Salt mines of Cheshire
17:40 14 April 2010
Salt from Cheshire kept the country moving when the icy winter turned UK roads into potential deathtraps. We visit the country's largest rock salt mine in Winsford to find out what goes on
Gordon Dunn and his team are working flat out about 200 metres underground in the pitch black. Its a constant 14 degrees, more than a little dusty and youre unlikely to bump into any colleagues for any longer than to pip your van horn. It might not be everyones idea of heaven but they love it.
The staff at Winsford Rock Salt Mine dont normally work 24/7. It is part of a plan to replenish supplies after the snow earlier this year brought many parts of the country to a standstill.
Gordon, a 47-year-old former coal mine worker who became manager just over two years ago, said: We had to get the police in to control the amount of trucks queuing up outside. We were getting the salt out of the mine and it was going straight out in the trucks.
Even now its going out as soon as its been mined. Thats why we are working around the clock.
Winsford Rock Salt Mine, first excavated in 1854, is Britains oldest salt mine and is responsible for much of the countrys rock salt production. Each year, it and others in Yorkshire and Northern Ireland produce one million tonnes of rock salt which is mined, crushed and then transported via conveyor belt to the surface. About a mile of tunnel is mined every year but there are 130 miles of tunnel underground.
Books from the Bodleian Library, Manchester Library and the National Archives are stored down here
In days gone by, a workforce of more than 400 workers used handpicks and shovels to encourage salt out of these vast caverns. Today, the much smaller workforce use gigantic remote-control salt cutting machines which are brought down in parts and assembled underground. Once theyve reached the end of their use they are left in a huge corner of the mine. Theyre not the only unusual items lurking in the vast caverns. In the past there have been talks about having a mushroom farm down there, but now books from the Bodleian Library, Manchester Library and the National Archives are stored down here.
The dry conditions are perfect for preserving the paper and it is an increasingly popular storage solution for over-crowded libraries.
But Gordon is sure mining will continue here for some time. As long as we can keep producing salt for the prices we do, then we will be around, he said. It will take something major that can be mined and produced much more cheaply to alter things for us.
Its a job I love. Being in coal mining previously, working in a salt mine is much better. Its clean for a start. I love working here, its all about the camaraderie. We all get on very well, but that and trust is important when youre down a mine.
Did you know?
The wich in the Cheshire wich towns like Nantwich and Northwich refers to their salt heritage.