Saltaire is a strong contender for the title of ‘coolest day out’ in Yorkshire. It’s a fantastic place for anyone who loves that heady mix of heritage, culture and retail therapy.
This UNESCO World Heritage site is one of my favourite places in northern England – and winter is a great time of year to visit to stock up on presents.
Culture vultures will adore Salt’s Mill, a contemporary art gallery stuffed to the rafters with one of Britain’s best collections of David Hockneys.
History lovers will go mad for its Victorian buildings, historic canal walks and narrow, terraced streets which still retain their distinctive character.
From mills to malls
Saltaire has a fascinating history. This model village was created by the industrial philanthropist and entrepreneur Titus Salt in the 1850s at the height of the Industrial Revolution.
Founding father, Titus Salt, made his fortune in Bradford’s textile mills and woollen manufacturing industry. He was a visionary thinker.
Salt wanted to set up a factory away from the polluted and overcrowded industrial cities, a place with a decent environment and good quality housing. He believed that a happy and healthy workforce would be more productive, so he made the bold move to relocate his workers to a new site near the River Aire.
When Salt’s Mill opened in 1853, it was the largest factory in the world with 3,000 workers and 1,200 looms producing 30,000 yards of cloth every day.
By the 1980s the textiles industry in Yorkshire was in decline and Salt’s Mill was no longer a buzzing hive of activity. It closed for good in 1986.
But a modern entrepreneur came to its rescue – the charismatic Jonathan Silver – who bought the mill and set about converting it into a giant art gallery and shopping emporium.
Today the village and mill have been regenerated as a fantastic hub for culture and heritage tourism.
Silver worked with his close friend, the Bradford-born international artist David Hockney to breathe new life into the mill’s vast spaces. His vision was realised within months.
Today, the result is breathtaking and exhilarating. Walking around the three floors of galleries, shops and leisure spaces, is a brilliant experience.
There are cafes, book shops, designer workshops, and even a small museum. Salt’s Mill has also become a culinary hub for a classy lunch experience.
Titus Salt was one of the foremost Victorian philanthropists of his day. He secured local architects Henry Lockwood and Richard Mawson to design his dream community, which is reminiscent of other famous model villages such as Bournville, Port Sunlight and New Lanark.
The entire village is designed in a neo-classical style with echoes of the Italian Renaissance everywhere you look. When the sun shines, the United Reform Church could easily be in Florence rather than a few miles from Bradford.
The community was self-sufficient with its own shops, hospital, school, library, park and church as well as public baths and wash houses.
The Factory School was designed to provide high quality education for the mill workers’ children – it was way ahead of its time.
Across the road, the Victoria Hall was not only an impressive civic building in its own right, it was a hub for the local community with a dance hall, library, meeting rooms and gymnasium.
Today, it’s used for concerts, craft fairs, events and vintage fairs. Pop inside and admire the ornate decoration and impressive Victorian function rooms.
There’s a real buzz about this place – and there’s plenty of entertainment going on if you’re planning on staying for a long weekend.
Two statues of lions guard the entrance, creating the impression of a grand civic building to rival any in the much larger nearby cities of Bradford and Leeds.
Titus Salt’s love of community buildings leaps out as you walk around the village and its grid-iron streets. He was a true visionary, an early town planner and social reformer.
Housing in the village was excellent in comparison with many Victorian towns with their slums and poor sanitation. At Saltaire, the houses were equipped with a water supply, gas lighting, outdoor toilet, separate living and dining spaces, and bedrooms. Don’t expect to find any ‘Oliver Twist’ Dickensian housing here.
This was a utopian vision. Elderly people of “good moral character” were provided with free housing – you can still see the 45 almhouses built in 1868. The houses even came with a pension, 40 years before the first UK state pensions were introduced.
The living and working conditions were excellent for the time. Titus Salt was the was the first employer in Bradford to institute the 10 hour working day and treated his workers well.
Saltaire village remains a huge achievement, and today perhaps we could learn a lesson or two from some of its old-fashioned community values?
For most people, it’s the connection between David Hockney and Saltaire which they associate most with Saltaire. The 1853 Gallery houses one of the world’s largest collection of the artist’s work.
Salt’s Mill’s ground floor is a vast space which has been covered into a massive book shop with vibrant Hockney paintings and watercolours dancing across every wall.
The Hockney art collection is truly outstanding. It’s hard not to gasp with surprise as you stroll by the many Hockney works informally placed around the shop, not just on the walls but in every conceivable niche and corner.
It’s not the artist’s B-list on show either. There are ‘A-list’ works and real stunners to admire as you lose yourself in the cavernous space, including one of my favourite pictures of a couple in a sitting room. I love its crisp, cool style and Pop Art colours.
And it’s not just Hockney’s paintings which are on show. There are ceramic vases, a giant Hockney high chair (as if constructed for a Brothers Grimm fairytale), and many intriguing objects designed by the great man himself.
Outside, there’s a self-portrait of Hockney riding an old-fashioned bicycle. It says everything about the man’s love of ordinary people and everyday experiences.
