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These excerpts are from: Fieldwork in Local History, by W.G.Hoskins, Faber & Faber Ltd. 1967, pp. 154-158

The Coastal Road from Cley to Salthouse
Salt-making methods
Evidence of salt-making at Salthouse
Salt Road South?


The Coastal Road from Cley to Salthouse

salthouse village from the air showing marshes and sea

In this shot from the air by Jonathan Neville,
the division between the marshes and the
village is clear, with the coast road and the creek winding along between the two.

In this lovely watercolour,
the property of Henry Cordeaux,
the mill on the marsh can be seen
in the distance from 'the skirts'
(the eastern end of the marshes)

For a larger views click on the pictures, and for of Jonathan Neville's aerial shots of the village click here.

The coast road follows a winding course at the junction of the old salt marshes and the arable slopes, just high enough above the marshes to be safe from all the inundations of the sea except such tremendous break-throughs as those of the winters of 1287 and 1953. It is known as The Skirts in places, which suitably describes its course. Just east of Cley, Romano-British pottery was found in 1924 and two miles father on other Romano-British pottery was found in 1851, beside the former course of this ancient road. Such a winding road at the junction of arable and marshland is almost certainly a prehistoric (Iron Age) cattle track, and the pottery finds help to give it a date. It must have been in regular use before the Romano-British population left their pottery alongside it. At Gramborough Hill, a green island between the marsh and the shingle beach, Roman bricks and pottery have been found in considerable quantities, though none (unfortunately) was ever preserved for expert inspection. [He is writing in 1967]



Salt-making methods

The place-name Salthouse next engages our attention. It means what it implies - 'house for storing salt' - and is so recorded in Domesday Book. Were there salt-pans here in ancient times? And should the field-worker look for those hills of waste material that characterise coastal districts were salt was made over a long period of time? The best of these sites are found along the Essex shore of the Thames estuary - the so-called Red Hills - and along the Lincolnshire coast, above all at Ingoldsmells Point to the north of Skegness and not far across the water from the north coast of Norfolk.

'The precise method of making salt from the sea varies over the world with climatic conditions, and it is evident that no reliance could be placed on natural evaporation in open salt-pans in Britain. The methods used in Britain are basically concerned with boiling down salt-enriched water and casting the resultant salt into blocks of standard sizes and weights.

A large amount of specialised clay receptacles and accessories were used, all of which were cheaply made and readily expendable. Thus the salters' working places are often marked by low but extensive mounds of earth reddened by fire (red hills).
While they are chiefly made of soil, they also contain many broken clay objects, chief among which in Britain is the 'hand brick', a rough column of fired clay squeezed up in the hand and flattened at both ends. These were used in great numbers to support clay troughs of different shapes over fires, and there are other objects like moulds for casting the salt into blocks and square-sectioned clay bats tapering towards the ends.

The broken remains of all these, along with clay partitions for the troughs and various clay squeezes of different forms used as supports and spacing pieces add up, with much burnt earth and ash, to make a Red Hill. The date of any site will be determined by the associated pottery and other domestic rubbish left behind by the salt-makers, whose work seems to have been seasonal.' (Field Archaeology, 4th edn. 1963, p.80.)


Evidence of salt-making at Salthouse

With this description in mind, the neighbourhood of Salthouse raises some interesting questions. On the modern 2.5 inch map the name 'Sarbury HIll' occurs immediately west of the village; but on a map of 1649, it is called 'Salt Hill', and the question arises whether this low hill is the debris of early salt-making activities. Similarly the Roman 'bricks and pottery' found on Gramborough Hill (which is 'Greenborough' on the 1649 map) may well represent the debris of salt-makers. Indeed one wonders whether all the hills along the very edge of the sea known today as Cley Eye, Little Eye, Flat Eye (now nearly eroded by the sea) [Now (2005), completely] and Gramborough are not all 'salt hills'. Only excavation could prove this. They may be natural moraines formed in the last Ice Age, but archaeological evidence is very suggestive, as is the 'Salt Hill' of 1649. Half way between Cley and Salthouse are other small hills beside the coastal road, known as Walcey Hills. ['Wall Shawe' on John Hunt's 1649 channel map] and again, excavation would decide whether they are a natural glacial formation or artificial heaps of debris from salt-making.

