Walk through the grid of terraced streets in the Yorkshire village of Saltaire and you will pause frequently to admire a decorative window, catch the rhythm of the rows of houses, appreciate a well-tended front garden or just chat to a friendly cat. Certainly, every now and then you will stop when a glimpse of the impressive Italianate Salt’s Mill appears between the houses, takes you by surprise and makes you gasp.
Saltaire is a fascinating purpose built village and textile mill. Built on the outskirts of Bradford in the middle of the 19th century and set on the river Aire, the name Saltaire comes from the river and the mill owner, Titus Salt. The huge mill is a masterpiece and the neat rows of terraced houses were a cut above other worker’s housing, having fresh water and sanitation. The self-contained village was furnished with a hospital, alms houses, an institute, church and shops.
I first visited Saltaire in the 1990s, not long after the abandoned mill had been bought and renovated by a local entrepreneur, Jonathan Silver. Jonathan Silver was successful in saving and reinventing this beautiful building, creating a retail, cultural and commercial complex that continues to be run by his family and to thrive. Today Saltaire is a World Heritage Site and is a popular destination for visitors as well as somewhere people live and work.
In 1995, as a geography student, I was fascinated by Saltaire and keen to use this urban landscape in an assignment but struggled to get a handle on a narrative focus for the essay. On a February day I took the train to Bradford and decided to walk the six kilometres or so to Saltaire, thinking this would give me a chance to visit Titus Salt’s statue in Lister Park and maybe find inspiration. As I was photographing the Victorian statue on the edge of the park it began to snow, huge flakes that were soon covering the roads and pavements. My feet were soaked and I was cold to my bones by the time I reached Shipley but my best ideas come when I am walking. Chancing upon the view looking down on the mill and the village I had an epiphany. Even though I had visited before at that moment the scale and the grace of Salt’s Mill blew me away. Seeing the mill facing the rows of terraced streets and the moorland beyond, its position in the landscape fell into place and I knew what I was going to write. If you want to read my undergraduate ideas about the two contrasting authors of the landscape of Saltaire, I have shared my essay here but please remember I was a young 35-year old and this was written early in my writing journey.
Last week we decided to recreate what had become for me a legendary trip in better weather. After catching the Leeds train from Victoria railway station in Manchester we were soon walking between the grandiose Victorian buildings of Bradford in the sunshine. Lister Park was full of people enjoying the unseasonable weather. When we reached the viewpoint where I had experienced my inspiration I stopped and thought about the younger me and how important that moment had been. Despite quite a build up the view over Saltaire was even more amazing than I remembered.
Much has changed in Saltaire since the 1990s but what hasn’t altered is the quality of the sticky toffee pudding in Salt’s Diner, an interesting and charming cafe inside the mill. On that cold snowy day I warmed up in the Diner with a bowl of this wonderful sweet pudding in a pool of toffee sauce and for old time’s sake I did the same again last week. Today diners can admire David Hockney prints while they eat from crockery that depicts a David Hockney sketch. Just eating at Salt’s Mill is an experience! After tea and cake we browsed the books in the bookshop, had a look in the gallery and merely admired the expensive home ware.
Keen to get out and enjoy the sun, we explored the rows of terraced streets, walked by the canal and through the tidy Robert’s Park colourful with crocuses. I stopped to take a photograph of the noble alpaca statue looking back to the mill and the village. Titus Salt has alpaca wool to thank for his enormous wealth; he used it to weave fine cloth for luxury clothing. By deciding to create an industrial community in Saltaire, rather than spending his wealth on an estate with a mansion, Titus Salt ensured he is remembered as a Victorian philanthropist. Although he was foremost a successful and wealthy businessman who may have seen the mill and village as a way of maintaining paternalistic control, he certainly also had a sense of duty that led him to build an infrastructure that would help workers and their families to thrive.