A VITAL piece of the history that literally shaped Northwich has been brought to life and finally opens to the public on Friday.
The multi-million pound restoration of the Lion Salt Works has been dreamed of and planned since before the turn of the millennium.
Work eventually began in earnest in 2012 and Northwich people have been watching with interest as the cluster of tumbledown sheds in Marston were painstakingly restored in a £10.23 million project.
The Guardian was given a preview of the living museum in Ollershaw Lane on Friday and chance to speak to the key players in its restoration before its official opening.
Architect Simon Malam, senior associate with historic building specialists Donald Insall Associates, has been involved since the firm was appointed by the Lion Salt Works Trust to carry out a feasibility study in 2000.
He said it was important to preserve the buildings, which are a scheduled ancient monument in the same classification as Stone Henge, the last surviving open pan salt works of its kind in the UK and one of the last three in the world.
“If you let the buildings go you would lose a tangible record of traditional salt making processes,” he said.
“Some historical buildings are important because they’re designed by a certain architect or a certain event happened in them.
“The buildings here are significant because because they housed a process that is now history.”
The works opened in 1894, one of a vast multitude that peppered the landscape of mid Cheshire, and closed in 1986, much later than its contemporaries.
Chris Hewitson, project archaeologist, said: “Their main market was west Africa but in the 1960s there was civil war in Nigeria and after that a lot of politics and unrest in the whole area.
“Markets turned from their old colonial masters towards newer markets.
“After 1986 the salt works couldn’t keep functioning.”
Chris explained that the Thompson family, who owned the works, opened it as a museum while it was still operational in the 1980s.
“A museum was an alternative income stream,” he said.
“It was a very popular museum and 40,000 people a year would come and visit the salt works.
“That’s what stimulated the whole idea of turning it into a museum in the long term.”
The Lion Salt Works featured on the BBC’s Restoration programme in 2004 in an unsuccessful bid to win funding, but eventually gained support from English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWAC) came on board in 2009 and appointed Wates as the contractors for the work, little knowing just how enormous the project would be.
Cllr Stuart Parker, former executive member for culture, said: “The costs were escalating all the time,” he said.
“What started as an £8million project ended up being £10.23 million with the extra being spent because of the structure.
“We didn’t realise just what a bad condition the foundations were in.
“The meetings we had to say ‘we have found another problem’ and my first question was always ‘how much is it going to cost and where are we going to find that?’.
“But we stuck with it and English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund realised the significance of this project - its one of its kind in the UK and one of the few left in the world so we had to crack on with it.
“I think people are going to absolutely love it and I’m really proud of the fact we’ve achieved it.”
Visitors enter the museum through its shop and cafe, in the rebuilt Stove House 5, before heading out to the former Red Lion pub, which has been transformed into a traditional museum that tells the story of the Cheshire salt industry from prehistoric times.
The tour then passes through a recreation of the manager’s office, the bar and a workers’ room before heading into the richly atmospheric Pan House 3 and the works themselves.
This gives visitors of all ages chance to experience what it was like to work there and the impact of the salt industry on the landscape and natural world, with plenty of evocative photographs, oral history and interactive exhibits.
Katherine West, CWAC’s museums and arts manager, said: “It really is incredible.
“It’s a living museum and really fresh in the way it brings the story of salt to life.
“It’s fun and interactive as well as telling everyone a lot about the history of salt and its impact on this area.”
Neighbouring residents, people who have been involved in the project so far and schoolchildren have also had a sneak peek at the museum, praising it for its accuracy, atmosphere and how unusual it is.
Northwich man Paul Stockton features in one of the exhibits as he worked at the salt works when he was a 19-year-old student in the 1970s.
He worked sealing bags of salt and getting them ready to ship to Africa and also as a lofter, stacking salt blocks to dry.
“I’m pleased it’s been restored,” he said.
“I remember it being on 'Restoration' and actually voted for it because I thought it was worth preserving - but I didn’t think it would cost £10 million.
“I think what they’ve done is good and it’ll be good for kids and for tourism, I’m looking forward to taking my grandkids there.”
For more information about the project, opening times and admission visit lionsaltworks.westcheshiremuseums.co.uk
- To mark its re-opening, the Lion Salt Museum is offering free entry to anyone in the world whose surname is Salt.
The ‘Salts of the Earth’ offer will be available for a year for anyone who can prove their surname is Salt by providing photo-ID in the form of a driving licence or passport.
There are estimated to be 7,500 in the UK with the surname and possibly thousands worldwide.