Written by Jennifer Guilliard
(One of the runner-up entries in the City, Town or Village Writing Competition.)
The Romans who settled in Nantwich, Cheshire, weren’t worried about their salt intake. They couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Soldiers were paid their ‘salary’ partly in salt and even slaves and plebeians munched on salt-soaked olives. Salt was added to flavour vegetables and ‘salad’ (literally meaning ‘salted’). It was valued for its preserving and medicinal properties and role in leather making.
When Roman invaders discovered the saline spring by the River Weaver in Nantwich, they supplied their garrisons in Chester and Stoke-on-Trent with the valuable commodity. They knew that this little town would be well worth its salt.
Today, the ‘Snow Hill’ outdoor swimming pool is fed by ‘The Old Biot,’ the inexplicable name of the ancient salt spring. It’s thought to be the only heated, outdoor salt water swimming pool in England but remains largely unknown outside the area. On a warm summer’s evening it makes for a refreshing, buoyant swim before dinner. Adult-only sessions are on offer if you’re averse to children splashing or prefer to improve your belly flop, as I do, away from the pitying gaze of fit-looking teens.
Past times are tangible as you walk through the town. The stunning medieval Church of St Mary dominates the tree-lined square. Known as the Cathedral of South Cheshire, it is considered to be one of the finest churches in England with an octagonal tower and inspiring but welcoming interior.
Look up at the gargoyles and find the one depicting the thieving landlady with her hand in the money pot and the devil on her back. Apparently, she stole a mason’s hard-earned cash and he took his revenge by creating an ugly stone caricature.
Inside the Church on the west wall is a huge twentieth century tapestry created by the Women’s Institute to celebrate the Queen’s silver jubilee. Some of the appliqué figures are in mini-skirts and pushing seventies McLaren buggies.
During the Civil War, the Roundheads broke the Royalist siege and took control of the church. Each year on ‘Holly Holy Day,’ the 24th January or thereabouts, The Battle of Nantwich is re-enacted by the Sealed Knot society to the deafening sound of cannon. Good delusional fun, but avoid conscription and bring your ear plugs. In the many local taverns, ‘The Black Lion’ in particular, the Royalists drown their sorrows, victorious Parliamentarians and their wenches relish victory, and oblivious locals play chess by the open fire where a resident greyhound often snoozes away a winter’s evening.
Many small individual shops, cafés and pubs are housed in Tudor buildings and there is a lively outdoor ambience in the square, especially during the annual jazz festival. The Crown Hotel, a onetime coaching inn with stables, is at the heart of the town. It was burned down in The Great Fire of Nantwich in 1583 and four chained bears were released by their keeper. Brave women with inadequate leather buckets tried to quench the flames but fled once the bears were at large. History tells us little of the poor bears’ demise. Queen Elizabeth showed unusual largesse with her personal gift of £1,000 and enough oak trees to re-build the affected part of the town.
These days, you may hear the live tinkle of the ivories from The Crown bar and can drop inside for a pint, an Italian meal or to look closely at the exposed wattle and daub. On Welsh Row, The Cheshire Cat inn has well worn sandstone steps outside for mounting horses. The door portals are very low. These once led into cottages for poor widows of the parish but now invite you to stoop in for tapas and a table in the atrium courtyard or a bedroom with tasteful en-suite.
I like the fusion of ancient and modern when it’s done well, unlike the Sixties blight of buildings that replaced the ancient swine market. At best they serve as a architectural warning.
Nantwich’s quirky old indoor market is a buzzing, colourful change from bland supermarkets. Fancy an ice cream? Snugbury’s Farm on the Chester road serves up delicious homemade varieties but also has a straw edifice constructed annually in the fields. Last year it was a supersized ‘Da-lick’ that lit up and rotated!
So, weary traveller, if you find yourself close to Nantwich please don’t pass ‘The Salt.’ Come on in, as the Romans once did, and taste the flavour of this cheerful Cheshire town!
Recommended Accommodation: The Cheshire Cat
Posted 11th September 2015 by Steve Hanson on behalf of Jennifer Guilliard. The photographs were supplied by the author after the Writing Competition had been judged.