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Saltaire - Victorian "model" village near Bradford

Salts Mill

Saltaire - a brief guide for visitors

It's hard to visualise today just how the Industrial Revolution affected the lives of ordinary people. Back at the end of the 18th century Britain was largely an Agrarian society, but by the mid 19th century Britain had become the "workshop of the world", and huge swathes of the population had been drawn into the cities to feed the insatiable appetites of the factory system.

Now I know that's a gross over-simplification of a very complicated period of British history, but by the mid 19th century the conditions the new factory workers had to live in were appalling. The cities had been unable to cope with their vast expansion, they were unsanitary, workers were crammed into slums and the poverty and disease was unimaginable. The condition of the working class engendered a national debate.

In Bradford, one successfull mill owner conceived of a grand project. Titus Salt, owner of four mills, decided to build a grand new mill on the banks of the Aire. Away from the unsanitary conditions of Bradford, the new mill was in virgin countryside. It opened in 1853, and over the next 20 years, Sir Titus added everything necessary for the welfare of his workers, building a complete "model village" around his mill. He provided, housing, a school, a church, shops, alms houses, pensions, a library, meeting rooms, laundry, turkish bath and plenty more. In short, everything a patriarchal Victorian industrialist deemed necessary for the education and betterment of his workers.

Salts Mill Enough of the faux history lesson, what's it like today? 

Well, it's not exactly in virgin countryside anymore. Bradford and Shipley have crept up on our model village, and it's all pretty much merged together into one. But from the other direction, the Aire provides a buffer, and that side of the village still adjoins open countryside and moor.

How To Get There

Traffic in the Aire Valley is not good, and parking at Saltaire can be tricky. Not impossible, but never easy. By far the best way to get there is to catch a train from Leeds, Bradford or Skipton. The Leeds train is a lovely journey following the River Aire, and you can get off at Saltaire's very own railway station, or at Shipley about a mile away. If you get off at Shipley,  wander down to the canal side and then walk along the towpath to Saltaire - that's a lovely walk and you enter Saltaire between the majesty of Salt's Mill and the slightly later New Mill. There's also a lot more trains to Shipley than Saltaire. Alternatively, take the road on the other side of the Aire and park near Roberts Park.

What is there to see

Titus Salt Dominating the village is Salt's mill - the raison d'être for the whole place. Originally for the manufacture of worsted, the mill closed in 1986, but was refurbished and reopened shortly afterwards. Nowadays it houses a variety of things. In its prime it had over a thousand looms - imagine the noise that must have made.

There's Pace - the manufacturers of electronic stuff including set top boxes. Not of much interest to visitors, but  one of the few places in England where we actually make high-tech stuff anymore. Not open to visitors. The rest of the mill is open to the public, and is a veritable cathedral of shopping. Now I cringe at the thought of Meadowhall or the White Rose centre, but Salts Mill is one place I will gladly go.

The first thing to see is The 1853 Gallery - full of work by David Hockney. The door sets the tone - you enter by unlatching a giant Victorian mill door, and step into a huge space full of light.  Reverential is the best word to describe the setting, or possibly sepulchral. I'd never liked Hockney's work overmuch, but having seen this large a body of it I've changed my mind. Regardless of whether you like Hockney's work or not, it's a great setting and entry's free. The gallery also sells all kinds of arty stuff.

The rest of the place is devoted to more shops, all in enormously generous settings. When I briefly worked in retail everyone was obsessed by measuring sales per square foot - I guess they don't do that here.

In the basement is Zeba. They mainly sell rugs of the hand crafted variety. I looked at the ones on display, and I looked at the prices and I thought they were very reasonable indeed. Obviously there were very expensive ones, but plenty of cheaper ones too. And the handcrafted ones hung up the length of the enormous shop were a wonderful display. Like I sais, I really enjoyed shopping here.

On the second floor it gets even more interesting. You enter through another mill door and find yourself in an enormous bookshop. And because there's so much space there's as many books on tables as there are on shelves. Very thoughtfully done. The bookshop also sell prints (inclusing a lot of Hockney's) - and again it's surprisingly cheap. You can get really nice quality prints for fifteen quid or even less. Passing through the book shop, you come into Salts Diner where the food looked very good indeed, and then passing through the diner, you come into The Home. Saltaire Congregational ChurchI am not at all sure what to make of that place. It's like a giant kitchen shop, but everything is displayed with so much care and attention to detail it's astounding. Even a simple two quid corkscrew gets as much attention as an eighty quid collander.  And everything in there is beautiful. That doesn't mean everything's expensive, but it does mean there's some real quality design there. According to the leaflet there's also a jewellers, an outdoors shop and another gallery, but I managed to miss them by not turning left in the diner. Bit weird this concept of getting to ons shop by walking through another.

