Northwich’s multi award-winning Lion Salt Works Museum showcases its new and important ‘Nodding Donkey’ pump

On Friday 8 November, the newly restored ‘Nodding Donkey’ pump mechanism was revealed at Cheshire’s multi award-winning Lion Salt Works Museum in Northwich. This distinctive new 10-metre feature of the museum is also known as the Brine Extraction Train. It is a crucial part of the open-pan, salt-making story as it shows how brine was pumped from beneath the earth before being boiled to extract salt.

The Lion Salt Works is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, with the same protection status as Stonehenge, meaning that all aspects of this work was subject to careful scrutiny and monitoring. The Museum funded this work using the remaining contingency money set aside at the time of the four-year, £10m restoration of the Museum that finished in 2015.

The restoration of the pump has been the joint initiative of Cheshire West and Chester Council and Donald Insall Associates (architects for the original 2015 restoration of the site). MPH were the main site contractors and specialist work was carried out by teams from Industrial Heritage Consulting and JPS Restoration.  Ramboll carried out structural engineering works for the project and Earthworks provided archaeological supervision.  Historic research was provided by Lion Salt Works Trustee, Juan Cunliffe. He and other trustees and volunteers from the Lion Salt Works have also provided information for the new display boards. The work has taken four months to complete.

Lisa Harris, Director of Place Strategy, said: “This has been a highly complex project because, as one of the last open-pan, salt-making sites in the world, it has the highest level of building protection in the country. I am delighted that this restoration has been possible and thank the Council’s in-house team, Donald Insall Associates and all the contractors and volunteers for all their hard work, skill and professionalism in bringing this last piece of the works ‘back to life’. The Nodding Donkey is an important part of the visual understanding of how the Lion Salt Works site works and will be enjoyed by everyone who visits the site.”

Rebecca Mills, Senior Architect, Donald Insall Associates said; “This has been a challenging but rewarding project. It started with carefully dismantling the surviving heritage, salvaging as much as possible for restoration.  The brick bases were re-built on new foundations, saving as many of the existing bricks as possible, to help prevent the notable subsidence and ensure that they were structurally sound enough to support the rocking motion of the ‘Nodding Donkey’ and the weight of the new header tank.  

“This brought about its own challenges when below ground archaeology was uncovered, leading to a swift re-design of the existing foundations and anchor locations on site.  None of the work would have been possible without Industrial Heritage Consulting and JPA Restoration, who worked together to carefully restore and reinstall the industrial machinery on site.  The lifting of the new Derrick mast was a particular highlight of these works. The finished project will tell the initial part of the story of the salt-making process and I think visitors are going to find it a fascinating addition to the site.”

For practical reasons, no brine will be pumped physically to the surface but instead will be capped with a blanked off stainless steel sleeve just below ground level to give the illusion of brine being extracted from below ground. The Nodding Donkey has been designed to work almost silently and is powered by the site’s existing electric-powered steam pump.

The Lion Salt Works Museum explains the story of Cheshire’s important salt industry. Salt from Cheshire was the basis of a world-wide trade which brought work and prosperity to the region. The presence of salt also explains why Cheshire has so many canals and ‘flashes’ and why the county is a leader in the chemical industry (salt was a catalyst in many early chemical processes and it remains important to many chemical processes to this day).

Since its four-year £10m restoration, the Museum has won nine awards, including the National Lottery’s ‘Best Heritage Project 2016’ after a public vote.

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