The saltpans at Crosscanonby

Saltpans and Roman Milefortlet 21 (Photo: Andrew Lysser)

The tides and currents have sorted the sizes and colours of the shingle, and here on the upper shore near Crosscanonby I am walking over shapes that are large – and predominantly red: lumps and discs of the New Red Sandstone characteristic of the St Bees’ formation to the South-West, but also bricks; bricks of all ages, some broken and faded, some still sharp-edged and clearly stamped with their place of origin along the Cumbrian coast. Here too are slim black ovoids of sea-smoothed coal, and speckled white pebbles of granite that originated in the hard rock on the far side of the Firth. Between this shingle-band and the sea the bitter wind is de-focussing the shore with sweeping sheets of sand, and the distant figures of two sea-anglers are blurry as they leave the turning tide and walk companionably across the dark, scattered pebbles of the glacial scaurs, their long rods wavering above their heads like antennae.

To my left the land at the top of the shore rises abruptly to form a low and undistinguished hill – yet Swarthy Hill was enough of a rise for the Romans to use it as vantage point from which to keep an eye on the coast and sea, and to build one of their Milefortlets, Number 21. Head down, eyes streaming, I take my bearings from the hill and the wall of stone-filled gabions that protects the coast below it, and I fight the wind, working my way in a transect down the shore, looking for remains of the seaward works of the salt-pans.

Several years ago I took a flight along this coast in a gyroplane so as to get an aerial view and a better understanding of the inter-relationships of places and structures and the sea. Swarthy Hill and these Crosscanonby Saltpans were our turning point before we headed northwards back to Carlisle, and it was possible to pick out the land-based structures – the main pan, a rough outline of the brine pit and the rough darkly-vegetated ash-heap.

The Saltpans, the property of the Lamplugh family, were constructed in 1634 and were worked until the late 18th century. The works are (or perhaps more accurately were – see below) reckoned to be the best-preserved direct-boiling saltworks in England. A diagram from More Plain People [1] shows outlines of the original saltworks: two circular pits (pans), the remains of a boiling house, an ash heap and, across the road, a row of stables and cottages at the base of Swarthy Hill. In the early 20th century, there was also a caravan site and a small collection of holiday huts but as the Firth nibbled away at its edges, so the caravan site had to be abandoned and the final hut “fell into the sea in 1966”. Continuing erosion and storm-damage, and the construction of a cycle-path, have obliterated even the memory of the dwellings.

From ‘More Plain People’ [2]

There are much older, medieval saltworks developed by the Cistercian monks of Holme Cultram Abbey on the Upper Solway’s saltmarshes, and there are traces of other 18th century works along the coasts [2]. Salt was necessary for preserving meat and fish – non-local salt was used in the Allonby herring fishing industry until even the mid-20th century [2]. Importantly, salt was also a valuable commodity to be traded.

As with any industry it had its own lexicon: sleech (salty sand), kinch (the pit where the sand or salt water was collected); ‘badgers’ – the licensed traders of salt; and place names like Salta and Saltcoates.

At Crosscanonby, though, it seems the salt was obtained by ‘direct boiling’ of seawater – in other words, seawater was pumped up to the works and heated. It’s thought that seawater was pumped to the lower, brine pool for storage and to allow some of the sediment to settle; then pumped into the bigger pan (sometimes referred to as the kinch) and from there into the boiling-house. Here it was collected into large iron pans which (according the the author of the Salt Makers chapter in More Plain People), “probably measured 9ft by 8ft and 6 to 8 inches deep”. The water was then slowly heated and evaporated to concentrate the salt as crystals, and these were collected into wicker baskets or boxes to drain before being transported and sold. The energy – for the pumps and the heating of the pans – was provided by coal, probably from the nearby Dearham coalmine. John Martin [3] notes “There is a large heap of ash showing that only the poorest quality of coal must have been used as it contains such a large amount of fused material and burnt slate.”

Over the years the tides have partly-hidden, then re-exposed and pummelled the wooden structures on the shore so that unpicking their stories has not been simple. On this day of battering wind, I reach the square box-like structure that pokes up about 50 metres down-shore from the gabions. The remaining timbers are still solid, the sides of the box buttressed by diagonals buried in the sand. I feel the sodden wood, which has been part of the saltpans’ history for more than two hundred years.

