Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Our salt-cellars

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When the Grecian hero descended to hell and consulted the shade of Teiresias about his homeward voyage, he was told he would have to visit men who knew nothing of the sea, and who did not even eat their food with salt. The geographers make futile guesses at this country, which is not very wonderful, considering the mythical atmosphere surrounding it. Perhaps the Austrian exploring ship Novara, has just solved the difficulty. It visited the Nicobar islands in the Indian Ocean, and there found a race of men who make no use of salt with their food, though amongst other peculiarities they are extravagantly fond of Epsom salts. However this may be, the Homeric allusion is valuable as pointing out that the ancient world obtained their salt chiefly by evaporation; a fact which we know from other authorities was really the case. Until comparatively late years we ourselves were dependent on this primitive process for our supply of salt. Indeed, the Staffordshire salt-mines were not discovered till the year 1670; and only the other day we noticed in a maritime village church of Devonshire a tablet to a “parish salt officer,” who had departed this life early in the present century. But at the present time our consumption of salt is mainly supplied by the great Triassic deposits of the Cheshire and Worcester salt-mines. Here are the salt-cellars of England. From 160,000 to 170,000 tons of prepared salt, on an average, are now annually furnished by them.

We intend to invite the reader to descend one of these mines with us at Northwich. First, however, let us make a few observations on salt itself, by way of seasoning our narrative. The word “salary,” (money given to purchase salt), which has floated down the stream of time, bears witness in itself to salt being considered the first necessary of human life. Sitting above or below the salt-cellar was the usual demarcation between the high-born and the dependent in the domestic life of the middle ages. In Eastern hospitality, eating salt with you constitutes all the difference between a friend and a foe. Bearing these facts in mind, then, and looking to the antiseptic qualities of salt, we steadily refuse to pay any attention to that common puff “salt, the forbidden food.” It has too close a resemblance to a Swedenborgian dogma or a waif from Cloud-cuckoo town.

For a great wonder, July was radiant with smiles when we started from Manchester to picnic at the salt-mine in question. An omnibus and four conveyed the merry party to the scene of operations; chaperones and elders being inside, while juniors disported themselves on the top. Long were it to tell how the mischievous poked fun at each other, or affixed paper scrolls to the unconscious collars of their neighbours. The usual tricks fresh air induces on the top of a carriage, which may be seen so excellently on the return from the Derby, were successfully played. We could not help noticing, however, amidst all our merriment, the low elevation of the country we passed through, characteristic of the salt and sandstone formation in England.

Next, we arrived at a range of sheds, where scattered heaps of salt, like driven snow, suggested agreeable reminiscences of ices. Dismounting here, we made our way to a large room at the head of the mine. There stood the inevitable bucket-like cage in which we were to descend to Erebus, with a chain, at what may be called its handle, communicating through the roof with the machinery which lowered it. At this sight everyone’s courage began to evaporate. Unknown perils, which might befall dresses and hats, were now gravely mooted. Even in the men’s faces the colour fell visibly a shade or two. Who would go down first? was the question our eyes asked each other. At length one lady, like a second Curtius (or a “female Amazon,” as country showmen say), announced her willingness to devote herself. The door of the cage was opened, and, followed by another fair friend, she stept in. Now two of the sterner sex volunteered, “in order to take care of them;” and with a guide to regulate the descent, &c., the heroic party was lowered into the gulf. The rest followed in due time, including a young “saw bones,” who descended last in such a piteous state of mind that it was wonderful anything remained of him in the cage at the bottom beyond his boots, and any stray pill-pox he might have had in his pocket. Joining forces again, we proceeded to explore.

