Salt of the Earth

The belt had an "apron" attached to it, about the size of the bits of lace that feature in a "French maid" fancy dress costume. In this case, however, both belt and flap were of sturdy leather and designed for the "apron" to hang behind the wearer.

This was an arschleder (primness forbids me to translate). Along with it went a coarse, dark blue jacket and matching trousers. Next door, Valerie, my wife, was putting on a similar costume, though for some reason women were given white trousers.

A Glimpse of the Past

An Anglo-Saxon waterwheel has been unearthed at Ebbsfleet, Kent, during work for a station on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. The earliest known horizontal wheel mill in England, dating from 1,300 years ago, has been taken for conservation at Chatham dockyard.

We were preparing for a tour of the Berchtesgaden salt mines in South-east Bavaria (if all you associate with that area is Hitler and the Eagle's Nest, it really is time you paid a visit). Everyone had to put on the costume of an old-time salt miner - no bad thing as we were all in T-shirt and shorts, and it gets cold down there. Parts of the mines are still working. Other parts are now a tourist attraction.

A small train took us into the mountain, and then it was Shanks's pony. After a while, we came to a place where it was necessary to go down a level. It was a sort of artificial, internal cliff face, and down it ran a wooden ramp, maybe a couple of feet high and six inches wide with a polished top - a slide. This is where the arschleder came into its own. A notice advised that there was a staircase, but if you wanted to use it "start NOW". The slide (which, of course, the miners used) was much quicker than the stairs and rather intimidating.

Valerie and I screwed up our courage and whizzed down. After another, shorter, slide, a boat trip on an underground lake, a lift, another train ride, and a lot of walking, we were back where we started.

On the way, we had learned quite a lot about salt mining in the area. This was thanks to our guide, a miner who spoke only German, and the very efficient translations provided electronically if you stood by the right bit of mine wall ("Englisch hier. ltalien hier, Franzosich hier').

The salt is mined, basically, by sinking bottle-shaped shafts into the rock.

Water is poured into the shafts and becomes saturated with salt. It is then pumped out and, after the water is evaporated, hey presto! you have salt.

The resulting product is not unlike sea salt, but as various other minerals are also present, it looks rather prettily multicoloured. You can buy lots of it, among other things, in the souvenir shop. You also get given a tiny tube free. So, a tour of the mines is a combination of a costume party , a visit to Wookey Hole, a couple of hours in a theme park and a trip to an industrial museum.

What more could you want?

Stephen Ashcroft June 2002

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