Saltpans or fish-tanks? Stone basins on a Solway shore

Along the top of the shore between Maryport and its golf club is a high and wide promenade, constructed in the 1930s from an astonishing volume of concrete. At weekends it’s a perfect walkway for families with pushchairs, small hairy dogs, and toddlers on bikes. There are occasional slipways and steps, coated with slithery green seaweed, that allow you to reach the shore 3-4 metres below, but few people attempt the treacherous descent because so much of the shore is rocky and offers little opportunity for play. In fact a large area of the northern stretch is a fine example of a wave-cut platform [1] of New Red Sandstone; there are naturally straight-edged blocks, and channels, and the indentations of lithified ripples dating from when the rock was still in the form of sandbanks and river channels. Loose blocks are strewn on top of the platform, shunted here and there by the storms.

The sandstone platforms of Maryport foreshore, looking North

Earlier this year a geologist friend, Ian Francis (one of the authors of a recent excellent book on Lake District geology [2]), wondering if I knew what the structure was, emailed a photo of a rectangular basin that had been cut into the rock at the top of the shore, close to the base of the promenade. Of course, ‘an expedition’ was required!

‘Basin 1’, with thanks to Ian Francis for the photo that stimulated this blogpost

The tide was high but on the ebb, and complex local currents were swirling the incoming waves and sending spray shooting into the air and over the edge of the prom. We walked, and sat, and waited until the top of the rock platform was uncovered – and there below us was Ian’s rock basin (let’s call it No.1 for convenience), the sea still sloshing in and out through a narrow channel. Nearby was what could be another basin, less exactly hewn with one side partly missing; and the remnants, further off, of possibly a third. Basin No.1 was about 1.5 metres at its longest side and perhaps a half-metre deep, and partly filled with shingle and a loose slab of sandstone. As Ian had written, the basin leads “via a square-cut gutter to another wider half-basin cut parallel to the sea wall. Only the seaward edge of this larger area is extant. There are cuttings in the basin edge just behind the gutter which look like the supporting beds for some sort of cross-beam.”

The basins looked to me like storage containers for shellfish – for sacks of crabs or winkles, perhaps. I put my own photos on Twitter and someone local tweeted a comment that they were to do with salt manufacture, probably the Netherhall or ‘Bank End’ saltpans owned by the Senhouses and functioning from 1650-1735. (When I was on the prom, trying to photograph the basins on a later visit, an elderly man stopped to ask if I was “looking at the saltpans”.) But the basins seem too small, even for storing seawater and are certainly not ‘pans’ where brine was concentrated – see the post about the Crosscanonby saltpans elsewhere on this blog).

Another regular Twitter contributor, Paul Montgomery, [@stonefishweirs] kindly emailed me a couple of pdfs about saltworks. One of these articles, on salt production in post-medieval Ireland, is an archaeological investigation of the basins cut into the rocky shore, and related remains, in the Ballycastle region, on the north coast of Northern Ireland [3]. But these Irish basins are considerably larger than the Maryport ones – for example, one is about 6 x 4 metres and about 2 metres deep – so were able to contain a large volume of seawater, which could be transferred to the metal pans onshore and evaporated by burning coal from the local mines.

I also sent photos to my archaeologist friend, Mark Graham of Grampus Heritage, who has done a considerable amount of work researching saltworks on the Cumbrian Solway coast. He suggested I got in touch with Andrew Fielding, one of the Directors of EcoSal-UK,  an organisation engaged in ‘Preserving the history and heritage of traditional salt making’ [4]. I had watched Andrew’s webinar, Salt on the Solway (organised as part of the Coastal Conversations series by the Solway Firth Partnership and Solway Coast AONB [5]) back in autumn 2020. In that webinar Andrew too mentioned the Senhouses’ Netherhall Saltworks at Bank End, Maryport – the stone ‘basins’ had been identified as being part of the Netherhall works and had been the subject of a training day in survey methods run by CITiZAN (the Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network) in July 2016 [6].

