Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Brine town

I’ve always been fascinated by those moments when daily life breaks down and becomes visible beneath its thin veneer of taken for grantedness - such as when snow falls and we are suddenly aware of the elaborate collective apparatus that lets us get to work, buy food, take children to school and otherwise allow our mobile lives to function.

When I was travelling round the motorway system for my roads book, I kept coming across these strange, unmarked pieces of architecture by the side of the road. They turned out to be salt barns for storing and dispensing road salt. One massive specimen sits by the edge of the M5 in Worcestershire. 21 metres high and 21 metres in diameter, it holds about 2000 tonnes of rock salt. Locals know it as the ‘Christmas pudding’.

Road grit is a mixture of sand and rock salt. Sea salt is too fine and dissolves too quickly to disperse snow and ice, so all salt used in gritting comes from salt mines. Towns like Northwich, Middlewich and Nantwich take their names from the salt mines, ‘Wych’ meaning ‘Brine Town’.

Sheep and deer are often killed on the roads when they lick the rock salt left by gritters. Sweet-toothed sheep are also partial to the new type of grit, coated in molasses, which is used because it is less corrosive to cars. Seaside species like Danish scurvy grass and lesser sea-spurrey thrive on motorway verges because of the rock salt spread on the tarmac in winter.

Our lives are intertwined with grit. And how dare our masters nearly run out of it, like they nearly ran out of it last winter!

Mundane quote for the day: ‘While the earth has slumbered, all the air has been alive with feathery flakes descending, as if some northern Ceres reigned, showering her silvery grain over all the fields … In winter, nature is a cabinet of curiosities, full of dried specimens, in their natural order and position.’ – Henry Thoreau, ‘A winter walk’

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