Exploring the suburbs of Sheffield
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 August 2018
Credit: Steven Songhurst / Alamy Stock Photo
Here's a city with distinctive districts to explore, writes Richard Darn
There is no shortage of masterplans to revitalise Sheffield city centre. Steel City is a vastly improved place over recent decades with dreary post war modernist buildings being replaced by iconic structures such as the Winter Gardens. Now fashionable ex-industrial sites such as Kelham Island have also been preserved, rather than demolished. The latest strategy looks to the future and amongst other things provides a tentative design for the new HS2 high speed train terminus due to be built to the east of the city which will deliver rapid journey times to and from the capital.
Also waiting in the wings is the Heart of the City II project (set to incorporate more of the city’s historic fabric after a public consultation) which promises to carve out a brighter future for retail, leisure and city centre living to the tune of over £400million, building on the success of an earlier phase.
And there are even plans for a major archaeological excavation at the site of the once impressive Sheffield Castle, a medieval stronghold, but demolished in the English Civil War. Until recently its foundations sat under a brutalist shopping centre, thankfully now itself torn down.
It all sounds grand on paper. Yet Sheffield is still in regeneration mode because of urban planning mistakes made decades ago which hollowed out parts of the centre. It has left city chiefs with the task of having to re-invent the core of what should be the legacy of its 1,000-year-old history.
But in any case dwelling on the high rise buildings and gleaming steel and glass of the future rather misses the point about Sheffield because more than any other, this is a city of spectacular suburbs where the past and future sit happily together. It’s one reason why locals will tell you Sheffield is England’s biggest town and why community spirit still imbues its many distinctive districts.
If the first place visitors go in Sheffield after arriving on the speedy HS2 line is this handsome tree lined thoroughfare then they will wonder if they have time-warped back to London. This swish attractive suburb concedes nothing to the capital’s trendy quarters and is choc full of fascinating shops – many independents – plus eateries and pubs.
This was a ‘happening place’ 30 years ago in my youth and very little has changed – perhaps save for a few more students and you can no longer have beer delivered to your table at the popular Nursery Tavern by pressing a ‘servant’s button’. The superlative 18 acre Botanical Gardens also extends down to ‘Eccy Road’ affording it a verdant hinterland. This magnificent green space, opened in 1836, is a perfect escape from the urban bustle, boasting 5,000 plant varieties and particularly fine Grade II listed glass pavilions. Look for the stone-lined pit built to house an unfortunate black bear, part of a thankfully short-lived experiment to house zoological exhibits.
When you have a poet laureate singing the praises of a city suburb you know you are on to a good thing. Sir John Betjeman described leafy Broomhill as England’s prettiest and further immortalised the area in his poem An Edwardian Sunday (to the delight of local estate agents ever since). A place of handsome Victorian villas, much of the land on which it sits was used as the Crookesmoor Racecourse until 1781.The opening of a turnpike road to Glossop in 1821 sparked development and it soon became a des-res for the city’s manufacturing elite and other professionals escaping the smog of the factories.
Still a thriving self-contained shopping destination, stores bombed out of the city centre during the World War II blitz re-located here to continue in business. Conservation Area status plus an active residents group have done their best to protect its historic core, whilst opponents of the city council’s controversial urban tree felling plans have made much of Betjeman’s ‘leafy suburb’ sobriquet. Broomhill is one of the districts affected and whatever your views on the issue it has certainly galvanised community action. For an overview of the campaigners’ objections go to savesheffieldtrees.org.uk, while the city council’s standpoint is on its website.
Dore and Totley
The further out from the city centre you venture the wilder the landscape becomes with the enticing prospect of the Peak District just a bike ride away. This rapid transition from thriving city centre to wild places is Sheffield’s finest quality by far and why it entices incomers from across the UK.
Dore and Totley are both historically Derbyshire villages, incorporated into Sheffield in the mid-1930s. Needless to say both are amongst the most prosperous parts of any British city. Dore means gateway in Old English, appropriate as this was a frontier town in the Dark Ages. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle King Egbert of Wessex took the submission of Northumbria’s King Eanred here to be recognised as over-ruler (Bretwalda) of England.
Look out for the blaze of purple heather in the surrounding countryside this autumn. Connecting Totley to the Peak District is the second longest railway tunnel in England at 3.5 miles (disregarding the London underground and Channel Tunnel). It might seem as though it provides a natural border between Yorkshire and Derbyshire, but 80 years ago locals were furious at being annexed into the white rose county. Over-crowded Sheffield was desperate to expand and it sought to take over 100,000 acres of land in the 1920s, even pinching bits of Chesterfield and Rotherham. It took another decade before it succeeded, despite residents’ concerns over rates, education and welfare, plus a keen sense of their own rural identity. It may be a long time ago, but when the Tykes play Derbyshire at cricket I’m pretty sure loyalties are still (at the very least) split.
I could eulogise about many other areas of Sheffield in a similar vein, such as the sylvan Rivelin Valley or lofty Ringinglow, but the message is clear – this is a city where it pays to explore.