Andy Sherman, CITiZAN’s Discovery Programme Officer based in Liverpool, replied to my email, explaining that they had indeed had a session recording and measuring the rock basins, which were ‘noted by the local Historic Environment Record as being part of a saltworks’. The report included the measurements of the ‘No. 1’ basin, and some photographic observations. Andy suggested that ‘the majority of structures associated with this site were damaged or destroyed by the construction of the promenade’.

After I got in touch with Andrew Fielding, he wrote me several very interesting and helpful emails. I learnt, for example, of a Dr William Brownrigg (1712-1800) of Whitehaven, who had written a book on The Art of Making Common Salt, and who had been born at High Close Hall, Plumbland (possible the existing High Close Farm), near to where I live! Andrew says “Bank End is an intriguing site that no one yet has properly interpreted. … I think that it is likely that the remains in the rock at Bank End are only the bottom portion of features associated with the salt works and that there may also be remains still existing inland of the promenade. Some have suggested that Bank End Farm may also have been part of the salt works.”

The promenade is a mighty structure, nearly a mile long, about 5 metres wide and in places 3-4 metres high above the shore, and was apparently built during the war; even imagining the process of its construction takes some effort! Jane Laskey, Manager of the Senhouse Roman Museum, had been looking at documentation about the supposed Bank End saltworks, and she too thinks that important structures were buried when the prom was built.

With regard to the rock basins themselves, comparison of photos taken by Ian Francis, CITiZAN, and my own photos taken on two different occasions, shows the difficulty of finding and interpreting the basins and the channels on the shore. Pebbles and sand shift and fill in the hollows, revealing structures to different extents at different times.

‘No. 1’ is the nearest and clearest basin to examine. Its sides are pocked, hatched and cross-hatched with pick-marks; there are the two short troughs on the side that has the square-cut entrance gully, into which a gate or sluice might have been slotted, trapping seawater within the basin. The entrance gully opens into a channel cut parallel with the prom wall; on my second visit this had become much more obvious as it was now clear of pebbles, and its face, too, was pitted with the marks of the axes that had chipped away the sandstone.

A few metres away is ‘No.2’ basin, slightly larger and with one wall apparently missing. Its opening empties into what looks like a channel that heads directly down towards the seaward end of the rocky platform – but it’s hard to be sure whether this is man-made or a natural gully in the stone. A little further away are traces of perhaps a third basin. As Andrew Fielding said, the site needs “another look”.

But are the basins really associated with salt-making? As a zoologist and ‘shore-guddler’ I still hope that the basins were used as temporary storage tanks for shellfish. Such things do exist. One evening, an email arrived from Mark Graham, who was camping over on the Northumberland coast: he sent a photo of an information panel from the top of the shore at Creswell where, he said, “I have just been reading about ‘Bratt Holes’, sometimes written ‘brat holes’. I believe that these are the best parallel I’ve seen for the rock cut basins near Maryport and were used to store crabs, lobsters, shellfish….” ‘Bratt’ is apparently a local word for turbot.

‘Bratt holes’. My thanks to Mark Graham of Grampus for this interesting photo


Postscript: there is a shallow basin (a few centimetres deep) cut into the rock at the top of the shore at Parton. Now, what could that one be for?

Shallow ‘basin’ on the Parton shore
  1. Cumbria GeoConservation website, . For more about the sandstone platforms at Maryport
  2. Ian Francis, Stuart Holmes & Bruce Yardley (2022). Lake District: Landscape and Geology. Crowood Press
  3. Wes Forsyth, Rosemary McConkey & Colin Breen (2018) Persistence and risk: salt production in post-medieval Ireland, World Archaeology, 50:4, pp 603-619. To link to this article use
  4. EcoSal UK website
  5. Andrew Fielding, Salt on the Solway. Coastal Conversations webinar – relevant section at about 23 minutes;
  6. CITiZAN training day at Maryport
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