Cheshire rises to land
reclamation challenge

The following article and photographs have been submitted by Cheshire County Council's Land Regeneration Team which has recently completed an ambitious project to reclaim former waste lime lagoons and land above old salt workings at Ashton's and Neumann's Flashes on the outskirts of Northwich.

The market town of Northwich was the salt-producing capital of the UK. At its peak there were at least 74 mines in the Northwich field producing approximately one million tons of salt a year.

In salt mines nowadays, 30% of salt would typically be left as pillars, but in earlier centuries mine owners extracted the maximum amount of salt possible leaving as little as 5% as precarious support. In addition poor mining practice often resulted in flooding, hence uncontrolled “wild brine” pumping became more profitable. This caused yet more water to penetrate into the mines ultimately leading to severe subsidence and massive ground collapse, to form large meres or “flashes”.

Land derelication, Northwich, 1973

For many, Cheshire conjures up the image of an idyllic rural county, pastureland interspersed with quaint and charming black and white timbered market towns. In fact Cheshire has a long history of salt mining and is considered the “cradle” of the salt dependent chemical industry, with the consequential blight of derelict and despoiled land.

Derelict land is not only a wasted land resource, it can have a depressive effect on the environment, often leads to a poor image of the area and a lesser quality of life for local people.

In turn this impacts on the prospects for inward investment and future economic prosperity. A dedicated Land Regeneration Team within the Environmental Planning Service at Cheshire County Council are committed to reversing the trend of dereliction. Since its creation in the 1970s, the team has accessed Government funding of approximately £50 million for 100+ projects, successfully reclaiming over 800 hectares of derelict land county wide.

Supported by the NWDA, a Strategic Programme of Reclamation (SPR) was developed to tackle the legacy of derelict land, predominantly in the Northwich area, arising from the salt dependant chemical industry. The latest ambitious project at “Ashton’s and Neumann’s Flashes” has just been completed with the reclamation of former lime waste lagoons and salt workings lying half a mile north of Northwich.

The old days when subsidence struck

Ashton’s and Neumann’s Flashes
Ashton’s and Neumann’s, half a mile to the north of Northwich are the largest of these flashes. Neumann’s Flash formed after salt mine collapse in 1873. Ashton’s Flash came about in the “Great Subsidence” of 1880 when water from the local Wincham Brook found its way into a rift in the strata, approximately 6000,000 tons of water flowed into the mine workings (actually reversing the brook’s flow).

The resultant depression from the Great Subsidence was a massive 10 to 20 metres
deep. Later in the early 1950’s, large bunds were constructed to seal off the site and the enormous flashes were filled with lime waste by the chemical industry. The lime beds, filled with an unstable alkaline paste, lay derelict and abandoned for years.

Over the intervening years, following the cessation of chemical waste disposal by the lagooning method, nature has staged an astonishing fight back. The lime substrate has encouraged calcareous habitats, virtually absent in their natural form in the Cheshire area.

Through natural regeneration the ensuing calcareous grasslands have created an area of high ecological interest, in particular forming a niche for the rare Dingy Skipper butterfly and several species of orchids. Neumann’s Flash contains a permanent lake, a highly attractive site for breeding and migrating birds. The flashes have been designated a Site of Biological Importance Grade A (County Value).

Natural regeneration has spawned a diverse, rare habitat.

The main objective being to bring the site into use as a nature park as part of the developing Northwich Community Woodlands scheme, to be managed as part of the Mersey Forest. Rather than sweeping aside the outcome of nature’s remarkable fight back, the scheme retains and enhances the natural regeneration process as well as commemorating the industrial history of the area.

Invasive scrub was cleared to maintain the valuable calcareous grassland habitat, in addition new areas of reed bed and a wide shingle beach were created to extend the existing habitat for wading birds. In a huge planting operation new areas of woodland were created combining mixed native species, complementing and supporting the Northwich Community Woodland on neighbouring sites.

The team are opening up safe access to the public, having created a picturesque park, with a new 3.5km circuitous footpath and bridleway meandering through existing and recently planted woodland, with several attractive viewing areas including seating, observation platform and hides for bird watchers incorporated into the final design.