The third floor gets even stranger. You enter into a cafe (cafe in the opera) and walk through it into what looks like a bit that's closed. This turned out to be a collection of opera sets housed in a very dark area. It left me cold I must say, but walking through it there's a cracking antique shop which I think is the one that used to be over the road. And again, not at all overpriced.

So what have they achieved - well they've got a collection of very interesting shops, laid out in a fascinating manner, selling stuff at very reasonable prices.

The Congregational Church - As a religious man, Salt made sure that his workers should be godly men by building this magnificent non-conformist church for them.

Once again built in the Italian style, this is a magnificent building, spoilt only by the car parking allowed right against the building. It's hard to take in a piece of architecture this good when the view's ruined by cars.

The inside of the church is tremendous. The height gives it the kind of grandeur you'd normally find in a cathedral and there's corinthian colums and stained glass everywhere. Must be one of the fineset non-conformist churches in the country.

And Old Titus himself is  buried in a mausoleum at the back of the church

Workers housing at Saltaire Housing - The terraced housing Salt built for the workforce is beautiful. In nice light coloured stone with small gardens, these houses are sought after and generally very well kept. They have lovely little architectural features, borrowed from the neo-Italianate look that pervades the rest of Saltaire.

All the streets are named after members of salt's family. So there's Ada Street, Upper Ada Street, Mary Street, Upper Mary Street and so on. I've always thought it a great shame he didn't have a daughter called Fanny.

Workers housing at Saltaire The Factory School - Built to accommodate 750 children, this was designed as a model of educational excellence. In due course it became Salts Grammar School, then Saltaire Grammar School and is now used by Shipley College.

Workers housing at Saltaire Victoria Hall - Built as the Saltaire Club and Institute, this lovely building is flanked by two magnificent stone lions. This was built by Salt to provide workers with an alternative to going to the pub. When it opened it had a Games Room, Library, Reading Room, Gym, Meeting Rooms and a lecture theatre. No beer though - which is always a shame.

Like many Victorian non-conformists, Titus was teetotal. Hence there were no pubs in the village, and among the many rules for the tenants to obey, was one that said anyone found inebriated would be evicted.

Nowadays the hall is used for craft fairs, meetings, lectures and stuff like that.

Workers housing at Saltaire Roberts Park - Just over the river lies Roberts Park. This is a lovely park with one of the most picturesque cricket grounds in Yorkshire. It's suffered a little bit from graffiti, but there's a major renovation programme underway (2010) and all the buildings are being refurbished and the beds replanted. Should be great when it's done.

It was laid out as the one of the final parts of the village and the name was changed from Salts Park when it was presented to Baradford Council in 1920.

And bizarrely, every other tree in thh park seems to be a different variety of Holly. Apparently Titus was a collecter of Hollies and had them brought from all over the world. Is there no end to the man's talents.

If you walk through the park, you can see a large green and cream shed at the side of the school. That's the start of the Shipley Glen Tramway, which leads up to Shipley Glen, a beauty spot and Victorian pleasure ground. Sadly the Victorian rides are all gone, but it's still a beauty spot par-excellence and shouldn't be missed if visiting Saltaire.


Other Stuff

The shops are now mainly boutique type places, and there's plenty of cafes and sandwich shops so you won't go hungry. Or if you fancy fish and chips, there's a very fine chippy at the back of the park. There's even a pub, the crassly named "Don't Tell Titus".

At the bottom of the village is the Leeds Liverpool Canal and the River Aire. During the Summer months river buses ply up and down the canal. Quite a nice way to spend an afternoon. If you want to walk, you can amble to Shipley in one direction (about a mile), or visit Bingley 5 rise locks (about 3 miles or 50 minutes each way)  in the other direction. If you fancy a shorter walk towards the five rise locks, walk to Hirst Lock, which is only about a mile away, and then cross over the canal and walk back down the riverbank and through the park. And not forgetting Shipley Glen which has already been mentioned. In fact, there's a nice circular walk from Saltaire around Shipley Glen.

And The Boathouse pub has now reopened after it burnt down a few years ago.

Finally, if you're interested in reading more about how the working class lived in Victorian times, then Into Unknown England, selections from the social explorers is a great read. As it says, it's selections of writings from those concerned Victorians who ventured into the world of the working classes to expose the poverty and misery. Charles Booth, William Booth, Rider Haggard, Jack London and more. Highly recommended.

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Comments (1)
He did indeed have a daughter named Fanny ! There is a Saltaire street named after her - Fanny St. http://www.saltairevillage.info/saltaire_history_0013_Saltaire_street_names_Fanny_St.html
posted by Ben 12/05/2011 00:16:12
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