A visit to Sheffield makes me want to start singing. I’m taking a guided tour of a 1960s housing estate once notorious for decay and neglect, yet my head is filled with harmonies.
I’m not alone. All six of us on this 90 minute tour raise a hand when asked if we’ve seen the National Theatre’s recent sold out show, Standing at the Sky’s Edge, a musical about this housing estate, Park Hill, a huge brutalist apartment complex . “I’ve seen it twice,” says one.
The show just won Best New Musical at the Olivier Awards and will move to London’s West End next year.
A guided tour of Park Hill’s innovative ‘Streets in the Sky’ led by a member of the Park Hill Residents’ Association is the best way to appreciate the modernist architecture and see how this structure, the largest historic building is progressing of Europe, since the developers bought the behemoth for £1.
We peek inside newly remodeled apartments, admiring floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city. We pose for a photo on the concrete sky bridge with graffiti, “I love you, will you marry me,” highlighted in neon.
The success of Standing at the Sky’s Edge, which premiered at the Crucible Theater in Sheffield, may be ‘no good’ for The Crucible’s reputation and Park Hill property prices, but the city is well worth a visit in general? After all, according to some statistics, Sheffield is the fourth largest city in Great Britain after London, Birmingham and Leeds. What else is there to attract visitors?
A twenty minute walk from Park Hill, following the newly planted landscape along the River Don (and with a short detour to the canal basin), Sheffield’s gentrification continues. Kelham Island has been compared to Shoreditch, the once run-down but now trendy borough of London.
Named after a small ‘island’ between the River Don and a stream, or ‘goit’, which once fed the town’s corn mill, Kelham was the heart of the town’s industry. As the steel mills closed in the 1970s, other professions began to take over. A friend once stopped his car to ask for directions and was surprised when a woman got in. Other Sheffield friends say he was told to carry on. “I was wearing a duffle coat. What were the police thinking?!” Elena said.
Today, new terraced houses are springing up and, if you know where to look, there are bars, barbers, bakeries and canteens in converted steelworks and warehouses. “Seven years ago these warehouses were empty and rents were low,” said 29-year-old Max Scotford, founder of Bullion chocolate “bean to bar,” whose small “artisanal chocolate” factory is tucked between nameless brick buildings.
Among the trendy new businesses are still auto repair yards and air vent factories. One of the last remaining ‘development opportunities’, Cornish Works, a Grade II listed derelict workshop that made cobblers’ tools, is yours for £1.65m.
The neighborhood comes alive on the weekends – there was a line of twentysomethings waiting to get into the Cutlery Works cafeteria at 5pm on a Saturday – but on a sunny spring Tuesday, hardly anyone was around. Despite an artisan bakery, bars selling bao buns and craft beer, and a smart restaurant housed in recycled shipping containers, the Shoreditch comparison is probably overstated. Currently.
However, there’s more to Kelham Island than trendy hangouts. In the Industrial Museum, housed in the former power station of the city’s tram network, the star attraction is Europe’s most powerful working steam engine, once connected to huge rollers that flatten red-hot steel. The 12,000 horsepower River Don engine runs for two hours a day from Thursday through Sunday.
Sadly, I’ve only seen the Hulk stand still. Luckily, a passionate volunteer was on hand to tell me all about it. Greg Harris has been a regular visitor to the museum since his first school trip in 1982. He is infatuated with the engine. When it’s running, the experience is visceral. “It sounds like an orchestra of drums and flutes and there’s the smell of boiling oil,” he said.
Unlike Greg, my Sheffield friends aren’t fans of industrial heritage. In their opinion, the best thing about the city is how easy it is to leave. Nearby are the hills, moors and pretty sandstone villages of the Peak District National Park.
Hathersage village is just 18 minutes by train from the city centre. Here we swam in a 30m outdoor heated pool against a backdrop of a Victorian bandstand and heather-clad hills. Other times we walked along the Stanage Edge escarpment where climbers cling to the precipices.
Instead of ‘Steel City’, Sheffield now bills itself as The Outdoor City. Despite the council’s faulty felling of thousands of trees along the road, there is plenty of green space (more than 61%, the council says) and an estimated 4.5 million trees. In the centre, the Peace Gardens are worth a visit. They are included in a new map of its many parks.
However, when it comes to more traditional tourist offerings, Sheffield struggles. It doesn’t have a Premier League football club with a worldwide fan base or a big-name art gallery or airport, although Mark Mobbs of Marketing Sheffield, charged with promoting the city, sees the positives in the downsides. “People don’t like open-top bus tours or big museums anymore,” he says. “Tastes have changed. People are looking for authenticity, ethical shopping and creativity; for a home away from home. What Sheffield can offer is an authentic and meaningful experience”.
Mobbs showed me the £500m ‘Heart of the City’ development, where new housing blocks, cafeterias and children’s playgrounds are being built.
For now, focus your attention away from the center. Sheffield is a city of villages, where “the light creeps over the houses, the slate darkens with rain” (as the musical goes). Each village has its own vibrant café culture. With my friend of hers I walked up and down pretty stone terraces to Sharrow Vale and Tonco restaurant, with its open kitchen serving small plates of locally grown organic produce. Enthusiastic waiters explained the menu; a bonus, if, like me, you don’t know agretti da aligot.
On my last day we walked in Endcliffe Park, following Porter Brook upstream as it meanders along a gentle wooded valley. A ladle fluttered along the babbling stream. There is a monument to the American pilot and crew of a WWII bomber who crashed here, avoiding children playing.
Further upriver is Shepherd Wheel, a water-powered workshop where, until the 1930s, men held their noses to the grindstone to sharpen and polish cutlery. (The mutton fat and chalk gave the best polish, apparently). Keep going back up and you reach the Forge Dam cafe in a former mill. Further upriver and you’re out on the moorland of the Peak District amidst the bubbling call of the curlew heralding spring.
Certainly one of the best things about Sheffield is how easy it is to leave, but you might be surprised at how much more there is to this musical city with its now famous man-made monolith.
There are three Park Hill tours a month. Tours cost £6 per person. Reservation essential.
For more information about Sheffield visit welcometosheffield.co.uk.
Paul Miles traveled to Sheffield on Cross Country trains and stayed with his friend Sue who recommended the boutique hotel Brocco on the Park.