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Sheffield, South Yorkshire as busy as ever

PUBLISHED: 11:31 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 15:25 20 February 2013

Fargate one of the city's main shopping areas

Fargate one of the city's main shopping areas

Sheffield is better and buzzier today than any time in its history. Tony Greenway pays a visit PHOTOGRAPHS BY GRAHAM LINDLEY

On the comments page of an internet website devoted to Sheffield, one breathless poor blogger asks: 'Sheffield is famously based on seven hills. But can anyone tell me what the seven hills are? As a keen cyclist I reckon there are more than flippin' seven'

It's a good point. Anyway, I didn't know the answer so thought it my duty to find out on your behalf. So I went to Sheffield and the city centre was looking better than ever. I went to the Peace Gardens (of course, got to do that); had a stroll around the arty Devonshire Quarter (as usual); marvelled at all the regeneration work and then went to a bar or three. I had lunch in one of the city's huge variety of restaurants
(fancied an Italian this time). After that it was off to the Millennium Gallery (Vivienne Westwood was on) and the Winter Garden (home to 2,500 plant species) and do you know what? I completely forgot to ask anyone about that seven hills thing.

Alistair Haxton is an architect who owns Sheffieldbased Haxton Associates. I tell him I got distracted and he sympathises. 'It's a great place,' he says. 'I like it because it's often said that Sheffield is like a giant village. And that's true actually. Everyone is very friendly, and you tend to bump into the same people - something that doesn't normally happen in your average big city.'

Something is certainly a-buzz about this place. Culturally, it's always been something of a doozy. Pulp, The Longpigs, Richard Hawley, Arctic Monkeys (and, thus, The Last Shadow Puppets, Alex Turner's side project), Def Leppard and Joe Cocker are all from Sheffield, and the club scene here has always been popular. Best not to mention the long-defunct National Centre for Popular Music though - or the Four Tops, as it was disparagingly dubbed by Sheffield locals. Then there's the Crucible (currently undergoing a multimillion pound refurbishment) and Sheffield Arena. If you want to see a big, big band in Yorkshire, that's where you go.

Attractions such as the Winter Gardens (one of the largest temperate glasshouses in the UK) and the Peace Gardens have been huge success stories; and the 600 million Sevenstone project (formerly known as the New Retail Quarter) is set to change the city centre almost beyond recognition, covering a 20-acre site and involving a major redesign of the heart of Sheffield. Phase one is due to be finished in 2011 with the whole scheme due for completion in 2013.

The bar and nightlife scene here is also thriving. 'All sorts of new restaurants are opening all the time,' says Alistair. 'There's a relatively new development called Leopold Square which has a lovely boutique hotel set around some old 18th century buildings. The hotel was originally a boys' grammar school and then became the education offices for the city and sat empty for 15 years. But in the last two years it's been regenerated and turned into this thriving centre in the middle of town.'

Then, of course, there's Meadowhall, one of the most famous shopping centres in the UK which opened in 1990. 'There were a few business people in Sheffield who didn't welcome Meadowhall,' remembers Alistair. 'They thought it would take business away from the city centre. In fact, when large companies who didn't have a presence in Sheffield came to Meadowhall, it opened the floodgates if anything. Others took notice. It was like: 'Hmmm. If they're going to Meadowhall, Sheffield can't be a bad place'.'

Alistair's office is in Attercliffe in the Lower Don Valley (a location on the Sheffield Supertram) in the heart of the industrial area - one of the last parts of Sheffield to be regenerated. 'There are apartments here,' he says, 'but there are also a lot of leisure developments. Sheffield hasn't gone as apartment crazy as they have in Leeds and Manchester.What we've benefited from, really, is that Leeds and Manchester were the guinea pigs for the whole city living project. Over there, everyone put up large towers full of flats and saturated the market. Things tend to happen a bit slower in Sheffield. They're a bit more canny with their money.'

Alistair was born in the city but moved away in his youth, returning 18 years ago. He admits that if he came back now and saw it for the first time since all the work had been completed, he would barely recognise it. 'This is an excellent place to do what I do,' he says, 'because there are unique buildings here. Given the city's industrial heritage there are some fine Georgian and Victorian buildings which are crying out for restoration. I enjoy being here. Having worked in London and in other places in the UK, Sheffield is where I feel I most belong.'

When I got back home I Googled 'Sheffield's seven hills' and lots of different answers came up - so this is obviously a hotly disputed question among the locals. But the one reply I particularly liked was: 'There aren't seven hills in Sheffield. There are eight.' Oh dear. Some things are better left undiscovered.

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