When Victorian entrepreneur Sir Titus Salt created a model village in Saltaire for his mill workers he could never have imagined it would become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, putting it up there with the pyramids of Giza.
More than 150 years later, it’s not surprising that the beautifully laid-out streets in the Italianate style, which Salt named after his eleven children, have been preserved as a classic of their kind and have made Saltaire one of Yorkshire’s top tourist attractions.
The centrepiece of the tourist trade is the imposing Salts Mill right in the centre of the town. It was rescued from dereliction in 1987 by another local entrepreneur, Jonathan Silver, who had the vision to turn the inside of the huge mill into sleek galleries full of art and books before his early death from cancer just a decade later. Salt may have been enlightened for his time but wandering around the well-stocked bookstore, or the art supplies floor, you get a sense of how noisy and chaotic these spaces would have been when they were full of machinery.
Silver attended Bradford Grammar School, as did the the town’s greatest son David Hockney, and the two became friends, evidenced by the numerous examples of the master’s work dotted round the mill. A recent highlight was a show of Hockney’s later work using iPads to create new pieces – and it’s always worth popping into Salts Diner for a decent cup of coffee, or something more substantial.
Coming out of the artistic overload it’s time to turn right down the hill to the wonderful Roberts Park, another of Salt’s creations. He established it so his workers could wander about in their Sunday best on their only day off and watch a game of cricket. The park was gifted to the town by Salt’s successor Sir James Roberts in memory of his son Bertram. Kids are well catered for by a well-appointed adventure playgroup, and adults can saunter past the bandstand along the European style boulevards surrounded by mature trees. It’s always nice to drop off at the Half Moon Café which serves a selection of decently priced coffees and snacks as you sit in the sun, all the while imagining what it must have been like a century ago as the acres of open park were thronged by local workers.
On the way back into town you can stop off on the canal and get an ice cream from ‘Are Jay Bargie’, a narrowboat moored on the Leeds and Liverpool canal with its lovely views of the mill and Saltaire United Reformed Church (the church was built for the exploited workers to give thanks to God for having a job).
Not surprisingly Saltaire is full of decent cafes to suit all tastes and pockets. A favourite for the old-school experience is downstairs at Victoria Tea Rooms where tea is served in old fashioned pots, and you can munch daintily-cut sandwiches of your choice. Pop in next door where the best light lunches are served in Don’t Tell Titus and you can tuck into a sublime veggie dhal paired with thick chips and a grilled haloumi, with drinks all for under £20.
If you fancy a cheap pint in a classic working man’s club than pop round to the Caroline Street Social Club which always has an interesting range of well-priced ales on tap. It is also home to The Live Room which puts on a high class range of Americana and folk acts every month – upcoming acts include Kelly Joe Phelps, Steve Tilston, Kiki Dee, Martin Simpson and Kan.
The good folk of Saltaire aren’t content to rely on passing trade so they run a series of festivals throughout the year. The best one is the Arts Trail weekend in May where locals throw open the doors of their Salt houses and allow artists to show their wares. It is one of the highlights of the Yorkshire artistic calendar with people popping into the mill houses and checking out some of the county’s finest artists. The one I enjoyed most was hosted by Hebden Bridge-based Kate Lycett who produces glorious paintings of that other jewel in the county’s crown and scenes from around Yorkshire. One of her prints now resides on our living room wall and you can pick up some unique items at the Maker’s fair in the historic Victoria Hall. For the little ones there are loads of open air activities dotted round town where they can express their artistic side.
The annual Saltaire Festival (September 14- 21) goes from strength to strength each year with more than 100 events scheduled. It is a clever mix of local acts and some decent headliners which this year include quirky poet John Hegley with his show Peace, Love and Potatoes, songs from The ‘Bard of Barnsley’ Ian McMillian and some new comics are popping in with a show directly from Edinburgh. Saltaire Brewery is running a beer festival, there’s a continental market for foodies, The Live Room crew are hosting an air open concert in the Caroline Social Club car park and there is even a model railway exhibition.
Most historic sites are happy just to trade on the past but Saltaire is unique because it looks both forward and back, melding the best of the old with the new in way that is both entertaining and challenging. Sir Titus would have be proud that entrepreneurism is alive and well in a town created by the toil of the working class.
By Paul Clarke
Where: near Bradford, West Yorkshire