In doing fieldwork along this coast one must remember that coastal erosion, and major changes in relative sea and land levels (such as occurred in the late thirteenth century and at other times), have removed a great deal of evidence. Thus it has been calculated that the main beach at Salthouse was eroded landwards by some 275 yards between1649 and 1924, at an average rate of about a yard a year. At this rate the coastline of say the year 1500 would have been about a quarter of a mile farther to the north than it is today.[Writing in the 1960s] Half of Gramborough Hill, with whatever evidence it once contained, is now under the sea, and so all along this piece of coast.

These coastal changes have had their impact in other ways. Thus the fifteenth-century western tower of Blakeney church is matched by a miniature tower of the same period at the N.E. end, probably in order to give a navigational 'fix' by getting the two towers in line. Similarly, in the N. W. corner of the churchyard at Salthouse are ruins of a medieval chapel. But why should there be a detached chapel in a churchyard like this? Was this also a navigational fix, i.e. to get the lofty tower of Salthouse church and the little chapel in line? And if so, did the two fixes at Blakeney and Salthouse indicate some critical approach to a harbour along this dangerous coast in the fifteenth century?


Salt Road South? (click the pics)

click to see bigger

The top of Cross Street

Bard Hill,Salthouse heath, early 1900s click to see bigger

Bard Hill

Butt Way click for more info

Butt Way


Behind Salthouse, rising some two hundred feet above sea-level, are the heathlands, crisscrossed with many ancient roads (as indicated by parish boundaries and other evidence) and dotted with Bronze Age barrows. All these old roads and lanes would repay plotting on the map and exploration on the ground. Salthouse Heath almost resembles a prehistoric Clapham Junction. To look at only one of these tracks, running due south from Salthouse, it may well have been the salt-road from the Saxon salt-warehouse on the marsh-edge to the royal manor of Holt which belonged to Edward the Confessor and had possibly been a royal estate for long before that.

In Domesday Book, the royal manor of Holt included Cley and Blakeney (then called Snitterly) as outlying estates. This probably represents the fragments of a once-large royal estate along this coast and stretching some miles inland; and there is some reason to suppose that the parishes of Salthouse and Kelling once formed part of this large estate. Thus it is clear from the map that the boundaries of the two parishes fit together in a way that shows they were once a single unit; and various medieval records show that they had some ancient connection.

Salthouse originally part of Kelling

Kelling is an ancient place name, indicating settlement (like Sheringham, not so far away) by an early folk, in this case 'Cylla's people'. This early settlement was placed, as usual, some distance inland from the shore. How far inland we cannot say because of the coastal changes already referred to, but even today Kelling church is one and a half miles from the beach and was perhaps two miles inland when it was first built. Subsequently, but well back in Saxon times, a small settlement grew up on the edge of the salt marshes where salt-makers worked and saw to the storage and distribution of salt at the 'salt house'. In time this coastal settlement grew large enough to have its own church, and a new ecclesiastical parish of Salthouse was carved out of the original Kelling.

Such a large storehouse for salt is known to have existed at Bitterne, on a big bend in the Itchen estuary in Hampshire. Bitterne is derived from byht, 'a bend', and aern 'storehouse'. That this was a storehouse for salt made locally along the estuary is strongly suggested by a reference in a Winchester pipe roll dated 1207-8 which shows that salt was being sent from here to other manors of the Bishop of Winchester at Downton, Farnham, and Sutton. In the same way Salthouse on the Norfolk coast must have been a central warehouse for the collection and distribution of salt, perhaps from as far away as the Lincolnshire coast round Ingolmells and from salt-pans recorded at Burnham in Domesday Book.


The above excerpts are from Fieldwork in Local History, W. G. Hoskins, Faber & Faber Ltd. 1967, pp 154-158


©Val Fiddian 2005

Val Fiddian 2005