Preserving the past: the salty histories of Droitwich

‘Who enjoys food to the full unless flavoured with salt? Who can fill his salt-cellar or storehouse without my craft? Indeed, all the butter and cheese-curd would perish you unless I keeper am present. You would not even make use of your vegetables without me.’

The Salter from Aelfric’s Colloquy (early tenth century)

In September, the Worcestershire town of Droitwich celebrated its community and heritage with the annual ‘Salt Fest’. The event featured its usual array of local business, music and Roman reenactments and demonstrations, all themed around Droitwich’s historic salt industry. One of this year’s biggest talking points amongst exhibitors and visitors, though, was the revival of Droitwich salt production. For the first time in nearly 100 years, brine is being pumped out of an active well in the Salwarpe Valley and crystallised to salt to be marketed as ‘the purest, natural brine spring salt in the world.’

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I couldn’t resist getting some myself!

It’s an exciting development for the town. The many artefacts at Droitwich Spa Salt Museum, along with the replica of the Great Upwich Pit, the statue of St Richard de Wych, and the salt history mosaic in Vines Park, reveal Droitwich salt in the past and present as an important, if not the most important, element of shared local identity.

Reconstruction of the Great Upwich Salt Pit in Vines Park

Reconstruction of the Great Upwich Salt Pit in Vines Park

Archaeological finds suggest that salt – a relatively rare and very lucrative resource vital for food preservation and flavouring in the days before freezers – was mined pretty much continuously in Droitwich from the Iron Age right up until 1922. Often, evidence for early industry is destroyed or damaged by newer, larger and more intense extraction methods. In Droitwich, though, traditional techniques changed little over the centuries and the salty, waterlogged ground has preserved archaeological remains that would otherwise have deteriorated. So, despite the fact that Roman history was way more prominent at Salt Fest, archaeologists and historians do actually know a fair bit about salty Droitwich in the early medieval era, too. Here are just a few of my favourite historical discoveries!

Droitwich was once called ‘salt-town’

As I pointed out in my last blog, Droitwich was called Saltwic by the ninth century, which translates as ‘salt-town’, or possibly ‘salt trading-centre’. If the town was named after salt, we can be pretty certain that the salt industry was important to its identity. The name has an important function – if an Anglo Saxon person was looking for a place to purchase salt, she would know where to go to find it. Salt quite literally put Droitwich on the map.

Droitwich had global connections by river, road and sea

Those in control of Droitwich’s salt springs – the early Mercian kings – clearly had aspirations beyond Droitwich itself. The saelt straets, or ‘salt-ways’, radiated out from Droitwich in every direction: north east towards Lincolnshire; south east towards Lechdale and the head of the Thames; and west to the border with Wales. Salt would have been carried by river, too, along the Salwarpe and the Severn to Worcester and Bristol. The whole country needed supplying with salt, and Droitwich was making the largest quantities and most concentrated salt on the market. It’s possible it was even being traded overseas from London and Bristol.

Blair, rivers and saltways

The intersection of rivers and saltways in early medieval England. John Blair, Waterways and Canal-Building in Medieval England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 18

Droitwich was one of the Wonders of the World (kind of…)

At the beginning of the ninth century a welsh monk named Nennius wrote a series called De mirabilibus britanniae (‘The Wonders of Britain’). Alongside sections on lakes, whirlpools and geothermal springs, he wrote of ‘the fountains discovered in the place of salt, from which fountains salt is cooked: from that place diverse plain-foods are salted and they are not near the sea, but from the earth they emerge.’ No prizes for guessing which famously bountiful brine springs he’s referring to here. For early medieval people, Droitwich’s waters were a true geographical marvel!

The local salt industry had some pretty interesting lingo

In the late seventeenth century, a ‘phat walling’ was a unit used to measure brine, equivalent to just under 7,000 gallons. The term comes from Old English fæt (‘vat’) and weallan (‘to boil’), and we know that the Anglo-Saxons used this unit of measurement too because it’s written down in a tenth-century will. The Anglo-Saxons spoke in Old English, which is an inflected Germanic language quite different to the Modern English we speak today, so it’s pretty amazing that locally-specific industrial terminology for salt production survived without change for so long. Droitwich’s tradition makes the distant past seem not-so-distant after all.

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It’s clear to see that Droitwich salt production is so much more than just a quirky local tradition. Though the industry isn’t the profitable behemoth it once was, salt continues to be a product that is intensely local and nationally significant in equal measure. A substance which carries stories, histories and memories along its trade routes by river and road, it inspires curiosity about the past communities who extracted and exchanged it.

Artist Katy Beinart, one of the lead artists on major arts project The Ring, will be using these unique characteristics and histories of salt to inspire her 2018 temporary public artwork in Droitwich. I’ll be writing more about her residency in the near future, but in the meantime, you can find out more about her work by visiting The Ring website and her project blog.

Roman demonstrations at Vines Park

Roman demonstrations at Vines Park by the Droitwich Canal


Further reading

Della Hooke, The Anglo-Saxon Landscape: The Kingdom of the Hwicce (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985)

Della Hooke, ‘The Droitwich salt industry: an examination of the West Midland charter evidence’, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, British Archaeological Reports 92 (1981), 123-69

J. D. Hurst, ed., A Multi-Period Salt Production Site at Droitwich: Excavations at Upwich (York: Council for British Archaeology, 1997)

J. R. Maddicott, ‘London and Droitwich, c. 650-750: trade, industry and the rise of Mercia’, Anglo-Saxon England: Volume 34 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 7-58

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