The Gritting Company Head Office team and a number of customers were up early to make their way across the beautiful Yorkshire Pennines to spend a day in the small town of Winsford, Cheshire.
Well not exactly in the town, more underneath it- 300m under.
At first, we followed the signs for ‘Salt Mine’ then it became clear we didn’t need signs; we simply followed the road towards the humongous piles of salt looming in the distance. Upon arrival at the mine’s visitors centre, The Gritting Company team were greeted by Pete and Keith who were to be our guides for the day. We were given a brief history of the mine and a run down of the day; then it was time for our safety kit.
We were all given a very fetching high-visibility jacket, safety helmet, goggles and a surprisingly heavy safety belt. On the belt, we had a torch (with power pack), smoke goggles and a gas mask in case of any emergency.
As there was some maintenance happening on site The Gritting Company team got the opportunity to use the service shaft lift- that the real miners use! The shaft itself is the height of Blackpool Tower and open sided – not for the feint hearted. So, we made our way down a few at a time; ears popping from the pressure, daylight fading to darkness, the sounds of the busy roads outside slowly disappearing.
Getting out of the lift at the bottom, it’s hard to describe the sheer vastness of the space. Each area is 30m wide and 30m tall with a floor of solid rock salt, followed by a pillar of the same dimensions. This pillar and room method has been in place for years resulting in the subterranean labyrinth currently below Winsford and its neighbouring villages. There are so many miles of roadways and caverns that even the guides can struggle at times to get their baring.
Once The Gritting Company team were all safely on the bus Keith drove us a fair few miles into the labyrinth and showed us a small section of the 10km conveyor belt that feeds directly from the salt face to the crushing plant. Then we went on to bigger and more impressive things. The crushing plant. This structure receives blocks of salt from the conveyor and crushes them into much smaller pieces; then the salt is fed onto a vibrating mesh plate which sifts and separates the salt granules into 6mm and 10mm products. An amazing fact about the crushing plant is that was originally above ground in a large shed. In the late 60s the shed was needed for extra salt storage, so one poor fellow was tasked with deconstructing the entire machine and re-building it below ground! It’s amazing the work that goes into our gritting services!
Onwards from there, The Gritting Company team jumped in the minibus and drove a fair few miles through the endless caverns to find the salt face. When you locate the salt face, you find JOY. The JOY is a magnificent piece of kit- weighing in at 130 tonnes she is a continuous mining machine with tungsten steel cutting picks which claw away the rock salt from the walls. She was having a break when we arrived so we got to get up close and personal and were allowed to hunt through the rubble to find ourselves a souvenir each. The clearer the salt rock the purer the salt- challenge accepted!
After collecting our salt trophies, we began to make our way out of the mine, driving alongside the conveyor until we arrived at the 1000 tonne store. As we walked up to the store we caught a rare glimpse of the Komatsu WA800 invoking a moment of excitement in Keith’s voice, he radioed the driver and urged us back into the bus. We did a U-turn, went back around and met the Komatsu head on. It has a 30T loading bucket, its wheels are more than 6 feet in diameter and it had to be built underground!
The Gritting Company then made our way back to the minibus and drove the long steep slope back to the top level of the mine. We filed back into the lift and swiftly made our way back up to civilisation. Walking outside again, eyes adjusting to the amount of natural light, we realise how dry the air has been in the mine and find ourselves wanting endless drinks of water.
Going down the salt mine is definitely an experience that will stay with you. The history and the beautiful way the salt crystals in the walls catch the light as you’re walking around- it’s just amazing what is involved in producing the salt that is involved in our gritting services! We’ll now see gritting in an entirely different way!