International travel writer Helen Werin takes a trip to Bradford, Saltaire and Haworth.
I'd read that Bradford was a "city full of surprises" and, of course, I'd heard that the folk of Yorkshire were very friendly. But surely not this friendly?
"Mrs Dooley" was showing me her lovely white lace bloomers in full view of everyone else in the street. Apart from her companion, the uppercrust "Mrs Hill", who looked on with shock and embarrassment, no-one else seemed to be batting an eyelid.
But then this is Saltaire, the model village built on the outskirts of the city from 1851-72 by textile magnate Sir Titus Salt to house mill workers from the disease-ridden slums under unpolluted country skies. The antics of the straight-talking Mrs Dooley, aka Maria Glott, in contrast with straight-laced Mrs Hill, aka Caroline Hill, are all in the name of bringing history alive as part of the characterful Salt Walks.
Refreshingly so, too. For it's not often that you hear history from the mouths of the working-classes. And Mrs D is offering a very different view of Titus – liberally laced with cynicism – from that of refined Mrs Hill, who appears to see him as a visionary.
Mrs D was showing us an altogether more altruistic side to the master by leading us to the almshouses where headstone-like tablets beside some of the doors show the names of the occupants. On some there are as many as eight names in a year. It seems that you only came in to these almshouses if you were on your way out.
Though Titus built a hospital for his workers injured in the mill, anyone who could no longer work for him had to leave their home. He also built a magnificent park by the River Aire, now being restored, with bandstands and boathouses. However, the workers simply did not have the time to enjoy it. The man who appeared to offer people a better way of life with his idealistic village was to never let them forget who built it either. The Italianate palace-style mill – the biggest building in the world in its time – forms a T shape and every which way you turn you can see the initials TS entwined in stone, plasterwork or railings. Strange but distinctly telling, of course, is that no child in Saltaire was ever named Titus, a fact that even Mrs Hill nods her head sagely in agreement to.
The walk also got us inside the stunning Roman Classical Church, which is usually kept locked. The balcony, which Mrs Salt nagged her husband for because she did not want to sit with the "common people", was never used. Crafty old Titus installed a spiral staircase up to it which was too narrow for his wife in her voluminous skirts. To make doubly sure, he also blocked her view of the pulpit with a couple of strategically-placed chandeliers. Maria's research of the former families of Saltaire is meticulous in its detail and perhaps, not surprisingly with the benefit of hindsight, shows that most millworkers did not stay for long. Back in character she says: "Salt showed us a better way to live, but there were too many rules which did not go down well with many families, who moved back to Bradford." Including Mrs Dooley herself, it seems; she ended up running a caf in the city.
Saltaire is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and all the 820 or so houses are privately owned. The magnificent Salts Mill itself is a tourist magnet, largely because of its celebrated 1853 Gallery featuring one of the world's largest collections of Bradford boy David Hockney's work. There are also quirky shops and cafs and visitors can wander around the cobbled village streets by themselves. But the character walks offer such an incredible insight into the lifestyles of Saltaire's previous inhabitants and the rather egotistical business brain of Titus that to go without Mrs D and co's guidance would be like going to Bradford and not having a curry. That we did, of course, though the choice of restaurants throughout the city is mind-boggling. We opted for the Markaz Restaurant and Shisha Lounge in Centenary Square, a few minutes' walk from our hotel. Sophie, our nine-year-old daughter, had been fascinated by the ornate, curled hookah pipes that she could see people smoking in an opulent tent. We by-passed the chance to try smoking a fruit-flavoured infusion in favour of what turned out to be the best curries we have ever eaten, served up with a large portion of the famed Yorkshire friendliness. Our meal at Markaz is going to be a hard act to follow.
The real highlight of Sophie's stay was undoubtedly the National Media Museum, where she learnt how TV programmes are made. We could have immersed ourselves in hours of classics in TV Heaven, all for free, but Sophie wanted to have a go at reading the news. We also had great fun operating the cameras on a film set and experimenting with different backdrops. Kids are in their element here and the educational message is subtly pushed home, not least because Bradford is now the world's first UNESCO City of Film.
Indeed, the museum's IMAX theatre gave us a completely different – and thrilling – perspective on A Christmas Carol. As Jim Carrey in his role as Scrooge soared above the London streets in 3D, we had that incredible feeling of flying too.
It was slightly surreal therefore to go from the very latest in film technology to a scene which could have come straight out of a Dickens book, all within a few miles.
We wandered up the Main Street of Haworth taking great care on the uneven cobbles and stone setts, designed to give horses a better grip. The tourist blurb had told me that the former wool-manufacturing village had retained much of its character from when its most famous residents, the Bronts, lived here. However, I was a little unprepared for the rather full-on blast of Bront sentiment in the name of tourism.
At the top of the hill we found the Haworth Parsonage, now the Bront Parsonage Museum, where the world's most famous literary family lived from 1820-61. Charlotte's novel Jane Eyre, Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall were all written in this house. The Bront Society, which has restored the Parsonage, has sourced all manner of the Bronts' possessions, from letters and manuscripts to clothes and furniture, all of which were scattered far and wide, to give visitors a wonderful insight in to the family's life. Outside on the cobbles, looking past the crowds of sightseers, I was reminded of an old-fashioned Christmas card scene, with cottages with mullioned windows and street lanterns. So it is somewhat hard to fathom that Haworth is twinned with the village at Macchu Picchu in Peru. Apart from a few of the touristy shops selling ethnic knitted garments and crafts, the only obvious connection seems to be that they are both built on a "bit of a slope" – albeit Macchu Picchu is at least 10 times higher – and around the tourist and textile industries.
I have since learned that the twinning is promoting Fairtrade goods and helps children with learning disabilities in Peru.
Undoubtedly, it is Haworth's past that is most compelling. In the mid-19th century this was one of the unhealthiest places in Britain, with the street running with raw sewage. Heaps of night soil and slaughterhouse waste were also left to decompose and wash down the hill. The town's water was contaminated with deadly seepage from the overcrowded graveyard in front of the Parsonage. No surprise then that a report from 1850 shows the average age at death at 25.8 years.
At the bottom of the hill was The Old Registry guest house, where we were staying, with four-poster beds and rooms with sweet names such as Lavender, Blue Heaven and Secret Garden.
One can't help but wonder what the residents of 150 years ago
would make of their village today. One thing I am sure of though is that they would find the famed Yorkshire welcome hasn't changed a bit.
Where to go and what to do
Helen Werin stayed at the Great Victoria Hotel and travelled courtesy of Citybreaks.org.uk (www.citybreaks.org.uk), which helps visitors to discover 17 cities across the UK and offers up to 70 per cent off hotels.
Salts Walks (tel: 07952745471/01274 599887)
National Media Museum and IMAX (tel: 0870 7010200: www.national mediamuseum.org.uk)
Bront Parsonage Museum (tel: 01535 642323; www.bronte.info)