diamond geezer

 Friday, November 08, 2013

A few miles north of Bradford, ten minutes away by train, is the village of Saltaire. It's no ordinary place, it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of only 28 in the UK. It's an almost complete survivor of the Victorian industrial age, a complex comprising a woollen mill and adjacent housing. What's special is that the housing is part of a benevolent community created by the mill's owner, Sir Titus Salt. In the 1850s he moved his manufacturing business out of Bradford to a better location in the country, settling beside the River Aire, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and the new railway. To look after his workers he built a village of terraced houses alongside, complete with schools, shops, running water, church, library and concert hall. This was revolutionary social thinking, later taken on board in the development of garden cities, council housing and urban planning. And it's gorgeous, even on a ropey wet day in November.

My Saltaire gallery
There are 21 photographs altogether [slideshow]

The mill complex is huge, straddling the canal and sandwiched between the river and the railway. The main block is four storeys high - deep, whopping storeys - and at least 60 windows long. It was designed to impress, in the Italianate style, with turrety flourishes proclaiming success to the world. Alongside are weaving and combing sheds, and boiler houses and dye works, plus a huge great big chimney visible for miles around. Thousands would have worked within creating Yorkshire textiles, and business continued right up to 1986 when the looms fell silent for good. A local businessmen then snapped up the somewhat dilapidated buildings and transformed them, somewhat unexpectedly, into a retail commercial venture. Some of the blocks are now office space, while the main building houses restaurants, various shops and an art gallery. It's called Salt's Mill, and it's a middle class day out par excellence.

The mill's owner became good friends with David Hockney, hence Salt's Mill now showcases many of his works of art. They're scattered around the main building, especially on the lower floor - the 1853 Gallery. This enormous room is also an art shop, with materials and books aplenty, so it's quite easy to forget to look at the proper stuff on the walls. Upstairs is a proper bookshop, with excellently-chosen stock, indeed I had to force myself to purchase only what I could carry. There's also a large restaurant, nicely done, and if you walk through that more shops (including a design outlet with nagging notices everywhere). Upstairs again is a smaller dining area, more boutique, more cafe, leading through to more Hockneys. Some of his iPad paintings are being shown, which I can take or leave, but also some of his trees, which I like considerably more. I particularly liked "25 Trees Between Bridlington School and Morrison’s Supermarket along Bessingby Road in the Semi-Egyptian Style", a seasonal East Riding triptych in sun and snow.

Saltaire's original residents had no such upmarket fripperies for entertainment. They had Roberts Park across the river, with cricket pitches and bandstand, but also byelaws preventing singing and the consumption of alcohol, and use of the playground at any time on a Sunday. A particularly fine Congregational church sits above the Aire, again Italianate in style, and one of only four nonconformist churches in England with its own ring of bells. The main road up from the river is Victoria Street, which rises first past neat parades of shops. Some are gifty boutiques, while one is a gastropub wittily named "don't tell Titus...". Many sell cakes, pies and sandwiches, not just for the well-dressed over-50s tourists but also for students at Shipley College. They're based in several buildings here, including the former primary school, and at lunchtime students pour out into the heritage streets and stuff their faces with pastry.

And these are seriously fantastic streets. Titus Salt's factory accommodation consisted mostly of back-to-back terraces built from local sandstone, yet again Italianate in style. Some for more well-to-do workers had front gardens, but most had doors opening out onto the street and tiny little back yards. That allowed Saltaire's streets to be crammed tightly together, far closer than any urban planner would allow today. The sidestreets are named after Titus's family, including a Herbert Street, a William Henry Street and a Fanny Street. A series of back alleys run parallel, and each runs down towards the river with the moors rising up green and gold on the opposite side. They're not large homes but they're no slums either, well built with a touch of genuine class. Were these in inner London they'd sell for nigh on a million, I bet, whereas up here they sell for under £200,000, which is eminently affordable in southeast terms.

Step too far up the hill and the edge of the World Heritage Site is immediately clear. Beyond the almshouses is the busy Bingley Road, where you'll find Qasim's Car Wash and a KFC. But Saltaire proper is a lovely place, an industrial gem, and a timely reminder that working class housing doesn't have to be cheap and characterless.

» Saltaire Village website (excellent, comprehensive)
» Salt's Mill website (flash, rubbish)
» Saltaire Daily Photo (inc heritage trail)
» Shipley Glen Tramway (close by, open weekends)

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