Bradford's Lister Mill was once the largest silk factory in the world. Photo: iStock / Getty
Bradford's Lister Mill was once the largest silk factory in the world. Photo: iStock / Getty

Friday lunchtime in the northern English city of Bradford. It’s only autumn, but it’s undeniably cold. A harsh wind gusts across the gray expanse that surrounds the artificial “mirror pond” in Bradford City Park, then down the ornately sloped and cobbled streets of the historic Little Germany district that was, 100 years ago, the commercial heart of the most affluent textile city in the world.

Bradford sits surrounded by the damp, dark and desolate moors that were made famous by the Bronte sisters’ classic novels. Its people are therefore well used to the cold. Perhaps that’s why they’ve developed a penchant for food that’s hot and spicy.

This term “curry” is used increasingly around the world as the catch-all phrase to describe any dish served in a spiced sauce, and the city of Bradford has, in the UK at least, become somewhat synonymous with the term. The World Curry Festival has been held here for the last seven years and last month, for a sixth year running, Bradford was named Curry Capital of Britain. According to the festival’s organizer, Zulfi Karim, the “curry industry” is worth an astonishing £500 million (US$619 million) a year to Bradford’s restaurants and tourist venues. 

Bradford’s story has been to a large extent a troubled one since Little Germany’s heyday. 

Local anecdote has it that the wealth of Bradford’s numerous textile “barons” meant it used to have more Rolls Royces than any other city in the world. A dubious claim, perhaps, but it’s certainly true that in the 19th century Bradford was home to two of the biggest factories in the world: Salt’s Mill, which produced wool, and Listers Mill, which made silk. A century later, both had ceased production.

Other places — including Shanghai in the first half of the 20th century and Hong Kong in the second — had learned to emulate the quality of the English factories at a fraction of the costs.

One development, a Broadway Shopping Mall, was put on hold for a decade and, with typically dark humor, became known as “the Bradford hole”

The following decades saw widespread industrial closures, then high unemployment and, in the 1990s and 2000s, ethnic riots. The city has witnessed the growth of far-right political groups who recruit and parade in Bradford and its satellite towns (still today known as Mill Towns, even though there are no longer any mills in operation) and also the emergence of groups who espouse Islamic fundamentalism. The radical Muslim men who, in 2005, planted bombs on buses and underground trains in London, killing 52 people and injuring more than 700, became known in some sections of the UK media as the “Bradford Bombers” because they all came from or near the city. The trend of gradual decline was briefly bucked in the post World War II boom years, which saw workers being sourced largely from Britain’s old empire. Thousands of families arrived in Bradford from Pakistan. In reality, however, the industrial heartland to which they flocked was about to die. 

Over the years, Bradford fell into the shadow of its much bigger and more successful neighbor, Leeds. Ambitious city center rejuvenation attempts were started, then shelved or paused. One development, a Broadway Shopping Mall, was put on hold for a decade and, with typically dark humor, became known as “the Bradford hole.” The original plans for another — the City Park, with its mirror pond — attracted even greater raspberry-blowing derision from national media and local community alike. By the turn of the 20th century, many of the listed buildings in Little Germany had fallen derelict.

Bradford, though, has worked hard to change — and indeed it has changed. The Broadway Mall — part retail, part office space — is finished, and it’s booming. The City Park, too, opened, and most of the buildings in Little Germany are once again occupied. Salt’s Mill and its surrounding Saltaire Village — built as a model workers’ village and preserved as such — has been restored and is a Unesco World Heritage Site that is home to the largest public collection of art by Bradford-born David Hockney. Listers Mill, meanwhile, now houses offices, apartments — and a fabric factory. Yes, textiles manufacturing has returned to Bradford after a 20-year absence.

Bradford is also now home to the UK’s National Media Museum, while the mix of inhabitants in its many Victorian covered markets and old, narrow city center streets includes microbreweries and “artisanal” cafes and shops — in addition to the long-established multitude of curry restaurants.

After a very long absence, Bradford is a city that has started to fill once more not only with people, but with real civic pride too.