Droitwich is a town in Worcestershire, in the English Midlands. It is one of the few places in England with natural brine springs, a fact that has made it an important site since ancient times; it is possible that people have been extracting salt from the springs in Droitwich since before the Iron Age. The suffix –wich, familiar from many English place names, derives from the Anglo-Saxon wīc and refers to dwellings, forts, towns, and places of production, including dairy farms and saltworks. Wīc also means “bay” and was eventually used to refer to brine springs and wells, such that by the 11th century, wich was understood to mean a place where salt was made, as in Nantwich, Middlewich, and Northwich, important salt-producing towns about 120 kilometers north of Droitwich, in Cheshire. Long before the Anglo-Saxons and Normans, the Romans had established settlements at all of these sites, and called these towns Salinae, or “saltworks” (Roman soldiers were paid in salt). Salwerpe, the name of the river that flows through Droitwich, is also thought to derive from the Latin sal for “salt.”
The brine from the salt deposits below Droitwich (which are millions of years old) bubbles up in several places along the River Salwerpe, and people dug pits around the springs in order to capture the brine, which is 10 times as salty as ocean water. Due to this incredibly high salinity, Droitwich brine yields large quantities of salt and it is easy to obtain big grains that resemble sea salt. Droitwich salt is also known for its purity. In the 17th century, the salt makers in Droitwich were the first to use egg whites to remove the few remaining impurities from the brine—one egg white could clarify 20 bushels of salt—to yield a perfectly white product. In the 19th century, the Victorian industrialist John Corbett expanded salt production in Droitwich, digging wells to tap directly into the underground brine system, and evaporating the brine in a number of factories using large iron pans heated by furnaces. At this time, the Droitwich salt works were the largest in Europe, producing 120 thousand tonnes a year at the peak of production; Corbett made a fortune and became known as the “Salt King.” It was also during this period that Droitwich became a spa town, with brine baths where people could float and relax their muscles. To this day, the village’s full name is Droitwich Spa.
In the 1920s, salt production stopped in Droitwich. A century later, the old tradition has been resurrected, but there is only one producer of Droitwich salt. They evaporate the brine using only the sun and renewable energy.