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Why Saltaire is one of Yorkshire’s top attractions

PUBLISHED: 00:00 02 April 2018

The Saltaire Octopus marks the start of  the Aire Sculpture Trail, one of 15 sculptures that link Saltaire to Shipley

The Saltaire Octopus marks the start of the Aire Sculpture Trail, one of 15 sculptures that link Saltaire to Shipley

Joan Russell Photography

Sir Titus Salt would be pleased with the way his workers’ village has developed, except maybe for the local bars, as Richard Darn reports

Sir Titus moved his alpaca textile operation out of the city to a green field site at Shipley beside the Leeds-Liverpool canalSir Titus moved his alpaca textile operation out of the city to a green field site at Shipley beside the Leeds-Liverpool canal

Any destination you can reach by boat, rail and tow-path is a place worth visiting in my book. That’s why Saltaire village ranks right up there as one of Yorkshire’s top attractions. This magnificent example of Victorian philanthropy is just as impressive today as it was when it was built by Sir Titus Salt in 1853 to offer his mill employees a green, pleasant and clean environment in which to live and work.

Today it offers an eclectic mix of galleries, shops, restaurants and cafes, topped by magnificent architecture, making it a great day out. It has also become a magnate for artists with Salts Mill housing the world’s largest permanent collection of work by Bradford-born David Hockney.

Saltaire is a success story that strides confidently across 160 years of history. Its origins lay in the misery of Bradford’s slums. During the 19th century the city’s textile industry boomed, transforming a small backwater into an industrial powerhouse and one of England’s most prosperous localities. But that was at the expense of dreadful conditions for the workers and their families who made it possible. The town gained an ugly reputation as the nation’s most polluted with 200 chimneys belching sulphurous smoke. Factor in the squalid living conditions and life expectancy slumped to 18 years, skewed by desperately high infant mortality rates.

It was against this backdrop that liberal-minded Titus Salt, who earlier in his career had tried to reason with Luddites fearing machines would take their jobs, moved his alpaca textile operation out of the city to a green field site at Shipley beside the Leeds-Liverpool canal. He celebrated its opening with a banquet to which uniquely his workforce was invited. Not surprisingly, a job at this particular mill was much sought after and a prohibition on alcohol was a small price to pay for having schools, green spaces, alms houses, hospital, library and a secure job.

Waterside walking in SaltaireWaterside walking in Saltaire

Titus Salt built his village around the Italianate Salts Mill over a 20 year period and by no means was he the first visionary industrialist. But his legacy has been the most profound and is visible around every street corner. A lovely one minute clip on the British Film Institute website offers a beguiling window into life here in 1901, with workers exiting Salts Mill after a day’s work. The scene is a world away from the grime that persisted in heavy industry well into the 20th century and a cheery inquisitive workforce is captured wearing a limitless range of headgear, with a broad street leading to a wooded hillside in the distance.

Happily you can still stand on the spot where these images were captured. Bulldozers may have wreaked havoc on Yorkshire’s heritage in the post-war years, but Saltaire has lost less than one percent of its buildings (Wash House, Wesleyan Methodist Church, Congregational Sunday School and Midland Railway Station). Today it is more secure than ever for in 2001 it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognising that its example of social welfare combined with far-sighted town planning spread across the globe.

Unlike other similar model villages, Saltaire is not a museum, but a living community. Keen to promote self-reliance, Titus Salt built 40 shops in his new village and people came from miles around to shop, attracted by the clean streets and variety of goods on offer. Even today there’s an excellent range of independent outlets to browse, run by local people and often offering products with an ethical slant. It’s a retail success story that is traced back to its roots by local historian, Roger Clarke, in his book called ‘A Penny for Going’ (available from Saltaire United Reformed Church Shop, £8.50), which includes marvellous images of old shop fronts.

Walking around the village I can’t help thinking Titus Salt would be pleased by how it has developed. He was keen to offer his workers and their families recreational diversions and these still exist aplenty. You can take a narrow boat ride (on a vessel appropriately called ‘Titus’), enjoy a tour with costumed guides (Salts Walks), go on a woodland walk or see and hear the amazing Wurlitzer Organ in Victoria Hall. There’s also Saltaire Festival (September 7th-16th) offering a host of events from open gardens to children’s activities and markets and before then Saltaire Arts Trail (May 5th-7th). Expect to see striking works in unusual locations making the best of the village’s beautiful setting. And while I don’t think the great man would be too impressed by the bars, I for one can rejoice in the locally brewed ales that carry the Saltaire marque.

Salts Mill overlooks the River AireSalts Mill overlooks the River Aire

Chatting with locals you soon discover that they come from all over the UK and beyond, adding to a rich and creative neighbourhood mix. I suppose it’s easy to glamourise life in Saltaire in the past. Because people couldn’t afford clocks, knocker-uppers roamed the streets at 5am banging on doors to rouse folk for the morning shift. But Titus had an undeniably optimistic view of how things could be made better for his fellow citizens and built a village accordingly. That vision still shines through and is just one reason why Saltaire residents are rightly so proud of their home.

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