This Yorkshire wonder is still a model village 170 years later

If you gave a child a sketchpad and asked them to draw a model village, they would come up with something like Saltaire. Beautiful stone houses with flower boxes? Tick. A beautiful park with play areas and a nice bandstand? Tick. A babbling river and a beautiful canal? Tick. A train to the big city? Tick. A narrowboat selling ice cream? Tick!

But while these features now make Saltaire the ideal place for a day out in West Yorkshire, there are more complicated reasons behind its concept. It was built by Titus Salt, a textile magnate who owned five different factories in the late 1840s. He had worked as a wool stapler in Wakefield before taking over the family business and quickly turning it into Bradford’s largest employer.

Salt was elected Mayor of Bradford in 1848 and witnessed the challenges faced by ordinary workers. So he coupled his zeal for innovation with an avuncular, religious view of the world and headed to Saltaire – a model factory and mill village four miles north of the city.

Saltaire has UNESCO status

A sample village: Fanny’s Ale and Cider House in Saltaire – Alamy

He named it after himself and the River Aire that flows through it. And he made it very different from the ‘dark, satanic mills’ that had sprung up since the turn of the century.

Saltaire’s architects, Lockwood and Mawson, proposed an Italianate style for the new mill and houses, and their cream-coloured brickwork still adds much charm to the village. The magnate also pushed for a hospital, almshouses, church and an institute – now known as Victoria Hall –. The latter even had a gymnasium and library on site.

Was it really a paradise? Not exactly. The layout of Saltaire clearly reflects the village hierarchy. For the workers there were terraces with two floors and two floors near the mill. Larger houses on the edge of the village were reserved for supervisors and administrators. Residents were not allowed to hang laundry on the streets, and it is said that Salt posted a watchman in one of the taller buildings to watch the roads and cut the clothes lines if anyone dared to string them up.

Meanwhile, the supermill employed 3,000 hands who produced 30,000 yards of cloth every day. That child’s sketch probably doesn’t include other children running around under looms spinning jennies during long shifts.

Titus Salt, the man who built SaltaireTitus Salt, the man who built Saltaire

Titus Salt, the man who built Saltaire – Alamy

Salt even banned pubs from the village (which explains why there is now a bar in the shopping promenade called Don’t Tell Titus).

Today, however, Saltaire has UNESCO status and a cosmopolitan buzz. West Yorkshire is full of beautiful places, but this mill complex is unique. Despite being full of visitors, it is not a museum, but a thriving community. Where modern developments often feel soulless and monotonous, this 170-year-old house feels homely and warm. The smart terraced houses are spread over a well-organized street pattern, the backyards are well maintained.

On the corner of Caroline Street and Edward Street there is a notice board explaining that the wash house once stood on the site. It opened in 1863 and consisted of a dozen men’s baths and a dozen women’s baths, plus a Turkish bath, six washing machines, a rubbing and boiling bath, a wringer and hot air dryers. A cheerful community garden is now in its place.

Despite appearances to the contrary, Saltaire is not always perfectly maintained. Although the mill limped along until 1986, the complex began to decline and many of the buildings became semi-redundant. The Saltaire Village Society was founded in 1984 to regenerate the area. Then another visionary owner, former art history student turned entrepreneur Jonathan Silver, purchased the mill and transformed it into a thriving cultural space known as Salts Mill.

In 1987 he opened the 1853 Gallery on the ground floor, exhibiting works by local legend and international art superstar David Hockney. New Hockney exhibitions are organized almost every year. Today the mill also houses restaurants, cafes and shops, as well as a second gallery space.

Salts Mill houses the largest collection of David Hockney's art in the worldSalts Mill houses the largest collection of David Hockney's art in the world

Salts Mill houses the largest collection of David Hockney’s art in the world – Getty

It’s easy to lose yourself in the sprawl, and I can think of few better places for wet weather (it has been known to rain in the West Riding). However, the sun shone during my visit. So after paying my respects at Salt’s mausoleum in the church, I crossed the bridge over the canal and then a footbridge over the Aire.

Roberts Park was a lovely place to enjoy an ice cream outside the pavilion. Sometimes there is a cricket match here. There are often families having picnics and parties. And watching over it all is a bronze statue of Sir Titus Salt, knighted in 1869. When he died in 1876, 100,000 people lined the streets of Bradford for his funeral.

Visitors view the Salt Mills gift shopVisitors view the Salt Mills gift shop

Visitors perusing the Salt Mills – Getty gift shop

I think he would be happy with his legacy. Fascinating to explore, a pleasure to visit, Saltaire is also a place where community spirit is expressed in many ways. Author Helena Fairfax, who has lived in and around the village for thirteen years, told me: “There is a community of gardeners who manage the allotments at the mill, a community who have built a nature reserve in the wasteland by the canal, a community of historians building an archive of the village’s history, a community of Crown Green Bowlers and a community running the popular parkrun at Roberts Park.

“What is also striking is that the houses are beautifully maintained and that in the spring the small courtyards and gardens are full of flowers that come to life. The high street has a lively atmosphere, with the young students from Shipley College, visitors to the mill and people going to the shops, the park or one of the cafes or bars.”


How do you get there?

The main Leeds/Bradford-Skipton railway line stops at Saltaire. There are regular buses to and from Bradford city centre.

Where to stay

You can rent the Grade II listed Overlooker’s Cottage for up to five guests, from £360 per week. Visit Bradford has other options nearby.

Where to eat

In addition to Salts Mill’s dining options, there are numerous cafes and restaurants along Victoria Road and Bingley Road. Tambourine has excellent coffee and the Saltaire Brewery Taproom and Salt Beer Factory compete in the craft beer battle.

Dates for your calendar

The Saltaire Arts Trail – with exhibitions and workshops in many buildings across the village – falls on the weekend of 4 to 6 May 2024. Saltaire Festival, an annual community-based celebration of music, culture and craft, runs from 14 to 22 September. The Bradford Dragon Boat Festival takes place from July 19 to 21 next to Roberts Park.

Leave a Comment