Not much trouble at mill

Muthena Paul Alkazraji visits a Victorian village where a worker's life was pleasant

You could battle your way along Oxford Street to see the modest assembly of the latest David Hockney exhibition - or you could glide on the waterbus along the glassy black Leeds and Liverpool Canal from Shipley for a much more substantial serving of West Yorkshire's favourite son. David Hockney's artistic pied a terre in Britain is at the heart of the village of Saltaire. Conceived by Victorian textile entreprenuer Sir Titus Salt, this "model village" was built on the banks of the River Aire to house workers at his worsted mill. Today, the terraced streets and community architecture remain almost entirely as he envisaged, and are a suitable shrine to Britain's most celebrated contemporary artist.

Salt's apparent impetus came from a ready, healthy workforce and a genuine social concern. Thick smoke, overcrowding and violence characterised working- class life in the textile trade. "If anyone wants to feel how a poor sinner is tormented in purgatory," wrote George Weerth, a resident German poet, "let him travel to Bradford."

A minute's walk from the waterbus stop is the imposing mill complex. It originally employed 3,000 people on 1,200 looms producing 30,000 yards of cloth a day. Salt's speciality was not, as one might expect so close to the moors, in weaving the wool of sheep so much as of alpaca, a strange- looking South American animal of the camel family. The West Mill is now home to a number of modish interior furnishing stores, and its vast, naturally lit workrooms also house three galleries of paintings, drawings, and photo- collages by Hockney.

The 22 streets of Saltaire's workers' housing, from the strictly functional to those with Renaissance-style embellishment, make an absorbing place to meander. Along the back alleys, elderly residents lean over gates, coloured plastic pegs spin around a rigging of washing lines, and outside piping is painted with pride. The houses represented a vast improvement in living conditions for the original wool-combers, and one can still settle here in modest cosiness.

With the exception of the wash-house (including Turkish bath), almost all of Saltaire's Italianate public buildings still remain. There were no public houses built in the original village: Sir Titus was a supporter of the Temperance Movement. He was not, however, so zealous as to prevent residents from keeping the odd barrel of beer in their cellars; he kept a private stash of the devil's brew himself. Those in search of liquid refreshment can visit Saltaire's Victorian boathouse, with its terrace on the River Aire. It is now The Boathouse free house.

The Institute on Victoria Road, a community centre built to take the place of the offending pub, originally provided an art school, library, lecture theatre, gym and billiards room for the workers' use. For the last 10 years, it has been home to The Victorian Reed Organ and Harmonium Museum: a private collection gathered on a shoe-string by an ex-teacher Phil Fluke. It contains an array of instruments, from ship's organs lined with arsenic (to prevent tropical insects eating through mechanisms) to portable harmoniums that were strapped to the rumps of itinerant preachers' horses. The collector's enthusiasm is boundless. "Look at this," he says as I prepare to leave. "I discovered it in that parlour model; it had caused havoc." In his hand is a box containing a mouse skeleton wrapped in a shroud of nibbled organ velvet.

Five minutes walk across Roberts Park is the Shipley Glen tramway. This narrow-gauge, cable-hauled railway, trundles up to open moorland and the glen's famous rock formations.

Down at the United Reformed Church, Sir Titus is interred in a mausoleum under the watchful gaze of a marble guardian angel. Mr Hilton Broomhead, chairman of the church's trustees, gives me his own obituary of the textile magnate and his village. "In those days, it must have been like Utopia compared with life in the cities. A lot of people say, 'Well, he made a lot of money', but it's what he did with it that counts n "

The 1853 Gallery, housing David Hockney's works, is at Salt's Mill (01274 531163) - open 10am-6pm daily; entrance is free. Saltaire Tourist Information 01274 774993.

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