Ben Thornes


Tuesday 15th July 2014

The School of Applied Sciences of Bournemouth University is the lead UK partner in a multi-national project called ECOSAL, an EU-funded (INTERREG IVB) investigation of traditional salt production around the Atlantic Coasts of Portugal, Spain, France and the UK.

The project is concerned with the recording of archaeology & heritage together with the ecology & biodiversity of sites associated with salt production. It is also looking at ways to help support the economy of those places that still produce artisan salt using traditional extraction practices, such as solar evaporation. Another aim is to create a Traditional Salt Atlantic Route in order to tell the story of salt production through the ages and to interpret and enhance a selection of sites for visitors.

In the UK, one of the key study areas has been Poole Harbour with its long history of salt production stretching back to the Iron Age when this important commodity was very likely traded in and out of the Harbour and from the Iron Age trading centre of Hengistbury Head nearby.

Specific production sites have been identified around the Harbour and along the Purbeck coast from the early to middle Iron Age through to the 3rd or 4th centuries AD with a focus of production at Kimmeridge, Ower and Hamworthy (Hathaway 2010, 106-8).

Extensive scatters of briquetage (ceramic containers used in the Iron Age and Roman period for salt production) have been found north of Bank Gate cottages, just east of The Moors at Arne. This material has been interpreted as evidence for Late Iron Age/Roman salt production as has similar evidence from mudflats to the south of Shipstal Point.

There are also significant amounts of briquetage and other debris found at Kimmeridge, which again suggests that Late Iron Age/early Roman salt making was carried out there. Unlike around the Harbour where wood/charcoal would have been used, the fuel used here seems to have been the local shale, a material that would have been ideal for salt making as it provides a slow, steady heat. Kimmeridge Bay was also the site of salt works in the 1620s when Sir William Clavell is known to have obtained salt by boiling seawater.

In the medieval period, Domesday Book records that there were some salt pans around Studland with a value of 40 shillings in 1086. There were more salt works at Ower, held by Milton Abbey. Later documentary evidence refers to saltcotes at Langton Matravers and others in Purbeck. In the later 12th century, Shaftesbury Abbey is recorded as having a hide of land devoted to salt production at Arne. This account mentions plumba, almost certainly the lead vessels used for the boiling of concentrated seawater (brine) to make salt (Legg 2005, 126).

Placename evidence can also help us to identify sites or at least be a starting point for further investigation. An example would be Salterns Copse between Arne and Slepe, which lies in a suitable area for the extraction of salt from seawater along the nearby, south facing shore of the inlet known as Middlebere Lake.

Of course Poole itself, so heavily engaged in the cod-fisheries of Newfoundland, would have required large quantities of salt for the processing of fish and for packing onto ships bound for the Grand Banks. We know from records that vast amounts of salt were unloaded onto the quay. Some of this may have been produced around the Harbour area, but most would have been imported either the short distance from Lymington where extensive salt works thrived in the 17th and 18th centuries or from further afield, perhaps coming in from France, Spain or Portugal.

Another area of the Harbour associated with salt production lies in the area sometimes referred to as the Blue Lagoon at Lilliput. The area is shown on a map dated 1748 which shows the lagoon, together with what is now Salterns Way and Lilliput shops, as ‘salt works belonging to Sir Thomas Webb baronet’ (Sir Thomas was Lord of the Manor of Canford). Other documents suggest that the commercial extraction of salt from sea-water in the lagoon started in the 1730s, if not earlier. The use of the lagoon as salt pans, and of the surrounding higher areas of Lilliput for the manufacturing processes (i.e. the boiling of brine in metal pans), continued into the 19th century. A succession of Admiralty charts and the very first Ordnance Survey map, published in 1811, all mark this use. However, by the time of an Admiralty survey in 1849, the lagoon is noted as ‘Old Salterns’, apparently now disused.

This decline in salt production around the Harbour by the mid-19th century fits well with the general pattern of decline around the English coastline due largely to the increasing dominance of Cheshire rock salt in the production of salt within the UK. However, in Poole’s case the decline may have been further affected by the severe downturn in the Newfoundland trade which took place after the ending of the Napoleonic Wars.
From the mid-19th century onwards, seawater was little used for commercial production in England. On the continent, however, solar evaporation along the Atlantic coast of France, Spain and Portugal continues to this day, although it too has been declining over the last 30 years or so and is certainly not done on the scale it once was.

One of the main aims of the ECOSAL Project is to record the often elusive and ephemeral evidence for this once-thriving industry and to bring its fascinating history to a wider audience. What are now often seen as purely natural sites with unique biodiversity, including migratory birds and salt-loving species of plants and invertebrates, should also be understood as having a rich heritage that is built upon people’s need for this important ingredient.

For anyone who wants to get involved with this project, they should contact either Mark Brisbane (mbrisbane@bournemouth.ac.uk) or Roger Herbert (rherbert@bournemouth.ac.uk) in the School of Applied Sciences.

For further information, please go to our ECOSAL website.

UPDATE 05/08/2013

The End of ECOSAL: The beginning of ECOSAL-UK

At the end of August, the ECOSAL project will finish its work recording the saltworks around the Atlantic coasts of the UK, France, Spain and Portugal. The project has also worked on promoting various salt making sites, developing a heritage trail that links many of the better preserved sites so that visitors can appreciate both their heritage and ecology. In addition, the project has compiled lists of species that inhabit these special, salt-rich ecological zones and has proposed guidelines for maintaining and enhancing the biodiversity of these habitats. These guidelines also include recommendations on how sites can attract migrating species of birds and looked at how lessons learnt from sites such as Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour can help with promoting the nesting and breeding of these and other species.

In order to maintain the work of ECOSAL, the various countries involved have agreed to form an international association that will continue the work undertaken so far including the development of the Route of Traditional Salt making. To do this, a national association has been set up which will be known as ECOSAL-UK. More details of this new association will appear on the BU ECOSAL website.

Photo 1: Dr Roger Herbert, a member of the ECOSAL team, tests the water for salinity levels near Arne.

Photo 2: The 16th century ruins of the old Salt House at Port Eynon, Wales. In the original arrangement it is thought that water was pumped from the chambers or tanks on the ground floor to a panhouse above, where it was evaporated in pans heated by coal furnaces, the salt being stored in the building to the west.

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