• Karen Seiger

In praise of Sheffield, Once Maligned as the Ugliest City in the World


We are happy to share the story of how our new guidebook, 111 Places in Sheffield That You Shouldn't Miss. came to be. Author Michael Glover writes about his many adventures and explorations throughout his home town, which is, in fact, beautiful and fascinating. All photos are by Richard Anderson.

111 Places in Sheffield That You Shouldn't Miss has been compelled into existence by the fat-headed ignorance of others. It was George Orwell, that great journalist, who called Sheffield "the ugliest town in the world." He visited the town in 1936 – for just three days. Such was the depth of his research. A few months ago I was having lunch with an editor on The Economist, a weekly publication to which I have been a regular contributor. She asked me what I was up to these days. I told her about the fact that I was writing a new guide book to Sheffield. "Sheffield is such a horrible place," she said, with airy ease. Obviously, she was driven by prejudice and a depressing preponderance of superficial knowledge.

Emons Verlag had a similar reaction - at first. When the proposal for the book was delivered, the reps in London didn't like the idea of Sheffield at all. They said that Sheffield, in their opinion, was a post-industrial nowhere sort of a place. They gave me some good news though, something to sweeten the bitter pill of rejection. Or so they benightedly thought. They suggested that I write a book about the Peak District instead because "the Peak District has ten million visitors a year," they told me. I felt more than frustrated. My agent Alistair shared my frustration, but being a cautious man, a man much more accustomed than me at playing the long game, I later discovered, he suggested a slightly more nuanced approach. So a revised version of the proposal was sent off: Sheffield and the Northern Peaks was its title.

Sheffield City Hall

What in fact I was saying in response was that I was prepared to include the Peak District in the book, but only somewhat. Sheffield had to continue to be the principal focus of attention. And swathes of Greater Sheffield are in the Peak District anyway. Then something very surprising happened. A week or so after I had sent in my revised proposal with a rather heavy heart, the head of Emons in Cologne made a dramatic and decisive intervention into the debate. He said that if in my opinion Sheffield deserved to have its own book, and if Sheffield, in the opinion of those down in London, is a bit of an underdog, let's do it anyway. Maybe it will be a surprise success. Maybe Michael Glover has something surprising and delightful to teach us.

So how did I tackle the writing of a book that so many people had never quite expected would be written? A bit of autobiography first. I grew up in a small terraced house in Fir Vale, one of the city's poorer Northern districts (it is even poorer now), then blighted by pollution – soot from the steel works fell like black snow on my mother's washing in our back yard when I was a child - and I did my schooling there, first at Firs Hill primary school and then at Firth Park Grammar School. I left Sheffield full-time when I went to Cambridge University at the age of 19, and I have lived in London since 1972 because I got a job there as an editor almost as soon as I left university, which is exactly what I had hoped to do. I have been a full-time writer, living in London ever since.

So I was of Sheffield, but I was by no means living there any more. But I have always been a very frequent visitor. My mother lived in Sheffield all her life, in the suburb of Totley for the last thirty years of it, until she died in 2009. My three nephews live there – one of them is this book's photographer, Richard Anderson. My sister has always lived nearby. So I was both intimate with Sheffield, but I also had the benefit, I now appreciate, of distance. I knew the city from growing up there. But I could also, as I re-examined it in depth, see it afresh, discover a slightly different place. How to start then?

I began by drawing up a list of possibles entries, which probably included many of the places I had loved since I was a child. The places chosen had to be unusual – not all of them by any means, but I did see it as part of my job to choose things that even native Sheffielders might not know about.

The first few came easy: George Fullard's marvellous figure of the walking man outside the Winter Garden which seemed to epitomise perfectly the dogged walk of the Sheffielder, the old green Police Box tucked in beside the Town Hall (remnant of a simpler age), a wonderful fish and chip shop called Two Steps on Sharrowvale Road... There had to be such a range. I knew that there were various people and themes and districts that I wanted to include: Stanley Cook, Sheffield's finest poet, the great soul singer Joe Cocker (who worked as a gas fitter in the city), the Miners' Strike of 1984, Kelham Island, an old industrial area re-born...All these things were washing around inside my head. Some of them washed around for months.

