…experiences of a tunnel guide.
Heritage Open Days is England’s contribution to the European Heritage Days and has since grown into the country’s largest heritage festival. The aim is to throw open the doors to historic monuments and buildings, in particular those normally closed to the public.
For two days only on the weekend of the 9th and 10th of September the tunnels under Victoria Road and Exhibition Road were open to the public for the very first time to celebrate Heritage Open Days. The event was organised by Saltaire History Club and involved a lot of planning and negotiation to ensure the event happened; risk assessments, press releases, radio interviews, etc. All credit due to Dave Shaw, Les Brook, Maggie Smith and Colin Coates for making it happen.
When the appeal went out for tunnel guides I was willing to be involved and was allocated to join the team guiding the Exhibition Road tunnel. I was slightly apprehensive about leading a group through the tunnels and delivering a talk to the visitors. I needn’t have worried. All the guides were given thoroughly researched scripts which we could read and digest prior to the event and have them with us to read in the tunnels.
Also to my great relief the guides worked in pairs and I was very lucky to be partnered with two very knowledgeable local historians Letitia Lawson in the morning and Colin Coates in the afternoon. They certainly knew their stuff – and we bounced off each other really well. I held on to the fact that that I was in the good company of Saltaire experts who would know the answers to any questions that might be asked… There were ten large display boards which were the focus for our talk and this really helped with the flow of the tour.
I duly arrived on Sunday Morning and braced myself for a long day. I had talked to my friend and fellow guide Sandi Moore who had been on duty on the Saturday – she warned me it was full on and exhausting, and that there was an overwhelming number of people wanting to do the tunnels tour.
My main worry was how the public would react to the trip through the tunnel – after all the tunnel is only a short distance. But everyone loves a tunnel don’t they – young and old alike and this indeed was the case. Just being down there in the gloom in a place where no-one had been for years created a real sense of the past and provided a great atmosphere. Some of the visitors were thrilled to meet Nicholas Salt (great-great grandson of Sir Titus and great grandson of Titus Salt Junior) who made occasional pop up appearances in the tunnels throughout the weekend.
We also injected a little fun into the proceedings. The World Heritage site of Saltaire has a footprint and the boundary of the site falls right across the middle of the tunnel in Exhibition Road! We had placed a line of tape across the floor and invited the children to jump over the line out of the WHS, with the adults following. So they jumped from Saltaire into Shipley. This caused great amusement and also surprise as many people assumed that the Shipley College Exhibition Road building was included in the WHS.
Another cause of great amusement was an image of an overstuffed walrus from Hudson Bay which was one of the exhibits on display at the “The Royal Yorkshire Jubilee Exhibition” of 1887.
The walrus appears stretched and ‘over stuffed’ as it lacks the skin folds characteristic of a walrus in the wild. Over one hundred years ago, only a few people had ever seen a live walrus, so it is hardly surprising that it does not look true to life. The stuffed walrus is still a popular exhibit in the Horniman Museum in London.
As soon as each tour finished and we emerged from the tunnel we could see the next line of visitors waiting. One of us concluded the current tour and the other guide raced over the road to get the next tour started. It was a case of back to back tours all day – great fun but exhausting. Many people were not to be able to enter the tunnels due to limitations of numbers on each tour and this caused some disappointment. But over the two days we gave 52 tours (26 in each tunnel) and approximately 624 people got to enjoy the tunnels. Result!
By Julie Woodward