What was its function? For a long time it was thought the structure formed the base of a tower: water was pumped up to the top of the tower and then fed by gravity through pipes to the brine pit at the top of the shore. The model in the exhibition room at Holme Cultram Abbey shows just such a process.

Model of saltmaking at Holme Cultram Abbey

But more recently, Andrew Fielding has re-investigated the archaeological remains and, talking in a Coastal Conversations seminar [4], thinks that the ‘box’ structure was nothing to do with a tower, but was actually something like an inspection hatch through which ran a pipe. On opposite sides of the box are semi-circular cut-outs, into which a pipe would have neatly fitted.

Possible ‘Inspection hatch’: note semi-circular cut-outs for pipe (photo taken March 23rd 2021: Ann Lingard)

In October 2019 Fielding was fortunate to find part of a wooden pipe on the shore, in line with the hatch and the brine pit, and he suggests that water was brought in at shore-level and then pumped up to the works. Further down the shore, there are still sections of four posts sticking up from the sand, and perhaps these marked the original water-intake or another hatch.

I found the hatch and I found the posts; kneeling down in the wet sand I could see that the posts, the hatch and the brine pit formed a straight line. Circling, (but often distracted by the patterns of the blowing sand and the colours of the shingle), I hunted for traces of the pipe, wanting to see its texture and diameter, and more easily visualise the role it played; but it had gone, either buried again or broken. Later, however, when sorting through my related photos, I noticed a thin dark line on the shore between the hatch and the pans (circled in blue on the photo on the right): surely part of the pipe, caught in an aerial view in 2015. Unknowingly, I had seen it – an opportunity missed.

And then, returning to the shore a month later – I found the pipe! It had been partly uncovered again and at first looked merely like a balk of timber, but I scrabbled away the pebbles and sand and found the hollow centre. This tree might have been cut down more than 250 years ago – and then a hole was augured lengthways through the trunk to make a pipe, that would flex and would not rust. This seems like a very special piece of timber.

The wooden pipe

Salt was taxed, and tax requires tax inspectors or specialised Salt Officers. In the churchyard of St John’s at Crosscanonby and placed prominently near the church’s door, is a large lichen-speckled, red sandstone tomb:

“Here lies the body of John Smith of Birkby who was salt oficer at Netherhall and Cross cannonby Pans for 29 years, He was a good Neighbour, faithfull to his Friend and cheerfully relieved y poor. He departed this Life .. day of March ….Anno Dom 1730. Aged 64 years.” 

Around the sides of the tomb are relief depictions of skulls, bones, and cautionary words. Unusually, although it is now fuzzy with moss and eroded edges, there is also an engraving of John Smith in side view, seated at a desk, quill pen in hand: doubtless checking the tax returns for the Lamplughs’ salt manufactory.

For many years, volunteer work-parties for the Solway Coast AONB tidied the Crosscanonby saltworks, strimming and cutting back brambles and rank grasses so that it was still possible to investigate and admire the stone walls of both pans. But storm damage and erosion, cuts in funding and the pandemic have meant that the works are no longer so closely cared for; the overall arrangement is becoming difficult to decipher.

The floor of the larger saltpan, with its walls of cobbles and blocks of sandstone, was lumpy with rich brown molehills on the day I visited. I wonder if the soil there has a high concentration of salt and, if so, do the earthworms taste different?

[1] More Plain People, Holme St Cuthbert History Group, 2007 p92

[2] For more on Solway saltworks see Chapter 8, Sea-food in The Fresh and the Salt. The Story of the Solway (Birlinn Books 2020)

[3] John Martin, Salt, 1988 on the website Industrial History of Cumbria,

[4] Andrew Fielding 2020. Coastal Conversations, Salt production along the Solway Firth, organised by the Solway Firth Partnership and the Solway Coast AONB. The relevant section on Crosscanonby is between 13-17 minutes in the video.

This entry was posted in aerial views, Allonby, coastal heritage, salt and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.