George Fullard's Walking Man

As I returned for regular visits of several days at a time, over a period of months, my research consisted of three things: looking with my own eyes, reading everything I could find written then and now, new books and old, and talking to everybody that I met about what they thought ought to be in this book, as wide a cross section of people as possible. I needed as many suggestions from as many people as possible, from friends and relations to casual acquaintances – perhaps you will not be surprised to learn that some of the most interesting tips came about as a result of a chance meeting. A lovely girl waiting for her girl friend on a bench spent a long time talking to me about the Spider Bridge, a tiny suspension bridge along the Five Weirs Walk, just off the Wicker in the city centre.

Leads led to other leads. Let me tell you my Gripple story. One day I had coffee with John Hamshere, a marvelously knowledgeable industrial historian who until recently ran the Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust, which includes the Kelham Island Museum. I met him at Tamper Seller's Wheel, a very special kiwi coffee bar and eating house on Arundel Street – I got into the habit of meeting people for a coffee directly off the train from London. We talked over most of the contents of the Kelham Island Museum – the Sheffield Year Knife with its 2,000 blades (a crowning achievement of Sheffield as the great centre of cutlery making from the 14th century onwards), the Don Valley Engine (the largest working steam engine in the country) and its brand new boiler, their vintage made-in-Sheffield Simplex luxury car, that marvellous, doomed rival from the 1920s to the Rolls Royce, one of only three examples of its kind in the world. I think that one third of the book could have been filled with things from that museum.

Tamper Seller's Wheel

We then got onto the subject of innovation, what Sheffield was doing now, how industries – the steel industry, for example - had adapted to new technologies, computerisation. I mentioned the Spider Bridge, and John said: the Gripple, that's a wonderful Sheffield invention, and it's in use on that little bridge, I reckon. Do you know about it? I didn't, so he told me. It's a device used to join and give tension to wire. The more tension, the tighter it gets. It's in use on cattle ranches in Australia. Blow me down, I thought to myself, Sheffield gets everywhere.

So one day I went down to look at the Spider Bridge with my friend Mick Hawker, a big trade union man who used to work in Stocksbridge Steel Works, to look for evidence of Gripples in action. We stared up at the bridge inside its tunnel, trying to see quite how it hung suspended. I rang up the local headquarters of the company too, just to confirm that Gripples had been used on that bridge. Unfortunately, that's where the story ends because Gripple, oh dear, didn't know whether Gripples had been used on the Spider Bridge. They sold stuff wholesale, they said, and they often didn't have a clue where it ended up. And I didn't want some smart Alec telling me that I was wrong, did I? "That's not a Gripple, that's a common or garden knot in a bit of wire, you soft 'aporth!" I could just hear someone saying to me. People do like to find mistakes. It gives them a reason for being. It makes them think that they are better than the author. So in spite of the fact that both that marvellous Spiders Bridge and the Gripple are mentioned in the book, they are not mentioned in the same breath because I couldn't marry the two of them together, alas.

Kelham Island on the River Don

So, I was searching for ideas from here, there and everywhere. It was a big job, and it took me to some places of which I had never been aware. There were huge pitfalls. I was aware of that. This is a book, and not a website. It can't be corrected, and updated, with the strokes of a few keys on a keyboard. So if, for example, I decided to single out for especial attention a pub or a restaurant – and there are several in the book – you see, I wanted to draw the attention of the wider world to the fact that Sheffield brews so much fine craft beer, much of which never travels outside this region, so you really have to go there to sample it - I had to be as sure as damn it that the pub in which this beer was said to be on sale would survive until the book was published.

