This Yorkshire wonder is still a model village – 170 years on

Saltaire takes its name from its founder, Sir Titus Salt
Saltaire takes its name from its founder, Sir Titus Salt - Alamy

If you gave a child a sketchpad and asked them to draw a model village, they’d come up with something like Saltaire. Pretty stone houses with window boxes? Tick. A lovely park with play areas and a cute bandstand? Tick. A babbling river and a pretty canal? Tick. A train to the big city? Tick. A narrowboat selling ice-cream? Tick!

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

Elected as mayor of Bradford in 1848, Salt witnessed the challenges faced by ordinary workers. So, hitching his zeal for innovation to a paternal, religiously-minded view of the world, he embarked on Saltaire – a model factory and mill village four miles north of the city.

Saltaire has Unesco-listed status
A model village: Fanny's Ale and Cider House in Saltaire - Alamy

He named it after himself and the Aire river that runs through it. And he made it rather different to the “dark, satanic mills” that had sprung up since the turn of the century.

Saltaire’s architects, Lockwood and Mawson, suggested an Italianate style for the new mill and houses, and their cream-coloured stonework still lends plenty of charm to the village. The magnate also insisted on a hospital, almshouses, church and an Institute – now known as Victoria Hall – too. The latter even had a gymnasium and a library on site.

Was it really paradise? Not exactly. Saltaire’s layout clearly reflects the village hierarchy. For the workers, there were two-up, two-down terraces near to the mill. Larger houses at the edge of the village were reserved for supervisors and managers. Residents weren’t allowed to hang washing in the street, and it’s said that Salt kept a watchman posted in one of the taller buildings who would monitor the roads and cut down the lines of clothes if anyone dared string them up.

Meanwhile, the super-mill employed 3,000 hands who turned out 30,000 yards of cloth every single day. That child’s sketch probably doesn’t include other kids running around beneath looms and spinning jennies during the course of long shifts.

Titus 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’s now a bar in its promenade of shops called Don’t Tell Titus).

These days though, Saltaire has Unesco-listed status and a cosmopolitan buzz. West Yorkshire is packed with beauty spots, but this mill complex is a one-off. Despite being full of visitors, it’s not a museum but a thriving community. Where modern developments often feel soulless and samey, this 170-year-old one feels homely and warm. The smart terraced houses are ranged over a tidy grid of streets, the back yards are well-tended.

At the corner of Caroline Street and Edward Street is a noticeboard explaining that the Wash House once stood on the site. Opened in 1863, it comprised a dozen male baths and a dozen female baths, plus a Turkish bath, six washing machines, a rubbing and boiling tub, wringing machine and hot air dryers. A cheery community garden now sits in its place.

Despite appearances to the contrary though, Saltaire hasn’t always been perfectly kept. Although the mill limped along until 1986, the complex had begun to fall into disrepair and many of the buildings became semi-redundant. The Saltaire Village Society was formed in 1984 to regenerate the area. Then another visionary owner, the sometime art history student turned entrepreneur Jonathan Silver, bought the mill, transforming 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 hosted almost every year. These days, the mill is also home to restaurants, cafés and shops as well as a second gallery space.

Salts 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 its sprawl, and I can think of few better wet-weather spaces (it has been known to rain in the West Riding). On my visit, however, the sun was shining. 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 made a lovely place to enjoy an ice cream outside the pavilion. Sometimes there’s a cricket match here. Often there are 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 perusing the gift shop at Salt Mills
Visitors perusing the gift shop at Salt Mills - Getty

I think he would be pleased with his legacy. Fascinating to explore, a pleasure to visit, Saltaire is also a place where community spirit is expressed in a multitude of ways. Author Helena Fairfax, who has lived in and around the village for 13 years, told me, “There’s a community of gardeners who keep the allotments near the mill, a community who have built a nature reserve out of wasteland near the canal, a community of historians who are building an archive of the village’s history, a community of crown green bowlers, and a community who run the popular Parkrun in Roberts Park.

“What also stands out is that the houses are beautifully kept, and in spring the tiny yards and gardens are full of flowers coming into life. The main street has a lively vibe, with the young students from Shipley College, visitors to the mill, and people heading to the shops, the park, or one of the cafés or bars.”


Getting 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

As well as the Salts Mill dining options, there are plenty of cafés 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 ale stakes.

Dates for your diary

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