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Sheffield - how the steel city became a place full of green spaces

PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 August 2017

Sheffield now a green city

Sheffield now a green city

Joan Russell Photography

Enjoy a breath of fresh air in Sheffield, a city re-discovering its roots, as Richard Darn explains

Peace and fresh air in Sheffield ParkPeace and fresh air in Sheffield Park

Dante’s Inferno - that’s what my father called Sheffield’s Lower Don Valley when he travelled past the vast steel mills for the first time on a war-time train. A sulphurous smog hung over soot black buildings as sparks flew from molten metal - it really was a scene from the underworld. It’s hard to believe this is the same place as the one that greets visitors today. Steel is still produced here, but the whole ambience has changed. This is now a green city.

Having worked both here and in Leeds I’ve often reflected that the latter has the finer architecture, but the Steel City possesses the nicer environment. Just consider the facts.

One third of Sheffield is within the Peak District national park and 60 per cent is green space. There are 250 parks, woodlands and gardens, whilst the leafy suburb of Broomhill was labelled the most beautiful in England by poet John Betjeman.

What’s more, world famous mountaineer Steve McClure claims the city is now the world’s climbing hub thanks to its rocky outcrops and indoor facilities. No other industrial city can match Sheffield’s range of wildlife habitats, from lofty moorland to ancient woods.

There is plenty of opportunity for off road biking Photo Duncan PhilpottThere is plenty of opportunity for off road biking Photo Duncan Philpott

This of course, is why marketing chiefs opted to brand Sheffield as the UK’s pre-eminent outdoor city, two years ago but more on that in a moment. First let’s wind back the clock.

Much of Sheffield was redeveloped in the post-war years (for both good and ill), but its history is a very long one. Park your car at Meadowhall shopping centre and gaze up at Winco Bank and you are looking at the site of a 2,000 year-old Iron Age Hill Fort.

Sheffield’s famous metal trades are also far older than the Industrial Revolution. Locally made cutlery is mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and by the 1600s this was England’s biggest centre for knife making outside London.

Innovation then played its part. A Doncaster clockmaker invented the crucible method of making better quality steel and a breakthrough in fusing silver to copper produced what became known as Sheffield Plate.

A walker leaps the water at Wyming Brook, Sheffield Photo Duncan PhilpottA walker leaps the water at Wyming Brook, Sheffield Photo Duncan Philpott

Eventually this corner of Yorkshire would produce half of Europe’s steel! City status was granted in 1893 as the population soared eight fold with all the associated problems of urban squalor and pollution.

By 1937 George Orwell felt justified in writing that Sheffield could claim to be the ‘ugliest town in the Old World’. That was then – if only George could pay a return visit!

Lots of water has flowed under the bridge - an apt turn of phrase as the once lethally toxic River Don (so polluted it actually caught fire) is now home to otters, salmon and kingfishers. The clean up has shown what can be achieved and warms my heart.

Big strides have also been made to embellish the built environment. The slums of the pre-war that so appalled George Orwell were replaced with tower blocks. Most of these have also now been swept aside, with the notable exception of Park Hill Flats, expensively refurbished and a Grade II* listed building.

Sheffield. Cathedral in green surroundingsSheffield. Cathedral in green surroundings

Replacing bleak brutalism of the 1960s are buildings of character and humanity. A fine example is the extraordinary city centre timber and glass Winter Gardens, replete with fountains and greenery, reflecting the area’s sylvan character.

This brings me back to Sheffield’s push to be known as the ultimate outdoor city; a branding exercise inspired by a report from Sheffield Hallam University which revealed that outdoor recreation pumped £50million annually into the economy.

Such marketing ploys often leave me cold, but not this time. Recreation has always been a huge draw in these parts and over many years students have chosen the city for their studies because of the climbing, biking and walking scene.

Now it’s getting the air-time it deserves. Puruse the initiative’s website (theoutdoorcity.co.uk) and you’ll see what I mean. Opportunities seem endless from city centre mountain bikes trails to wild expeditions into the Peak District and festivals like the Cliffhanger weekend, headlined by the British Bouldering Championship where impossibly-fit people clamber up a climbing wall like human flies.

It is reckoned that nearly 1600 full-time jobs in the city rely on the ‘outdoor’ sector and that is set to grow. There’s an air of optimism about Sheffield and a distinct feeling that the best is yet to come. At heart this is a green active city that’s keen to get back to roots.

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