The reader preparing for an account of pillars of sparkling whiteness, crystal halls,

A ceiling of amber,
A pavement of pearl:

such as Mr. Arnold’s mermen dwell in, and such as preconceived ideas of a salt-mine are apt to fancy, will be disappointed. Truth compels us to admit everything around was peculiarly dingy. Owing to the red marl diversifying the rock-salt, the gnomes have sombre habitations. We were in a lofty gallery, with rather a stifling atmosphere, and brine springs occasionally trickled down from the roof. The guides gave each of us a candle, which made the surrounding gloom more visible, and we moved on over a rough floor through divers passages, to what was euphemistically termed by the underground population—“Regent Street.” An arch of wood formed the entrance to this long defile, and on it twenty-four dips had been artistically arranged in honour of our arrival as an impromptu illumination. Others were fixed up at regular intervals down the passage in imitation of the gas of the upper world, and by their light we discerned here and there eager faces peering at us from the darkness. Horses dragged sleds of salt in huge masses past us; miners attended them, bearing pickaxes; and great activity evidently prevailed in the working-tunnels running out of this main entrance. Suddenly loud shouts of “Look out!—“Mind yourselves!” and so on, smote on our ears. Sawbones, with a shriek of terror, rushed into the nearest darkness and lost himself at once. As every one seemed running to different quarters, we concluded the best course would be to stand still. For a second our sensations were much like standing on a mine just about to be sprung. Soon, however we were relieved by a tremendous explosion in a cutting to our right, with heavy falls of salt from the roof, and reverberations of subterranean thunder which rolled from wall to wall—

As on a dull day in an ocean cave,
The blind wave feeling round his long sea-hall:

in the world above.

Our party now re-appeared from their hiding-places, but a delay was made while the guides caught our bewildered medical friend, or he might have been left there to personate Æsculapius in the shades.

The salt is found in semi-transparent crystals mixed with marl, varying from an inch, or less, to two or three feet in length. Some of these larger crystals were piled up as trophies every here and there beside our path. A few of the smaller ones we picked up to carry away as mementoes of our underground visit.

The plan had originally been to dine in the mine, but this needful business was at length put off till we reached daylight. Determined, however to do something outré, we had hoops and mallets brought down, and played a game of croquet on the smoothest spot we could find. Haply some of the party thought of the legend of the Egyptian King who used to descend to the infernal regions to play dice with Demeter. “He sometimes won and sometimes lost,” the chronicler takes care gravely to inform us. Perhaps as we played for love on this occasion, the marriage column in the next spring’s “Times” may inform the curious of the issue of this eventful game.

Returning to the shaft, serious anxiety began to be felt for our scared friend, who was again missing. At length abandoning him to his fate, we pushed on to daylight and dinner; when, lo! “Crispinus iterum,” there was Sawbones seated in the cage all ready for the ascent! The unhappy man was, however, summarily ejected, as we had settled to go up in the same order as we descended.

As for the various processes by which the rock-salt is refined and sifted—from the lumps fanners put in their sheep-troughs, to the fine-grained, sparkling salt of our dinner-table, from the salt-cellars below the earth to the salt-cellars above—this may be found fully described elsewhere. We need only remark in conclusion that the great Triassic system in which rock-salt is located, extends as a more or less well-defined tract of country from the Solway Firth to Sidmouth.

Its greatest English amplification occurs in the Midland Counties.

The salt-region of Cheshire, which we have been visiting, contains a bed of salt and gypsum 700 feet in thickness, extending over a space of a mile and a half in length by three-quarters of a mile in width. To account for the formation of such deposits of rock-salt as this (which is far exceeded in dimensions by the continental beds), is still one of the many hard knots Geology has to untie.

Some authorities contend for evaporation, pointing to the Dead Sea and other saline waters, round which a constant fringe of salt is being deposited by this agent. Others again regard this as an insufficient cause, and advocate volcanic agency. Perhaps, looking to the immense series of ages geology so freely dispenses, the former account of the phenomenon might be thus reconciled with our experience of evaporation. Or, again, wider observation may give us more facts on volcanic saline eruptions, and so enable us satisfactorily to assign these deposits of rock-salt to plutonic agencies. Most likely the truth will be found equidistant between both theories. Both agencies may have been combined in different proportions, with all the other varied causes which have resulted in the present stratification of the earth.

Until the question is decisively set at rest, however, we will dismiss the subject with my Lord Dundreary’s remark, that this is. just one of those things which no fellow can find out.