been introduced by man. This book will have something for thise interested in history both ancient and modern, the natural world, walking, or even those who simply delight in this green and pleasant land.
Having walked these ancient paths for the most part, I was forced to walk them twice - from the car and back again. However, this provided me with the opporunity to see everything from both aspects, which revealed many things I had not noticed on my outward journey - and these pathways were traversed both ways.
I have no idea how many miles I walked in preparing these pages, although my level of fitness has improved beyond all expectations. My thanks are due to all those who rediscovered the trackways I trod and pointed me in the right direction. Furthermore, without all the establishments that provided a meal for a hungry man and a bed for his very weary legs, I would still be walking today.
To experience the feeling of standing at the site of a hill fort which would have been a hive of activity for centuries was very moving. This path was one which others had walked almost since mankind had abandoned the life of the hunter-gatherer, forming permanent settlements and adopting the farming life. Images formed of the landscape around me as it would have appeared before Stonehenge and the much earlier Avebury circles were even thought about.
When I walked the land the changing images of Saxon, Romano-British, Iron Age, Bronze Age and Neolithic times were remarkably easy tos ee. As you follow my journeys in the ensuing pages I hope you are able to glimpse some of the things I saw."

Tracing the ancient trackways provided me with an avenue to explore pre-history from a very different perspective. I climbed a few hills, walked many a mile and, owing to the obligatory 'instant energy rations' strapped to my back (courtesy of the Cadbury organisation) never managed to lose more than the odd pound or two - in fact I just got very hungry!
Much of the early travel was for trade, a bartering of commodities in which they were not self-sufficient. The one item very few were able to produce for themselves was salt, scarcity made it valuable, and increased demand. Today the salt roads still exist and it was natural that after following the early tracks I then turned to the first trade roads and thus produced The Salt Routes. It is to this subject that I will turn next time.

Ley Lines Across the Midlands is available from the author or direct from the publishers:

Incidentally, for those who will be in the region of Ryton XI Towns in Shropshire this coming Wednesday 15th September, I shall be speaking on the subject of Shropshire Place Names. All visitors are welcome and books will be on sale (at a reasonable discount). It would be a pleasure to meet you.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Double U

Words which contain 'u' twice with no intervening letter are rare, indeed there are only eight proper English words (most of which come from Latin) and another two borrowed from other languages.

vacuum = a space
continuum = a continous sequence
residuum = a chemical residue
menstruum = the matter discharged during menstruation
triduum= a three-day period of religious observance in the Catholic Church
duumvir = each of a pair of magistrates holding joint office in ancient Rome
duumvirate = a coalition of two people having joint authority
Weltanschauung = the world view of a particular individual or group (from German)
muumuu = a loose dress traditionally worn in Hawaii (from Hawaiian) which qualifies twice!