Date: September 2011
This summer has seen the ECOSAL team undertake valuable documentary research as part of the creation of an inventory of salt-working sites in the UK based on archaeological and historical information.
We are over half way through the INTERREG programme to create a route that links traditional salt-making sites along the Atlantic coast of the UK. The starting point was to collect information about known salt-making sites and where they are located. In addition, our team are looking for new sites and collating the data, so that everything is recorded in the same way. Over the summer of 2011 we have been making contact with the organisations that care for the main salt-making sites to discuss how they might be presented as a tourist route.
Our salt-making story goes back to the Bronze Age and continues today in a modern form at sea salt works in Cornwall, Essex and on Anglesey. Elements of the earlier story can still be found scattered along the UK's 19,491 miles (31,368 km) of coastline - if you know where to look. That's a lot of history and a lot of coastline for people to discover. Nowhere in the UK is more than 70 miles from the coast and some 3 million people out of the UK's population of over 60 million live on our coast. In 2005 it was recorded that 25 million people took holidays and an additional 200 million day trips were made to our coast.
So why isn't our salt history better known?
Essentially the story has never really been pulled together to make it understandable. There are big distances between sites that make following a trail difficult, and at many sites the surviving remains are hard to see and many have no interpretive display panels. Some have been destroyed by later harbour developments or coastal erosion and so the greater industrial archaeology stories of mining or slate working, castles or stately homes have been given greater attention in local histories and by tourist literature.
Supporting our proposals to create a salt-heritage trail is the fact that many of our UK sea salt making sites are located in attractive parts of the coast that already have linkages with environmental management organisations and designated areas. Some 1,027 km of English coastline and 500 km of Welsh coastline are currently designated as 'Heritage Coast' and 95 miles of the Dorset coast is designated as a World Heritage Site. South Wales, Devon and Cornwall have more heritage coastline per mile than other regions with 50% of the coast between Cardiff and St Davids designated, 50-60% of Cornwall's coast and 60-65% of Devon's coast designated. In each of these areas there are dedicated teams that manage our coastline involving eight Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (http://www.aonb.org.uk/) who each have working contacts with local people, planning systems, heritage and ecological organisations and bodies with active and evolving landscape management plans. Whilst many of these have some knowledge of their own salt-making sites no proposals to treat them as a special group of monuments has been proposed before.
In the 19th century, improvements in transport combined with the repeal of the Salt Tax allowed the inland salt-making centres, principally in Cheshire but also in Worcestershire, to become dominant because the strength of inland brine gave the inland industry huge cost advantages. The end of the restrictions regulating where you could buy your salt under the Salt Acts meant people living on the coast could buy inland salt from coastal traders bringing manufactured goods and salt. This meant it was easier and cheaper for people to buy salt rather than make it themselves. In addition, particularly in the southern and western coastal districts of England and Wales, the end of the Napoleonic Wars meant the traditional trade with the salt producing areas of France, Spain and Portugal could resume. Together this led to the demise of most of the UK sea salt-making industry. This industry was unusually diverse as producers found different solutions to the common problem of evaporating weak brine in the cool and rainy weather of the Atlantic coast of Britain. All these factors help to provide a fascinating narrative founded on many themes that will interest a wide variety of people.
What ECOSAL-Atlantis aims to do is to create a sustainable link between all of our historic salt-making sites on the Atlantic coast by working with people and organisations who can make more of their own sites by being part of a co-ordinated network, enabling each to put their own local story or site into a national and international context. Each site will be able to contribute to the objectives of the ECOSAL-Atlantis project through understanding more about its historical, archaeological, environmental or cultural heritage related to the story of traditional salt making. The AONB network will play an important role, as will the RSPB who manage nature reserves where salt making used to take place.
We have proposed that the UK Route will be divided into six regions and that there will be a lead site within each region that will act as feeder sites to other salt-making sites in their region.
In addition, we are seeking to incorporate cultural aspects of our salt heritage that can help develop the local economy while adding to the sustainability of the whole project. We want the ECOSAL Route to highlight aspects of regional food products, such as salt marsh grazed lamb, salt beef and fish, preserves and pickles and link this to restaurants that serve local dishes and recipes. We have identified distinctive potters, who fire stoneware clays at high temperatures and turn salt into a unique salt glaze, and a photographer who will make images using an early photographic process to make 'salt prints'.
The basics of the route will be pulled together by the end of 2012 but its development and success will depend ultimately on how the network works together locally and regionally in the UK and how we exchange information and practices with our partners in Portugal, Spain and France. Our salt story is only just beginning.