Salts Mill, Saltaire: Nice but not enough for UNESCO

salts mill saltaire

Salts Mill, Saltaire. Tourist Info in this mill, the cafes and galleries in another.

Generally UNESCO World Heritage Sites are designed to process tourists. These are supposed to be the great common heritage of humanity. They show themselves off.

Saltaire is different. Its centre piece, Salts Mill, isn’t for tourists. There isn’t even an obvious way in. You see, Salts Mill isn’t the UNESCO destination you’d expect. It’s not a record of industrialisation, textiles and our modern ambivalence about paternalistic Victorians. It’s a island for West Yorkshire’s middle class.

Find your way inside (Salts Mill rejects most signage), and you’re in a safe place for Radio 4 listeners. You can browse tasteful books on art and cookery, or look at some antiques. Check out some paintings by David Hockney, the local boy who made an international splash with nice-looking, accessible art. Buy a retro pepper grinder.

There’s a cafe. It’s light, airy, vaguely industrial. Young chefs in white jackets and chessboard trousers do their thing, making bacon sandwiches (with wholemeal bread) and burgers (with hand-cut chips).

salts mill cafe

Salt’s Mill Cafe: modern industrial from anywhere but Yorkshire

Like much of Salts Mill, the cafe shows a commitment to an idea of being “modern”, but this is an imported modernity, not a Yorkshire or Bradford version. This modern looks to ’80s London or NYC. The decor owes more to images of big city loft conversions than something which has grown naturally out of place. It looks efficient but doesn’t quite work. Everything takes a surprisingly long time and no one’s quite sure how you’re supposed to pay (I always end up hanging out at the computer terminals).

Now, I’m not saying Salts Mill isn’t a nice place. It is! It’s nice. NICE.

It could be exciting.

It could properly explore its own past. This was once the largest industrial building in the world; thousands of people worked here. And then they didn’t. The disappearance of those jobs, of that sense of purpose, is one of the defining events of Britain’s 20th Century. It deserves more than a DVD on a loop in a back room and a handful of romanticised paintings. It is in a UNESCO site, right?

Salts Mill could recognise the present and look to the future. There’s no nice way of putting this, but at the moment, it sure is for white people. There’s no acknowledgment of immigration, the other big change in post-war northern life. There’s no need to worry about crowds of kids from Manningham. They can dress up in Victorian outfits and do treasure hunts around Saltaire village but they won’t come into the mill. Nothing for them here.

The awkwardness of its own history glossed-over, the challenging, invigorating, chaos of its city ignored. A working class building turned into a playground for the middle-class.

Saltaire’s Salts Mill could be so much more. As it is, it’s a nice place to get a coffee.


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