A CURSORY glance at the Lion Salt Works may lead the uninitiated passer-by to think that nothing much is happening at the multi-million pound restoration project.
There might be a few new timbers in evidence at the collection of collapsing buildings but walls, roofs and chimneys lean at impossible angles and lend a frighteningly insubstantial air to the invaluable scheduled monument.
The open pan salt works, the last of its kind in the UK, is expected to open to visitors in spring next year so the Guardian was given a peek behind the scenes to see the true extent of the painstaking preservation work being carried out by Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWAC) and Wates Construction.
The first thing to note is that all of the crazy angles have been deliberately and carefully maintained, effectively pressing the pause button on its collapse.
Bernard Talbot, the project manager for Wates Construction, said: “This is how it was when it closed in the 1980s – we have frozen it in time as you see it now.
“All this collapse is how it was then.”
He added: “If you take everything down and rebuild it, essentially you’ve got a new building and not the old one.
“That’s where Chris [the project’s resident archaeologist] comes in because it has to be what it was originally and not a Disney version of it.”
Bulging walls beneath the first salt pan were secured by using a drilling rig in the claustrophobic cavities on either side to fix steel rods underneath.
Steel cables maintain the lean of the stove house, and much of the original structure rests within or alongside new timbers and steel rods to hold its weight.
Modern technology also has a part to play when it comes to one of the leaning chimneys, which will make an emergency phone call if it tilts too much.
Bernard said: “If it moves within certain parameters it’s got a SIM in it and will ring three people, including me.”
But much of the restoration work has relied on traditional skills and techniques.
“We removed about 600 tonnes of material and rubbish by wheelbarrows, by hand, there’s been no machinery involved in any of this,” Bernard said.
“We’ve used shovels, picks, wheelbarrows and gorilla tubs all the way out to the skips.
“People think you need machines but it’s amazing what you can do with manpower.”
The project has come complete with a number of challenges, alongside the issue of how to preserve a historic building mid-collapse without rebuilding it.
Bernard said: “Before I came on this job I was told ‘we’re going on a salt works and we believe there’s a brine shaft 150ft deep and 8ft square – we think we know where it is but we’re not quite certain’.”
Fortunately they found the shaft early on in the restoration and were able to backfill it with grout.
They also had to remove asbestos from the site and work at all times to preserve its archaeology.
Bernard said: “I’ve been in construction since 1972 and this has been the hardest thing I’ve done in all that time, and I’ve built schools, hospitals, houses, you name it.
“But it’s pretty satisfying.”
Clr Stuart Parker, CWAC’s executive member for culture and economy, said: “It is fantastic to see the tremendous progress being made here, particularly when you consider the significant restoration challenges you face when working with a site as unique as this and with buildings that are scheduled Ancient Monuments.
“The salt works site is truly undergoing a transformation and you can now start to see the shape it will take as one of the finest industrial heritage sites in the country, attracting thousands of visitors.”
THE Lion Salt Works restoration has benefited throughout from the presence of resident archaeologist Chris Hewitson.
“I’ve worked on similar things to this but I’m usually only brought in to do the kind of scraping around you see on Time Team,” he said.
“But because this is a scheduled monument the level of protection insisted that a permanent archaeologist was on site, partly to make decisions on what to preserve.
“Essentially I’ve been involved with all the design decisions, working with architects and structural engineers, helping them to design and fit it out so it reflects what the salt works are all about.
“It’s the most involved job I’ve ever done.
“I will probably look back on this when I’m 60 and say it’s the most satisfying job I’ve ever done but right at the moment it’s a big chain around my neck that I’ve got to get finished.”
Chris said that the project has been an enormous learning curve.
“The reality is with this site that everyone knew quite a lot about it but it was based on what they had read and seen,” he said.
“Having spent two years going through the detail on site, a lot of things people thought they knew weren’t necessarily the case.
“It’s not just that I’ve learned a lot but that understanding of the place now is better than what it was.”