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Milefortlet 21 and The Saltpans

Where are they?

Crosscanonby, near Allonby. GR: NY067401

You can view a location map.

Links to local transport and roads information are also available.

Coming from Maryport, follow the signs for Allonby, about a quarter of a mile before you reach Allonby, there is a car park on your right and both Milefortlet 21 and the Saltpans are accessible from this car park.

The site is has a dominant position, with magnificent views over the Solway, and is accessible at all times. There is a limited amount of fixed on-site interpretation.

What is Milefortlet 21?

Milefortlet 21Milefortlet 21 is now the only element of Hadrian's coastal defences of the northwest frontier (and thus of the Roman Empire) to have been wholly excavated. The site consists of a viewing platform over the exposed excavation.

Along Hadrian's wall, at intervals of one-Roman-mile (about 1.5-kilometre). "Milecastles" both provided passageway and housed the Roman soldiers who protected the frontier and actually constructed the defences: the estimated 1.3 million cubic meters of turf and stone which comprise the entire system were moved and moulded by thousands of Roman troops, not by slaves as was previously believed. The wall was obviously not enough to completely keep out invading forces, but was intended to establish boundaries and maintain order; traders had to use the milecastles as points of entry, so marketplaces naturally developed in designated areas. Smaller "Milefortlets," which essentially served the same purpose as their larger counterparts, guarded the Cumbrian coast without the added protection of a wall.

The photograph shows the excavated site in 1990/1.

The Excavation

The excavation teamOver two summers in 1990 and 1991, 150 Earthwatch volunteers helped to completely excavate the fortress. In what amounted to 20 weeks of difficult fieldwork, teams removed and differentiated many layers of fine sand despite steady erosion and wind. Through constant cleaning and meticulous 3D-recording, they were able to recover almost 1,000 fragments of pottery and iron, as well as to reconstruct a model of how the fortress once looked. This material is now housed at the Senhouse Roman Museum.

What are the Saltpans?

For nearly 700 years, salt was made from sea water along the Cumbrian coast. Crosscanonby Salt Pans is the remains of one of the new generation of salt works, built around 1650 by the Senhouses of Netherhall. The works appear to have closed 86 years later. Until 1970, the salters' cottages and stables still remained at the site.

The large, circular, elevated structure is the sleech pit or kinch. The wall is cobble built with a clay infill. In use, it was clay-lined and the floor covered with reeds acting as a filter. Salt laden sand was gathered from the shore in a horse-drawn rake called a hap.

This material was known as sleech and was carried into the kinch and piled up. When full, fresh water - or possibly sea water - was sprinkled over this sleech. The strong salt solution would trickle down into the brine pit or lagoon (now a sunken garden). When the concentration was enough to float an egg, the process stopped and the kinch cleaned out.

The brine was gently boiled in iron pans producing one draught per day (over a third of a ton). The pans were about 9 feet by 8 feet and up to 8 feet deep. The white of three eggs was introduced to the lukewarm brine to clear-up any silt as scum - and then removed. Slow heating produced the desired large crystals of bay salt. The crystals were collected in wicker baskets or wooden containers called drabs, and allowed to drain. Certain salts of lime and magnesia settled in the pan corners. It was called scratch or catscalp and was used for pigeon food. Cleaning the scratch from the pans was known as patlin the pans.

In 1698, a salt tax was levied at source and the Salt Officers for the Cumbrian and Scottish coasts of the Solway Firth were based at Netherhall, Maryport. One such officer was Mr John Smith who served for twenty nine years. He died in 1730 and his tomb is in Crosscanonby churchyard. A panel depicts a Salt Officer at his desk.

Coal for firing the pans came from the mines at Crosshow near Dearham, the lime for the pan joints came from Eaglesfield. Certain wooden structures uncovered by the tide from time-to-time represent the remains of a pump and water tank scaffold.

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