Why arts and culture could transform Bradford’s reputation #hometowns

During lockdown, many of us made the pilgrimage back to our family homes – and rediscovered them through fresh eyes. Part guide, part love letter, “Home towns” is a new series in which we celebrate where we’re from. After all, it could be a while before we can go anywhere else…

Bradford is a funny old place. It has a prosperous textiles heritage, but today suffers from a less savoury reputation. The fabric of the city shows clear evidence of these two worlds colliding – grand civic architecture rubs shoulders with ugly concrete eyesores from the 1960s, none more so than the infamous High Point building, which represents the bygone Brutalist era with its ribbed concrete and narrow, red-tinted windows.

Add stifling social issues into the mix, and it’s easy to assume there’s no hope for Bradford. Race riots, long-neglected regeneration projects and high levels of poverty have resulted in the city being served up as a textbook example of deindustrialisation. Unlike its significantly wealthier neighbour Leeds, it’s struggled to get back up on its feet – but that’s not to say it should be doomed forever.

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Contrary to the gloom surrounding Britain’s ageing population, Bradford has an extremely youthful one. In fact, it has the third highest percentage of under 16s in the UK, which offers unique opportunities going forward. A young and diverse social fabric could be exactly what the doctor ordered. It certainly bodes well for continuously fostering a rich cultural scene, which offers up huge potential in its bid for UK City of Culture 2025, something that has created a buzz across the district. It has kickstarted something of a cultural revival, spotlighting old and new initiatives.

Already in its toolbox are flagship cultural institutions like the Impressions Gallery, a space dedicated to thought-provoking photography, and the National Science and Media Museum, which has one of the UK’s best photography, TV and film collections. Salts Mill is a little further out and sits in the Unesco World Heritage Site of Saltaire – the 19th-century mill is home to artwork by David Hockney, world-famous artist and proud Bradfordian. Venture further into the dazzling Brontë Country and you’ll come across Haworth, the birthplace of literary legends the Brontë Sisters.

But something that enriches the city beyond anything else is its thriving grassroots artistic community. The creative collective Cecil Green Arts uses everything from puppetry to circus performance for their creative workshops designed for deaf children, dementia sufferers and more. Mind the Gap is one of Europe’s most successful learning disability theatre companies, while Bent Architect is a community-led theatre group that champions underrepresented voices.

I’d like to think that, by the time I’m old and grey, Bradford will be perceived very differently by the nation

It’s now common knowledge that the arts and culture sector is Bradford’s ticket to becoming a more prosperous city. Participation in the bid for UK City of Culture 2025 is one thing, but surviving the pandemic is another challenge altogether. Fortunately, Bradford District Council was among the first in the country to introduce a dedicated grant. Many have also embraced the digital shift: both Bradford South Asian Heritage Month and BIASAN & Bradford Refugee Forum’s InterCultured Festival ran dozens of online activities, spanning comedy, poetry and storytelling.

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After studying at university in Liverpool, a city that used culture as its secret weapon to help turn around a similarly poor reputation, it’s made me optimistic. I’d like to think that, by the time I’m old and grey, Bradford will be perceived very differently by the nation.

Get your culture fix

The magnificent Mirror Pool at City Park is a great starting point for seeking out nearby art and culture venues. Start with boundary-pushing photography in the Impressions Gallery next to the pool itself, followed by uplifting exhibitions in the nearby Peace Museum, before ending with nostalgic television artefacts in the National Science and Media Museum – the latter is a spectacular nod to the city’s Unesco City of Film title. Prefer live shows? The Alhambra Theatre and St. George’s Hall are your go-to venues, but if you like more off-beat concepts, try Theatre in the Mill or Kala Sangam.

Indulge in a curry

Bradford has scooped up the prestigious “Curry Capital of Britain” title more times than any other city. Aagrah and Mumtaz started life as family-run restaurants in the 1970s and have now claimed multiple awards, alongside Akbar’s, which has conquered the Midlands too. You’re spoilt for choice with curry houses, although Balti House in Keighley is a personal favourite.

Explore the countryside

Once again, you’re spoilt for choice. You can get your climbing shoes on at the Cow and Calf Rocks on Ilkley Moor or soak up the Brontë Country by steam train on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway. Haworth is a must too – amble up its cobbled streets to the Brontë Parsonage Museum, before continuing onto the moors towards Top Withins, the place that inspired Wuthering Heights.

Visit urban green space  

Not one for a countryside ramble? Make a beeline for the city’s Victorian-era parks. Bowling Park shares its space with the Grade II listed Bolling Hall, while Peel Park has award-winning landscaped gardens. Lister Park, meanwhile, is home to Cartwright Hall, which has a gallery dedicated to Yorkshire lad David Hockney.

Go independent

Bradford’s independent scene is one beloved by many. You can tuck into sarnies with a view at The Rooftop Cafe or pair real ale with records at The Record Café, which has been crowned Bradford CAMRA Pub of the Year. Bread + Roses is a cafe that doubles as a co-working art space and Plant One On Me is part cafe, part plant shop.

Get some kip

Anyone with a love for historic venues should check out the Midland Hotel, which has stood proudly in the city centre since the Victorian era. Alternatively, there’s a cheap and cheerful Premier Inn near Little Germany, an area of unique architectural and historical interest – so much so that 55 out of 85 buildings here are listed.

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