Alan (aka Sally Spencer, in case you didn't know) was born, a few years after the end of the Second World War, in Marston, a salt panning village in Cheshire. It's between Northwich and Great Budworth on the map above, and is the basis of Salton in "The Salton Killings", Buckworth in "A Picnic in Eden", and Marston itself, which is where Becky grew up in "Salt of the Earth" and "Up Our Street".
The salt works dominated the village.The main building contained two large pans, which were over twenty feet square. Brine was pumped into these pans, and the furnace below them (constantly stoked by two large men with shovels) heated the brine so that the water evaporated and only the salt was left. A sign on the outskirts of the village did not welcome careful drivers, but instead warned them that there would be steam vapour for three-quarters of a mile.
The smoke from the furnaces escaped through two tall chimneys, and, if there was not sufficient wind to carry them away, spots of black soot would fall into the back yards of the houses close to the works, staining the washing that had been thoroughly boiled and then hand-mangled (pretty hard work). No one complained about this – they didn’t know they could.
Much of the loose salt was taken away by narrow boats, as the barges were called – the canal ran by the side of the works. These were decorated like gypsy caravans and sometimes occupied by whole families. They had originally been pulled by horses (hence, every canal had a tow path) but the time Alan was born, most of them had been fitted with diesel engines, and would put-put-put up and down the canal sounding like large lawn mowers.
Alan’s first home (and here we are in danger of straying into the Monty Python Four Yorkshire men sketch) was a two-up, two-down cottage, which he shared with his grandparents, mother, father and grown-up aunt. The only heating in the house came from the kitchen range, and the only tap was in the outside washhouse. There was no mains drainage, and the large pan that sat beneath the seat of the outside toilet was emptied once a week by the council.
The local village school, like the village, was in decline. There were never more than twelve children in each year, and there were only four (and later three) teachers. Each classroom was heated by a single fire, so that in winter all the desks had to be arranged around it, and the kids got used to having one cold side and one hot side. The school habitually sent one child to the grammar school each year, and Alan was the one from his year.
Everybody was very nice about it, but it was the first step in separating him from the community in which he had grown up.
Alan's first published books were a saga series set in the village - starting with "Salt of the Earth" - and people still visit the village (with one of the books in their hands), to see how much of the place described in the books still remains.