A Letter from Nantwich

January 2004                                                                                                                                                                                   The homes that followed

Salt ship found on development site  

Archaeologists watch as work is carried out on the salt ship  






Archaeologists (right) look on as the team remove mud from the salt ship prior to it being removed from the site.

THERE has been much excitement in the world of archaeology and history this month with the discovery of a salt ship. No, that's not a vessel for transporting the condiment via sea - although, as one observer pointed out, it did look like a dug-out canoe.

    A salt ship is, or was, a large storage vessel for brine which was used in Nantwich's salt producing industry in medieval times. Take an oak tree, cut off the roots and branches, leaving a tree trunk measuring 7.5 metres, hollow it out, and you have a salt ship. Salt ship, gravy boat? Just names . . .!          

   One way of producing salt, as you may know, is by boiling off the water content of brine. Of course, you couldn't boil brine in an oak trunk, or you wouldn't have the ship for long. Boiling was done in lead pans - an example of which can be seen in Nantwich Museum.

   By the way, salt is found in various parts of the world, including a mine at Winsford, Cheshire, and the "wich" part of town names such as Northwich and Middlewich means salt producing town (roughly).

   It was while I was taking photographs for the museum's website, in my (then) role as webmaster and for the archives so that future Dabbers can know what happened, that I was privileged to see the moment of rediscovered history.

   A team of archaeologists from Earthworks Archaeological Services from Ewloe, Flintshire, had moved on to a site that was then a car park, but on which houses used to stand, to see what lay under the soil.

   At this point I should pay tribute to the three Schofield Brothers who own the adjacent cafe, bar, eaterie and rooms (far right), at that time called Curshaw's as well as the dig site. Curshaw's was once known as The Cheshire Cat - a restaurant at one time owned by the brothers' uncle, William (Bill) Schofield. It later became a nightclub called Korky's. The brothers halted their plans to build houses on the site, being community-spirited enough to let the archaeologists take a look first. (Or is that a requirement for building on land that may hold historic artefacts?) 

   And so it was that on a Monday morning early in January that a group of archaeologists, museum officials and the general public stood in the pouring rain and watched as a large crane lifted the 2.3-tonne salt ship from an eight-foot deep hole in the ground and placed it gently on the back of a low loader on which a bed of sand had been laid.

   From his vantage point in the cab of the crane, the driver had watched as the hook was attached with slings to the salt ship.  "It weighs over a tonne," he said, watching the scale in his cab as the crane took the strain. Then, "Two tonnes . . . Two point three










The salt ship is lifted clear of the Wood Street mud where it had lain since its days in the town's salt producing industry.

   It was swung on to a low loader which took it away to be preserved in York.


tonnes," he called out as the lift proceeded.

   The timber structure was then swung effortlessly (above) on to the waiting low loader to be taken away, sealed in black plastic.   

   The team from Earthworks Archaeology - who did both the initial dig and the latest excavation - secured the site as the official "treasure hunter" assigned to the project passed his metal detector over the spot where the ship had lain, searching for any artefacts which had been buried underneath.

   By now the officials and the crowd had left. Then the voice of a cynic was heard: "All that to get one buried tree out of the ground?!"

   Perhaps he was not being serious, but it will probably be a while before anything as large as the ship will be taken from where it was left by the Dabbers of old. 

   Important as they are in piecing together Nantwich's history, somehow bits of broken pottery and old coins don't produce the same awe. 


THE upshot of the excavation was that, thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, arranged by the then Cheshire County Council, the salt ship was preserved in a two-year process to go on display at Nantwich Museum. The original plan - well, hope - was that all the salt ship could be displayed in the museum




but there is not enough room. The ship had to be cut into three pieces so that it could fit into the preservation vats where it lay soaking in a special liquid for two years, but the museum authorities were assured that it could be reassembled at a later date if display space could be found.

   This was the second ship to be excavated in Nantwich and two more lie underground awaiting future rescue. Only two salt ships have been unearthed in the U.K.


 lCurshaw's is again known as The Cheshire Cat - as is told in this Letter from Nantwich.

The site of the brine pit is marked by this boulder (left) at the Old Biot on a bank of the River Weaver (centre).  Note the hole in the top surface of the bolder from where the water flowed. It now appears to be blocked. These images were taken in August 2014

Brine from the salt spring was used for medicinal baths after its use for producing salt diminished. Today it feeds Nantwich Swimming Pool - or pools as there is an outdoor one and a covered one.













Houses in Wilbraham Court as seen from Welsh Row. Out of view to the right of the picture is The Cheshire Cat.



Right: The block of apartments on Welsh Row, with Wilbraham Court

to the right.



Below: The archway that joins the apartments and the terraced houses. A plaque over it in inscribed: "Wilbraham Court 2005".




AFTER the salt ship was removed for preservation, work began on building houses and apartments. The new development is called Wilbraham Court

   The homes, which stand of the site of an earlier row of houses, curves away into the distance.

   I did wonder at the time whether the salt ship could be returned to the ground from which it came. Not buried, of course, but in a special viewing area that would be part of the housing development.

   The archway is just about the spot where the salt ship lay buried for all those years. Wouldn't it have been a good thing if it could have been installed in a special underground chamber in the archway, with spotlights and a specially toughened glass top through which it could be viewed.

   It would have been an extra attraction to bring tourists to that part of Nantwich.

   There might have been slight problems given that the archway leads to the rear of the properties and residents could have found their access hindered by visitors - depending on how many people were around at the time. 

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