Under constant threat from the ferocity of the sea and the storms which from time to time ravage the Solway Coast, the ancient Salt Pans at Crosscanonby are a lasting monument to a bygone industrial age.
The origin of salt pans in West Cumbria
In Anglo-Saxon times, salt production was the third most important industry behind agriculture and fishing. Before the development of refrigeration, salt was used to preserve foods like meat and fish. It was required in large quantities by the local fishing industry and salt production was large-scale throughout West Cumbria with a virtually unbroken chain of salt pans stretching from the head of the Solway to Millom.
A large percentage of the agricultural landscape which can be seen today on the Solway Plain can be attributed to the works of the Cistercian Monks of Holm Cultram Abbey, Abbeytown. They founded their abbey in 1150 when the Solway was primarily in Scottish hands.
The monks began shaping the landscape around them as their agricultural empire grew. Amongst their many commercial activities they began taking salt from the sea at many sites along the stretch of coastline, which would later become The Solway Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Remains of their salt works can be found at Saltcotes (which means a cluster of buildings containing salt pans) and at Newton Marsh where circular pits still gather sea water and hold it until the next high tide.
Crosscanonby Salt Pans
The Crosscanonby Salt Pans are the best-preserved examples of salt works in West Cumbria and are one of the few salt-making sites which were probably not initiated by the monks of Holm Cultram Abbey in Abbeytown.
Recent studies on these salt works have led to a rethink of their history and use. Originally it was thought that they were owned and run by the influential Senhouse family of Maryport. However, a land survey carried out in 1699, which recently came to light, shows that this is not the case. Two sets of saltpans, the first, entitled 'Netherhall Pans', were shown on the survey a mile south of Crosscanonby. The second set of pans was located just north of the village on the coast and were entitled 'Mr Lamplugh's Salt Pans'. It is now thought that it was the Netherhall Pans that were owned by the Senhouses and not those at Crosscanonby.
The earliest reference to Crosscanonby Salt Pans comes in 1634 when they were let to a Richard Barwis on a 21-year lease. The details of this lease show plans for the construction of saltpans and cottages. Without an indication as to whether there were any salt works there before, 1634 would be a good approximate date for their first construction.
The Pans passed to the Lamplugh family from Ribton in 1662, first to Thomas Lamplugh and then to his son, Richard, in 1670. From then on they were the source of some disquiet within the Lamplugh family, with two half brothers, Richard and Robert (sons of Richard senior), disputing over their ownership in 1710. Robert, who appears to have been quite wealthy, was eventually awarded the lease by the Dean and Chapter of Carlisle Cathedral.
A map of Cumberland dated 1783 does not show the Netherhall Pans, which suggests they were, by this time, long abandoned.
The last lease to directly refer to the Saltpans was given to a Joseph Fell of Crosscanonby in 1821, although it is thought that salt ceased to be produced on the site in the 1760s (a lot later than first thought).
Since that time, although regularly referred to in documentation as the Saltpans, salt was no longer produced at Crosscanonby and the name simply became synonymous with the site. However, the importance of local salt making is indicated by the grave of the local Salt Tax Officer to be found at nearby St John's Church.
After the cessation of salt production, much of the site equipment and workings were probably sold off and materials were scavenged. The cottages, however, remained.
What is now the B5300 coast road was constructed in 1824. This split the site into two halves and by 1845 it featured only the cottages and the kinch (the circular pit visible today). By 1866 the cottages were being used as a Public House (supposedly called The Solway Inn), although the buildings had reverted to cottages by the time they were auctioned off in 1900.
The 20th Century
The 20th century has seen significant changes to the Saltpans. Between 1918 and the 1930s, holiday cottages and a caravan site grew around the Pans. The caravan park prospered until it was abandoned in the 1970s due to coastal erosion, which undermined the site. This erosion accounted for the loss of the holiday cottages, the last of which fell into the sea in 1966, captured on film by local resident Eric Ostle.
The last remnants of the salt works, the salters' cottages, were demolished in the 1970s, leaving the Saltpans derelict and forgotten.
The significance of the Saltpans was realised in the mid-1980s and research was carried out which led to the redevelopment of the historic monument.
You can now use the information boards on site to gain an idea of how the original Saltpans worked and were set up. The boards (some of which are now inaccurate as to the history of the Pans) also give a best guess as to the process involved in salt making.
The Cumbrian coast was one of only six areas in Britain where salt was taken from the sea. Enjoy your visit to this nationally important and virtually unique window into our industrial past.
Saving the Saltpans
In the latter part of 1997 and early 1998, Solway Rural Initiative carried out major works to protect the Saltpans at Crosscanonby from the threat of coastal erosion, realising that one or two more storm tides could see the Saltpans being lost forever.
The emergency work involved building a wooden palisade around the badly eroded site. This was back-filled with over 2,000 tonnes of material from the nearby Crosscanonby Carr nature reserve project.
The temporary sea defences proved their worth even before completion when they were battered by a vicious storm in January 1998. Thankfully the defences did their job and the Saltpans sustained no damage.
The site remains intact, although under constant threat from the tides, a lasting monument to an industry long departed from Solway life.