On Friday 27 March, Chancellor George Osborne hailed the soon-to-be opened Lion Salt Works as “incredible” – and predicted the heritage attraction would become “one of the most interesting places in Cheshire”.
Mr Osborne, enjoyed a behind-the-scenes tour of the restored monument to the salt industry – and marveled at its transformation since his last visit more than a decade ago.
During the 2004 visit he publicly added his support to the growing call to restore and refurbish the UK’s last traditional open pan salt works, then completely derelict.
Mr Osborne was invited by Cheshire West and Chester Council and the Lion Salt Works Trust to see how a painstaking £10.23m restoration has transformed the decaying site into one of the finest industrial heritage attractions in the country.
He was joined by senior figures from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), Historic England and other key stakeholders for a tour of the museum, which is now in the final stages of fit-out.
Mr Osborne said: “These are incredible buildings and it is incredible what has been done here. I think it will become one of the most interesting places in Cheshire.
“There is such an appetite for these industrial sites where you can see heritage. The Salt Works dates from the 19th century but salt, of course, started with the Romans.
“Northwich is such an industrial town and a town that is going places. This is a sign of that and I thank the Council who have done a brilliant job.”
Extending his thanks to the project’s funding partners and the Lion Salt Works Trust, Mr Osborne added: “It’s a team effort and you’ve done it beautifully.”
Friday’s visit marked the culmination of a four-year project to restore the crumbling 19th century buildings and develop the site into a ‘living museum’, offering a fascinating insight into a period in history when Cheshire produced 86 percent of the nation’s salt.
It was revealed today that the Lion Salt Works will host preview openings for the public from May 20.
Visitors will be able to enjoy fun, interactive and educational exhibits telling the story of salt including a walk-in ‘subsiding house’ and salt boiling pans that billow giant clouds of steam.
The museum’s historic core is made up of two restored pan houses and three restored stove houses, while an educational centre has been created inside the Red Lion Inn – the onsite pub which gave the salt works its name.
A butterfly garden, play area, café and conference centre complement the museum to appeal to a wide range of audiences.
The restoration and museum fit-out, which have been undertaken by Wates Construction and Becks Interiors respectively, has been primarily funded by the Council and the HLF.
The project has also benefited from a £300,000 grant from Historic England and a £280,000 contribution from the Manage+ European Programme.
As a Scheduled Monument, much of the project has had to rely on manual construction methods because of the buildings’ fragile state.
Councillor Stuart Parker, Executive Member for Culture and Economy, said: “The Lion Salt Works is a unique monument to an industry which not only gave this region its economic lifeblood, but was a direct descendent of the massive chemical industry prevalent in the area today.
“When the Council took over responsibility for the Salt Works in 2009 it was in a pitiful condition, derelict and decaying, and perilously close to being lost forever.
“The challenges we have faced in restoring this historic site have been considerable and credit must go to Wates Construction for overcoming these and completing a sympathetic restoration of the highest standard.
“What we have before us today is a heritage attraction of national standing, offering a first-class visitor experience focusing not only on the history of this fascinating site but also how the industry impacted upon Cheshire’s people, economy and landscape.”
Councillor Parker added: “The re-birth of the Lion Salt Works is thanks to the vision, hard work and funding of many passionate individuals and organisations – notably the Trustees, who have worked towards this goal for more than two decades.
“And we are extremely grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic England, whose support has been instrumental in bringing this unique piece of history back from the brink.”
The Lion Salt Works was established in 1894 by the Thompson family and remained in their ownership through five generations. Salt was produced by evaporating brine in large cast iron pans.
After it ceased trading in 1986 the site was purchased by the former Vale Royal Borough Council and subsequently granted Scheduled Monument status.
The Lion Salt Works came to national prominence as a regional runner-up in the BBC ‘Restoration’ programme in 2004.
In 2009 the site was acquired by Cheshire West and Chester Council which made its restoration a priority.
Nick Hunt, Chairman of the Lion Salt Works Trust, said: “It is 22 years since the Trust started working towards the conservation of the Lion Salt Works, so this is a very exciting day for us.
“We greatly value our relationship with Cheshire West and Chester Council and are really looking forward to developing our partnership with them to help run the site, to carry out further restoration and to demonstrate the traditional processes of salt making.”
The HLF awarded the Lion Salt Works a grant of £5.29m under its Heritage Grants scheme, making it one of the largest heritage schemes being undertaken with their support in the North West.
Sara Hilton, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund North West, said: “Our industrial heritage has played a vital role in shaping the North West’s heritage, culture and landscape.
“Salt has been produced in Cheshire since before Roman Times so it is fitting that the last remaining vestige to the salt industry will be in Cheshire.
“We’re proud to have played a major role by investing National Lottery funds to rescue and restore the site for future generations to learn about how the industry helped shape the Cheshire we love today.”
Charles Smith, Principal Heritage at Risk Adviser for Historic England in the North West, said: “The Salt Works has been on our Heritage at Risk Register since 2004. Although it’s taken many years, we’ve stuck by the place, and are delighted that finally this internationally important site is coming back to life.
“The Salt Works is essential to any proper understanding of this country’s industrial past and Historic England is proud to have contributed its expertise and a £300,000 grant to securing its future.”