There’s a path heading towards the river. It’s unlabelled. Unofficial then, but I decide to take it. Two tall metal-poled fences seem to bar the way, but no, there’s a deliberate gap and the path weaves through. A man emerges from the wooded scrubland to the right. I start back, pause for a moment, look around me for a way back. For a ridiculous moment I feel vulnerable: because even though I am just a few hundred yards from the road I am hidden from view. It’s the sort of place people hide bodies.
But then he pulls at a lead, and a reluctant terrier scrambles after him. He glances at me and then heads towards the river. So I follow him, over the shallow cop and then to the bank. Then I see it. I’m excited to come across it. I knew it was somewhere around here[i], but I thought I’d have to search for it. It’s a Pill box, built during the second world war. It was part of a series of Pill boxes built around the river Dee: enemy aircraft often used rivers as an aid to navigation and the main Chester railway line is adjacent.
It’s concrete. An irregular pentagon. Pastel graffiti where the camouflage netting would have been. Loopholes on each side. They’d have had guns: each one trained through a slit and, on the open platform at the back, an anti-aircraft gun. I’m too short to see in – even where the lower wall dips for access – so I have to imagine the rest: the ladder, the damp cave-like inside, and the bats we saw once in another place: last year’s leaves on a forgotten tree.
‘What’re you doing?’ asks the man with the dog. He’s retraced his steps to see this woman with her camera so intent on capturing the sky.
‘Is this from the first world war?’ he asks.
So I tell him it’s twenty years younger than that.
‘Well, ‘ he says, I’ve come past here for years now and I never knew.’
There’s a quay with a bollard, and then beside it an inlet – the remains of one of the wharves. The, after that, the river stretching westwards, traces of old wooden jetties mouldering under the grass overhangs. Part of Critchons: one of Saltney’s recent success stories. For twenty-two years between two and three hundred men worked here making ferries, tugs and barges. There were berths sufficient for twenty vessels up to two hundred feet long, and cranes, pneumatic hoists, furnaces, joiners, offices, docks, yards and its own branch line. They built ferries and tugs for countries all over the world, and specialised harbour equipment such as a spectacular grain elevator, for Liverpool Dock. The owner of the yard was James Critchon – an inventive man with the ‘practical ability to solve marine problems’[ii]. On his father’s death in 1912, he expanded the family’s ship repair business to include shipbuilding and chose Saltney as its location[iii]. With the outbreak of World War One, his books were soon full with orders for both military and merchant vessels and so he expanded to a site in Connah’s Quay to increase output.
Under James Critchon’s guidance, the firm prospered. The men were well looked after[iv], and work continued even during the depression. However, when he died suddenly at the early age of forty-seven in 1932, the company foundered, and by 1935 the ship-building yard closed.
I return to the lane: a mixture of neat sheds and service yards puddled after the recent rain. Small businesses range from haulage to stone sorting and ready-mixed concrete to private gym. By the river bank are remains of earlier works: mysterious walls and stones half covered in undergrowth. One of them was Rustproof Windows – a firm that started in Saltney in the early nineteen-thirties. They occupied one of the long buildings with a zig-zag roof beside the river – previously the home of Wonpees that made wire for reinforced concrete. Rustproof Wndows dipped metal window frames into a zinc solution to give them a thin rustproof coating[v]. During the war they swapped window-making to concentrate on the manufacture of items such as shells and gun turrets – work so vital that the place was surrounded by a wall to make it more secure. Perhaps this is their wall. Sometimes it rises as high as a couple of storeys: either ruin or part of the flood defences, it is difficult to tell.
After the war Rustless Windows became Saltney Engineering, but the business moved to Corsham after a takeover. The bank rises. The river is hidden behind.
It used to stink here. Just beyond Critchons, on the opposite side of the road, there used to be a firm of animal slaughterers called Dobbins. According to some, the smells from this place ‘defied description’. It not only could ‘rot a girl’s nylons at thirty paces’ but could ‘strip gloss paint off walls and ‘kill the head on a pint of bitter’ and made the entire population nauseous[vi]. Since Saltney Football Club’s playing field was nearby – between Boundary Lane and the High Street – opposing sides anticipated away matches with apprehension.
It was probably the only works that people were generally glad to see shut down. However, the stench was reputed to also have a beneficial effect. In 1914 the stench from Dobbins’s Saltney ‘Maggotorium’ was also offered as a ‘consumptive cure’ and may indeed have been affective against pulmonary tuberculosis since maggots produce an antibiotic gas[vii].
A cafe, another yard, another office block. New sheds, older prefabs and then, just before Bridge Lane, there’s an older red-brick factory with zig-zag roof. It’s all quiet, the windows boarded behind the spiky metal fence. ‘Lion Deva’. Inside they make metal storage boxes ‘for trade only’. River Lane. Trade Only. No frills. No frippery. It is as it is. I duck back down Bridge Lane back onto the High Street.
[i] What Did You Do in the War, Deva?
[ii] Hawarden history
[iii] J. Critchon and Co. Shipbuilders Saltney and Connah’s Quay by John Dixon and Geoff Pickard.Amadeus Press 2002.
[iv] He provided leisure facilities including billiards, bowling and a bar close by.
[vi] Saltney and Saltney Ferry 2.
[vii] Microbiologist March 2007, page 35 ‘When Maggot Fumes Cured Tuberculosis’ by Milton Wainwright.
2 thoughts on “River Lane, Saltney.”
Lovely to read this, Clare. My mother was assigned to work at Rustproof in 1941-2 and knew only that they made shell casings. She was a bit vague about its location, but I tracked it down through the very good Saltney local history publications. I went looking for Rustproof in 2001 but didn’t get as far as you, so thanks for the words and pictures.. Standing on the corner of High Street and Bridge Street, puzzling over the map, I was approached by an old chap with a bicycle who was amused that a tourist would come to Saltney. Turns out he had worked in the office at Rustproof and had a few stories about some of his workmates, including a man my mother had spoken about. So a living connection!.
It is hard to imagine the “Saltney stink” when you go there today.
Thanks for you comment, Ray. What a great story, and to find that connection with your mother too. Quite astonishing. Yes, those Saltney Local History guides are a fascinating source of information – so glad people took the effort to put it together. To lose all record of how the area used to be would be a sad loss.