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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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Who Put the Salt in Saltergate? - The Story of Salt.

Posted Saturday, July 7, 2007

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Who Put The Salt in Saltergate?

`The salt of the earth'

Saltergate. The name is known by soccer fans throughout the land as the home of Chesterfield Football Club, and perhaps more importantly, it is also the home of Reflections Magazine. Bosses at both establishments have a track record for bemoaning the efforts of their charges by frequently complaining that they are ‘not worth their salt’ – whilst the charges themselves, footballers and scribes alike, proclaim themselves ‘the salt of the earth’ and complain about their meagre ‘salaries’ – all of which may make for a ‘seasoned’ argument... but still begs the question, ‘who did put the salt in Saltergate?’.

Perhaps it was the Romans?

After all, it was they who gave the word ‘salt’ to the English language; Roman soldiers were partly paid in salt, in fact the word ‘soldier’ comes from the latin ‘sal dare’, meaning ‘to give salt’, and from the same source we get the word ‘salary’.

A Roman soldier who didn’t do his duty properly was said to be ‘not worth his salt’, a phrase which is still used today.

Even the bible compliments some men as being ‘the salt of the earth’ - and from biblical times up to the late Middle Ages to sit above or below the salt identified precedence in the seating arrangements at a feast according to ones rank in society.

Apart from its historical significance, the humble grain of salt plays a major and vital role in all our lives. Without salt we cannot live. It is found in every cell of the human body and in fact, an average human body contains about 250 grammes of salt. It ensures the transmission of nerve impulses to and from the brain, and the contractions of the heart and other muscles; it is necessary to the flow of nutrients around the body and is vital for the digestion of food.

The Romans knew all this, and when Caesar first landed in Britain in 55 BC he brought with him his ‘salinators’ or salt-makers – only to find to his amazement that the native Britons already had their own long established flourishing salt industry. Archeologists have found evidence of a pre-Roman, iron-age salt industry centred between Middlewich and Crewe in Cheshire. Neolithic trade-routes crossed the salt-fields and throughout recorded history ‘saltways’ have been travelled by pack-horse teams carrying salt from Cheshire to all parts of the country. Vestiges of these ancient routes are recalled today in names like Saltersford, Salterswell, Salterwall, Saltersgate – and Saltergate.

Street names can tell us much about our history, and Saltergate, first recorded in 1285, literally meant ‘salt-way entrance’ – or ‘salt-gate’ - into the town. In medieval times the market town of Chesterfield (Chesterfield’s market charter was granted in 1204) stood at a major crossroads where the old Roman road of Rykneld Street which ran south to north and the ancient ‘saltway’ from Cheshire, which ran from west to east crossed. These major routes led directly to the old market place which in those days stood at Holywell Cross. Modern Saltergate begins where Ashgate Road ends at the junction with Foljambe Road, and continues into the town as far as Holywell Street – the site of the original market place. The original `saltway’ - or Saltergate - followed exactly the same route, pre-dating the medieval road of that name and was probably in existence long before the Romans ever set foot in Derbyshire.

Of course, salt was in use long before recorded history. Over many millenia man learned how salt helped to preserve food, cure hides, heal wounds, and early nomadic tribes would have carried salt with them and traded it for other goods. About 4,700 years ago one of the earliest known Chinese writings recorded more than 40 different types of salt and described two basic methods of extracting and processing it, and those same methods have remained unchanged for almost 5,000 years. Evidence of late Iron Age salt production has been found in many areas of Britain including Teesside, Tyneside, Worcestershire, East Anglia and Cheshire. The Domesday survey records the existence of 1,195 ‘salinae’ or ‘salterns’ along the coast between Lincolnshire and Cornwall, the main concentrations being in Sussex and Norfolk. But of all these only Cheshire remains as a major centre for edible white salt production, although rock salt is still mined in Teesside and Northern Ireland.

The Domesday Book also provides the first written evidence of salt in Cheshire, giving considerable space to the three ‘Wiches’ at Northwich, Middlewich and Nantwich, (‘wich’ is Anglo-Saxon for ‘salt town’). The Romans actually named Middlewich ‘Salinae’ and excavations there have revealed brine kilns and lead salt pans indicating a major Roman industry. Roman production methods were simple; they collected saturated brine from natural springs and then evaporated the brine in open lead pans over a fire to retrieve the salt crystals. The need for lead in order to make the pans resulted in a trading exchange across the pennines which continued for many centuries afterwards, with pack-horse teams of up to 40 animals carrying salt from Cheshire and returning laden with lead from Derbyshire.

Each pack-horse, usually the small ‘Galloway’ ponies later used in coal mines, could carry 120 lbs in each of two panniers, thus allowing the transportation of over four tons of salt or lead in a single journey.

Salt production also helped shape the landscape: Roman lead pans had been small, about 30 – 40cm square, but following the Norman Conquest pans grew considerably larger. By the fourteenth century pans made from sheets of cast lead measured about 170cm x 90cm, and vast areas of Royal Forest in Cheshire and Derbyshire were cut down for fuel to evaporate the brine. Iron pans were introduced between 1620 –30 and timber controls were tightened in the rapidly depleting forests, with coal arriving on the same pack-horse trains that took salt to the growing industrial centres in Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Lancashire. In 1670 vast beds of rock salt were discovered around the Cheshire ‘wiches’ and production quadrupled.

Huge iron pans the size of swimming pools were heated by coal – it took about one ton of coal to make two tons of salt – and when the river Weaver was opened for navigation in 1721 over half a million tons of white salt was annually barged downriver to Liverpool for export, and by 1860 this had risen to one million tons. Slowly boiled brine produced large crystal salt used amongst other things for salting fish, whilst fast simmering brine created finer crystals. These were shovelled into wooden tubs and placed into a hot house until the salt dried into solid blocks; this was sold as ‘lump’ salt for cooking and table use. The development of vacuum evaporation, first used in Liverpool sugar refining in 1812, was applied to salt making with the first vacuum plant being built at Winsford in 1905.

In 1948 ICI finally produced granular salt by shaping crystals in a strong up-current of brine and this finally replaced the coarser grades of open pan salt. The last open pan salt was produced in Cheshire in 1986, bringing to a close a method that had survived there for at least two thousand years. The salt industry remains the largest and oldest commercial industry in the world, and today salt is used in more than 14,000 different commercial products. It is the life-blood of all life, whether plant, fish or animal – and you can bet your life that though he remain anonymous, whoever was responsible for putting the salt in Saltergate certainly earned his salary - and was most definitely worth his sodium chloride!

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