Revealed: Saltaire’s secret network of tunnels

Les Brook, Saltaire History Club member in a  tunnel by Salts Mill. PIC: Tony Johnson
Les Brook, Saltaire History Club member in a tunnel by Salts Mill. PIC: Tony Johnson
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As Saltaire opens its secret network of tunnels, Stephen McClarence goes underground to uncover the highlights of this year’s Heritage Open Days.

People surge through a factory yard like a football crowd – hundreds of men in floppy flat caps, hundreds more women in bonnets and shawls. It’s 1925 and it’s lunchtime at Salts Mill, the world’s biggest factory when it opened 70 years earlier. The workers in the picture are on their way home to the tight grid of terrace streets here in Saltaire, the model village which the Victorian textile tycoon Sir Titus Salt built near Bradford, “far away from the stench and vice of the industrial city”.

What the picture doesn’t show is the hundreds of other workers who may be hurrying through a tunnel beneath their colleagues’ feet. They would be on their way to the factory dining hall through one of the two Secret Tunnels of Saltaire, which will be open to the public for the first time during next weekend’s Heritage Open Days.

This annual jamboree of tours and talks offers free access to thousands of buildings normally closed to the public or charging entrance fees. Yorkshire is staging more than 650 events at churches, museums, houses (ranging from stately homes to back-to-backs) and plenty of less likely places.

There’s the chance to nose around Philip Larkin’s former office at Hull’s Brynmor Jones Library, a bike ride round the Pitsmoor area of Sheffield including the site of Peter Stringfellow’s Mojo Club, and a talk on Holderness (Furthest Yorkshire) taking in lost villages and posing the often-asked question: “What role did Central African pygmies play in Brandesburton?”

The prize for intense local activity perhaps going to Hunmanby, the pretty village near Filey. It’s offering a police lock-up, a pop-up museum, guided trails and a range of exhibitions. Set aside all day.

Meanwhile, Dave Shaw and Les Brook, members of the 100-strong Saltaire History Club, are waiting to show me the workers’ tunnel, in use until the 1970s. “I’ve lived in Saltaire 22 years and I’ve never been in it,” says Les, full of anticipation.

Many towns claim to have secret tunnels of course – linking the church to the castle, or the castle to the Mayor’s Parlour, or the Mayor’s Parlour to the Red Lion. Most are just legends – but not in Saltaire, a World Heritage Site.

The tunnel – down stone steps from Victoria Road – is normally kept locked. Today, though, it’s being spruced up in preparation for the Open Days, which coincide with the first weekend of the 10-day Saltaire Festival.

The vaulted tunnel, it must be said, isn’t on the scale of the escape tunnels dug by prisoners at Colditz. Around 10ft high and with its plaster flaking, it’s bricked up after about 50ft. But it’s the social history it represents that’s so interesting.

I say I’ve read that Salt created the tunnel to get his workers in and out of the dining hall (now part of Shipley College) quickly. The aim, some suggest, was to maximise their productivity. Very tentatively, I mention claims that he wasn’t altogether the enlightened philanthropic hero that’s generally supposed.“I wouldn’t buy that, would you, Les?” says Dave Shaw. Les shakes his head. We move on.

It’s mid-morning and Salts Mill, with its shops and restaurants and exhibitions, is busy with visitors. “On a good day we can have 5,000,” says site manager Steve Mason. “We’ve got a 460-place car park and sometimes we have to turn people away.”

The mill’s appeal isn’t hard to grasp. “People talk about cathedrals of industry, don’t they?” says Les. “Well, this mill is one.” Steve is equally enthusiastic. “When it was built in the fields, it must have looked like the Taj Mahal to people,” he says.

As it celebrates the 30th anniversary of the start of its regeneration, Salts is the perfect civilised day-out: culture, cuisine and high quality consumerism – books and art and designer homeware – under one roof. If you’re looking for a “personal olive oil tester” (£39.95) or want a pleasant lunch amid the happy hubbub of the restaurants or an equally pleasant browse round dozens of canvases by David Hockney... well, look no further. Hockney’s 80th birthday is also, incidentally, being celebrated here next weekend. It will be busy in Saltaire.

Steve, originally a Londoner, has lived in the village (really a small town) for 20 years – in, appropriately, Titus Street. He has watched Saltaire become a fashionable place for incomers to live, “a wonderful little jewel”.

“There are 20 people living around me who have been here for just three or four years,” he says. “But when I bought my house in 1995, the lady who lived there had been there for 60 years. Before that, her parents were there from the 1890s. And before that it was the original owner.”

Dave charts the changes. “The shops on Victoria Road would once have been in the same hands for 20 years – a baker, a fish and chip shop, a bookshop,” he says. “Now they change hands every few years.”

Les lives in one of the 90-odd apartments created in the mill’s Edwardian extension. “It’s a superb place to live,” he says. “It’s very, very quiet, there’s a park just outside, and you’ve got a station on your doorstep.”

We walk up Victoria Road, past a quartet of languid stone lions, to explore the other “secret tunnel”. More four-square than the first, it was once used by students as a connecting corridor under the road between two major buildings. The more familiar of them is the Victoria Hall, which now hosts Taekwondo, Best of Friends line dancing, Zumba and the Clogaire dance class (“Turn your feet into a percussion instrument”).

As we walk back to the entrance, things take a surreal turn. From upstairs, there’s the sound of My Way being played on an organ. And, yes, there in the salmon-pink-and-white main hall is Bill Campbell, resident organist at a skating rink in Anaheim, California. He’s practising for one of the hall’s monthly recitals on the cream-and-gold Wurlitzer organ. “I’ve been playing since the parents of Mary Poppins were alive,” he says.

We cross to the Exhibition Building to browse the Saltaire archive, with its adverts for Alpaca Yarns for Hosiery, Mohair Yarns for Plushes and Salts Belwarp Serges and Suitings (“guaranteed to maintain their colour against sun or sea in any climate”). And here’s the 1925 photograph of the lunchtime surge of workers. It’s complemented by a real treasure that can be viewed online.

On July 24, 1900, Mitchell and Kenyon, the Lancashire-based documentary film company, brought their cameras to Saltaire. It was part of their shrewd “Local Films for Local People” project to film street scenes and then stage screenings where people paid to spot themselves or their friends.

The filmmakers set up their cameras outside Salts Mill as the workers streamed out. A minute-long clip on the British Film Institute website shows more flat caps and bonnets, the odd man in a bowler, the odd elderly woman with a shawl over her head.

The clip gives a strong sense of Saltaire’s rural setting – and of the amused scepticism of many of the crowd. A fair few eyeball the camera cannily. Taking it all with a pinch of Salt.

Tunnel tours on Saturday, September 9 & Sunday September 10 (10am to 4.30pm). See Heritage Open Days, September 7 to 10.