Hockney’s spirit and style are everywhere at Salt’s Mill, but his art doesn’t ram itself down your throat. It creeps up on you subtly like an old friend embracing you with a comforting hug, leaving you with a warm feeling that lingers long.
As you climb the stairs to the top of the Mill building, the Hockneys keep on coming. Up on the third floor there are yet more fantastic creations by Bradford’s finest son in a large gallery space with an uplifting exhibition called ‘The Arrival of Spring’.
The 49 original works were drawn by David Hockney on his iPad in 2011, and have been printed at a much bigger scale.
I tried to do something similar using the same APP on my iPad when I got home but it wasn’t quite in the same class as Hockney! You can’t beat proper artistic talent.
These colourful landscapes depict the changing countryside around East Riding in Yorkshire during the month of May.
They’re refreshing because they demonstrate Hockney’s obsession with seasons and changing landscapes… and his use of modern technology to create these vibrant works.
The colours are bold and bright with a profusion of lime greens, russet reds, startling pinks and purples. They are striking and evocative… and full of the joys of spring.
If the great outdoors is more your sort of thing, then you can’t beat a historic walk along Salt’s Waters and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal on the edge of town.
Pick up a guided tour map from the visitor centre at Salt’s Mill and head down by Robert’s Park where you can take either a narrow boat tour or walk (or cycle) along the canal tow path. It’s almost like walking back in time to the industrial age of Victorian England.
If you’re feeling lively, continue past the picturesque lock gates and pick up one of the longer walks on your guided map.
I chose the circular walk which takes you up to the Milner Field and the remnants of one of the Salt family’s former mansions before heading over the road up through the woods.
The wooded walk proved slightly steeper than I’d expected (groan!), but the hike to the top is worth it, and you can always rest your weary legs in the local pub when you get there.
Alternatively, to avoid the uphill walk, set out from the far end of Saltaire village and catch the Shipley Glen Tramway to the top of the hill.
Experts are on hand to explain the history of the Tramway which opened to the public in 1895 and was powered by a Suction Gas Engine, Town Gas and then Oil (1915) before being converted to electric in 1928.
There are two tracks with a tramcar on each line with a maximum gradient is 1 in 7 (which is pretty steep). Even if you don’t take the ride, it’s fun to walk alongside the track to see how the tram pulls up the bank slowly but serenely.
On the way back into town, why not drop into the characterful pub – The Boathouse on the River Aire – for a pie and pint or traditional fish and chips?
The original boathouse was built back in 1871 and was later converted into a pub which now has a stylish, modern interior with character and style.
Like most of the pubs and wine bars in Saltaire, it’s on the edge of the village. The reason? In Victorian times, Titus Salt wasn’t keen on his workers going out and getting drunk so drinking venues were kept to a minimum!
Today, you’ll find a good mix of drinking establishments from Tallulah’s ‘Art Deco’ Wine Bar to The Hop with real ales, and Don’t Tell Titus, a cool bar and restaurant.
Salt of the earth
Saltaire combines three of my great passions on life – art, history and shopping… plus interesting outdoor walks and a sculpture trail.
For a small village, there’s a good selection of independent shops and boutiques including gift shops, craft stores and The Saltaire Vintage Shop. You can even make and paint your own pot at Salt’s Pottery.
Back at Salt’s Mill, there are plenty of interesting shops including independent retailers, handmade jewellery, antiques, posters and a stunning furniture and house design store. I managed to escape without buying too much – this time round!
One of the great joys of a trip to the Mill is that you can simply indulge in window shopping – and admire the many beautiful Hockney paintings and designs, including his colourful ceramics.
When it comes to a chilled day out, Saltaire is one of my favourite trips. It’s small but beautiful, relaxing and stimulating. There’s something cool to admire around every street corner, and Salt’s Mill is the sort of place where you can lose yourself for hours on end.
It could just be Yorkshire’s coolest day out.
Tammy’s Travel Guide – Saltaire
Saltaire is four miles from Bradford in west Yorkshire. It’s easy to get to by car, train and bus. From near neighbour Leeds, it’s a short 15 minutes rail journey or you can take one of the following buses from Bradford – numbers 662, 622, 675 and 677.
Most of the Mill building is open seven days a week. Different areas have specific opening times so check on the official website before setting off or call on 01274 531163. The Mill is closed on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Day.
Don’t miss the cycle store and the specialist Early Music Shop in an offshoot building next to the mill – both are bizarrely fascinating. A patient shop assistant let my musically-inclined husband play the harpsichords and even allowed him to try his hand at a rare clavichord and virginal!
Admission and parking at Salt’s Mill are free. I’m delighted to report that the car park is so big that it can accommodate our motorhome with ease.
If you’re planning to walk further around the village, pick up the walking guides from the visitor information centre at the far end of the Salt’s Mill complex on the way to Robert’s Park.
The Shipley Glen Tramway, which will take you to the top end of the town, is usually open Saturdays & Sundays 12:00-16:30, but check the website for details as timings can change. There’s a small ticket fee but it’s a fun ride.
Look out for changing Hockney exhibitions at Salt’s Mill – and don’t forget to look in on the Saltaire Exhitbion on the top floor which explores the town’s industrial history.