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Saunterings:  Walking in North-West England

Saunterings is a set of reflections based upon walks around the counties of Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire in North-West England (as defined in the Preamble). Here is a list of all Saunterings so far.
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157.  The Preesall Salt of the Earth

The Preesall region is not the most dramatic in North-West England but it has hosted one of the most surprising of our past industries – and may soon host one of the most surprising new ones too. I walked around the site of both on this outing.
wyre estuary

The Wyre estuary, at low tide, with Fleetwood to the left, the Knott End jetty to the right, and a distant Black Combe in the middle

I set off south from Knott End on the Wyre Way, which led me inland through a golf course and past Hackensall Hall, which has many ornate chimneys and also many large derelict barns. After a mile or so I reached the salt marshes of Barnaby’s Sands. Salt marshes begin to form above bare mud flats that are inundated by every incoming tide. Various pioneering salt-tolerant plants first gain a root-hold in the soft mud and the establishment of a stable base then aids further growth and the accretion of sediment, with the marsh continuing to grow upwards and outwards. Over time, as the marsh rises, it becomes less swamped by tides, enabling other plants to colonise the surface. The result is a flat region of dull, muddy green vegetation, deeply fissured with winding salty creeks, as at Barnaby’s Sands (where there are now no sands), forming here the largest area of ungrazed salt marsh in North-West England.

Barnaby's Sands Right: Barnaby's Sands.

Large signs informed me that nobody is allowed to walk on Barnaby’s Sands, nor on Burrows Marsh further on. Not that I was tempted, as they looked a maze of muddy creeks from which one might not be able to extricate oneself. The most interesting thing about these signs was the signature at the bottom: “Halite Energy Group”. In the previous Sauntering I added several “Why”s in order to pause the narrative and prompt a reader to reflect on why something is as it is. Here, too, we might ask: Why is an energy company and not, say, Natural England, telling us to help the wildlife by keeping out?

I continued on the Wyre Way on the levee to the east of the salt marshes and with flat, or at most gently undulating, fields of grass and maize inland. Disappointingly for a Wyre Way, I had not seen the River Wyre since I left it to walk through the golf course, unless you count the creeks of the salt marshes. Leaving Burrows Marsh and walking up Burrow’s Lane (the map has an apostrophe for the latter) I reached a height of 23 metres, the highest point of the walk, and found a gap in the hedge to survey the Wyre, at last. There wasn’t much of it to see – the tide was out and there has been little rain to water the river.

R Wyre Left: A glimpse of the distant River Wyre from the Wyre Way.

At the hamlet of Staynall I felt that I had seen enough of the Wyre Way for now and headed inland to walk back north along High Gate Lane and Back Lane. These are nondescript lanes with nondescript fields both sides, so I won’t attempt to describe them. Further on, as I neared Preesall, I noticed that many fields had signs saying “Private property. Keep out” (again, I had not been tempted to enter them). Some of the signs added “This Area is Liable to Subsidence”. Time for another ‘Why?’ Why should these ordinary-looking, virtually flat, green fields be liable to subsidence?

I turned west to walk past several large unnamed ponds. They could easily be passed without provoking any thought but the history of these ponds begins to answer our questions. In 1872 engineers drilled in these fields hoping to find iron ore deposits, as had recently been found around Barrow on the opposite side of Morecambe Bay. They didn’t find iron ore but they did find, at about 100 metres down, a layer of about 100 metres of salt. So they began to dig mines to extract it, with the Fleetwood Salt Company being formed in 1883.

Preesall pond Right: A pond near Preesall.

Details of the Preesall salt industry are given at this website and I have stolen some of them for the brief summary here. By 1906 the mine was producing 140,000 tons of rock salt per annum and steamers were being loaded at the new Preesall jetty on the Wyre, served by railway trucks on a rail line direct from the mine (I had crossed this old rail line on the Wyre Way – it’s just a track now). The Times of that year commented that “A descent into the Preesall pit is an experience of unusual interest. Though the mining operations have only been conducted for a dozen years, the weird, lofty, cavernous vaults formed by the excavation of over a million tons of salt are sufficiently impressive … to bewilder the spectator who visits them for the first time”.

However, there had already been warning signs. Subsidence in 1890 and 1891 had led the Fleetwood Chronicle to comment that “no doubt the good people of Preesall will in time come to regard the collapse of a field or two with supreme indifference.” The basic difficulty with salt mines is that salt dissolves in water and if water is allowed to leak into the mine or is used to pump the salt out then the salt pillars that are left to support the roofs are liable to weaken. In 1923 the Chronicle reported on a huge subsidence of 100 metres diameter from which “there come sounds as of the rushing of a subterranean cataract, then a rumble rising to the roar of thunder. The roar has been heard at Pilling four miles away … Many persons were awakened in the small hours of Sunday morning by bedsteads quivering beneath them. Far from any signs of becoming filled up, the hole seems to be getting bigger … ”

Somehow, despite further subsidence, the mine limped on until abandoned in 1931. I noticed that the angling club that now uses the ponds calls itself Alkali A.C. From the ponds I walked north to the footpath that runs along the line of the old Garstang & Knott End railway. The section between Pilling and Knott End only ran between 1908 and 1950 and for a time was used to transport the Preesall salt. There still seems to be a local fondness for this old railway, known as the Pilling Pig, although it disappeared decades ago. I suppose the sight of this train chugging across these flat, dull fields must have added a touch of excitement.

wyre estuary Left: The Wyre estuary with the tide now in.

From there I walked back along the Knott End-on-Sea sea front, with the tide now well in. Most of the time it’s more of a marsh front. I don’t think Knott End was ever much of a resort. Today few of the buildings overlooking the bay seem to be catering for visitors. There were a few people wandering about near the ferry but there were more of them in the café, which seems to be the only thing for them to do.

We mustn't forget the Halite Energy Group. This company has a proposal to use the site of the old salt mines – perhaps even to use remaining old caverns and no doubt to build more – in order to store vast quantities of gas (900 million cubic metres), as part of the nation’s programme to better manage its energy reserves. This proposal has been rejected and accepted multiple times in recent years. I don’t know if it’s in a state of rejection or acceptance at the moment (the latest document I could find on-line says that the Preesall Saltfield Underground Gas Storage facility has been approved). I didn’t see any sign of on-going work to build such a facility. I presume that Halite owns all the land, in case they ever get to work on the project.

Needless to say, local residents are not happy at the prospect of living above a huge gas-holder. Especially when there’s also the prospect of fracking being revived not many miles away to send earthquakes through the ground. That could set the bedsteads quivering again. Seriously, though, if we need to contemplate fracking earthquakes and underground gas-holders to sustain our way of life then we’ve lost the plot, haven’t we?

    Date: June 17th 2022
    Start: SD346485, Knott End ferry  (Map: 296)
    Route: S on Wyre Way – Staynall – E, N on High Gate Lane, Back Lane, NW through Curwens Hill, E on old railway line, N – coast – W – Knott End ferry
    Distance: 8 miles;   Ascent: 20 metres



     156.   The Long and Winding Hornby Road
     155.   Two Sides of Bassenthwaite Lake and One of Derwent Water
     154.   Damming the Howgills

               A list of all Saunterings so far

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    © John Self, Drakkar Press, 2018-

Blencathra

Top photo: The western Howgills from Dillicar; Bottom photo: Blencathra from Great Mell Fell