The Salt Factory


(Entrance to La Saline Royale at Arc-et-Senans)

Today we are at a salt factory – not like any factory I’ve ever seen and nowhere near the sea in a place called Arc-et-Senans in the Franche-Comté region. (Just to the right of Burgundy and famous for that comté cheese you love, Ashleigh!) The factory is not in production any more so in order to explain it we’ll have to go back to the 1700’s when salt was like gold. It was used to preserve food before refrigeration and it was heavily taxed to bring in revenue. In fact, it could be one of the things that led to the French Revolution… could be.


(There was a map…)

So imagine this, we are back in the time of royal France. The king is Louis the fifteenth. He has great power and he happens to have a mistress, Mrs Barry (I don’t want to start any rumours but that’s a very Irish name…) who will come into this story later. At the time there’s a salt factory right beside a lake full of saltwater (ok I’d have to understand a lot more than nothing about geology to explain this but… I have accepted and would suggest you do the same that some earth movements pushed a bit of land, formerly in the sea, now dry with salt stuck to it into the middle of Franche-Comté) in a place called Salins-les-Bains and they wanted to extend production but couldn’t due to it’s location in a valley. Along comes Claude-Nicolas Ledoux.


(The factory director’s house)

Claude is going to be the hero of this story. Claude came from a middle class family but had aspirations to be an architect. His mother encouraged his drawings as a child and he got money from some monks to go to college. He was very enthusiastic and eventually his enthusiasm paid off and he came to the attention of Mrs Barry (remember? the King’s “friend) who told the king about him. He designed a very fancy music studio for her in her huge garden (not entirely sure how but she seemed to have plenty of money.) Anyway, one day the King visited her music studio and was very impressed. Between the gigs and the reels Claude ended up getting a job as Commissioner of the Saltworks (all of them) in this part of France (I now realise there must have been many salt factories… probably to do with geology again…) Now, I’m not sure how this job related to being an architect but Claude made it work and learned loads about saltworks factories.


(Worker’s apartment buildings on left and right. In the middle, the main gate which also contained the bakery… remember we are in France)

Then with all this information he came up with a way to improve things at the hemmed-in factory in the valley – he would move it! Creating salt from salt water requires lots of heat and the way they generated heat was by burning wood but they had pretty much used up all the wood around the valley factory and were dragging wood from all over the region to supply the fires. So, Claude figured it would be cheaper to move the water than the wood and he proposed building a new factory in a forest. He was really pleased with himself and while he was proposing that he went ahead and designed some lovely factory buildings. He had to scrap the first set because the older architects on the job thought they were a bit too fancy and they were also a bit too expensive. Claude was not disheartened, he pared down his initial idea and his proposals were accepted… well mostly.


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(There was a lovely exhibition in one of the buildings and I particularly liked this one exhibit about a tree)

I nearly forgot to say, they moved the salt water to the new factory location via wooden pipes! Over distance of… 16Km! Isn’t that amazing? Probably isn’t very amazing really, because they were moving water all over the place at that time in canals and so they had a lot of expertise in this area but still, I’m impressed. Anyway, back to Claude…

(The semi-circle layout of Claude’s factory here at Arc-et-Senans)

Claude was well before his time in his appreciation of living conditions and as well as beautiful buildings for the factory he included apartments in beautiful buildings for the factory workers and their families. He also included gardens for them to get back to nature after a hard day at work. He wanted to build a town around the factory too. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. There was no town and the workers were working such long hours that they never got to enjoy the gardens. His own life took a bit of a downturn too because along came the French Revolution and anyone with connections to royalty was in big trouble. I think he might have spent time in prison and some of his buildings were destroyed, but in spite of all that he continued to design and in the museum here there are models of lots of buildings he designed that never got built.

(Our view this morning beside the salt factory)

So here we are back in the 21st century and the factory is a museum, a Unesco World Heritage Site and a hotel. Just over the wall there’s a camping car aire where we are parked. Claude is long gone but definitely not forgotten. In fact, you can almost hear him… listen…. My passion for drawing, lead me to Mrs Barry, the king of France and even a prison cell but I’m not sorry, Claude.

Go Claude! Mairead.