Pubs and restaurants can be precarious businesses, as you know. So we didn't have the flexibility to change things at the very last minute in the way that a marvellous website has. On the other hand you can't give a website as a heart-warming present for Christmas. So that made me feel a bit better about this book being a book.

There were great frustrations too. I knew all about the so called Megatron - a great feat of subterranean Victorian engineering directly beneath Pond Street Bus Interchange, a network of soaring, cavernous, brick tunnels created to manage the coming together of three rivers - and I had agonised over the possibility of including it in the book. But as for climbing down to reach it, legitimately, and being able to advise visitors from Oslo too, to take the plunge... It was an impossibility – except for dare-devils – and good luck to them. And then there were the foundations of Sheffield Castle, which was demolished at the end of the Civil War, in the late 1640s, because the man in charge of the castle was a royalist. The re-development of the market site meant that the foundations – for the near future at least – were completely inaccessible. I would also look longingly over at the old Court House in Waingate, watching it deteriorate, watching the price rise as it crumbled – and still crumbles, which is, of course, a complete disgrace..

Marmaduke's Cafe Deli

As the months went by, I became ever more enthusiastic about the need to make a success of the book, to give something back, if you like, to the city of my birth and nurturing, to present Sheffield to a world audience which would almost certainly be pretty ignorant of what this city has to offer, and I managed to pull many generous local souls into the book's orbit, cause them to feel that it was just as much their concern as mine. That's generosity for you. But Sheffield people are extraordinarily generous – I knew that already. I learnt it all over again, in spades. So things linked up with other things. Ideas germinated in the dark.

The fact that I knew north Sheffield so well as a child and a growing man meant, of course, that I felt a particular allegiance to that part of the city, a wish that it should not be forgotten. And all the more so because it is so unfashionable. That is one of the things these books try to do – to lure people to places which are unlikely destinations for visitors. You could say that the West of Sheffield is relatively easy by comparison because it has so much natural beauty and a fair bit of prosperity, and all that attends upon prosperity - nice bars and restaurants, for example. But what about Wincobank Hill? How many people knew what a fascinating place that was – and, what is more, knew quite how dramatically it had changed for the better since I walked its slopes as a boy? So when I came to write about Wincobank Hill – and I wrote about the hill itself, Upper Wincobank Chapel which had been built in the grounds of the long since demolished Wincobank Hall, once home to that great anti-slavery campaigner, Mary Anne Rawson, and when I came to settle on a way of writing about Sheffield and cycling, I wrote about the extraordinary ordinariness of Jenkin Road too, which runs up the flank of Wincobank Hill, and was the steepest hill climb in the entire 2014 Tour de France.

Wincobank Hill

The book had to take in a huge range of things – from pubs to beauty spots, from monuments to restaurants, from buildings to shops and museums. I felt that it also had to take in, perhaps indirectly, the history of dissent, the history of defying the status quo. This was one of the most difficult tasks facing me - and yet it had to be done, it had to be a part of the way in which I was going to characterise the city.

It took me months before I could come up with some kind of a solution to the problem of the Miners' Strike of 1984, for example. It first came up in conversation when I discussed my preliminary ideas for the book with Wendy Ulyett of Marketing Sheffield, whose job it is to sell Sheffield to the world. I mentioned the NUM Headquarters building behind the City Hall, unoccupied, never occupied by the miners. That wouldn't work, we both recognised. The book had to be quirky alright - but an empty building with no trace of any occupation by the people with whom you are striving to identify it – even as it is being transformed into something completely different, and that transformation happening during the year I was writing this book? A dud idea then.

Dud ideas, many of them, came and went, many of them mine. But the Miners Strike never went away as a preoccupation. I felt it was important to register this momentous happening in the book. And I felt that all the more keenly, as it dawned on me that there really was almost nothing to be seen, anywhere, and that this was probably no accident. After all, who had won? Margaret Thatcher had won. The future always belongs to the victor, alas. So the rankling sense of injustice continues into this day.

But what could I do? One day, my friend and I drove over to Orgreave – where the pitched battles between police and striking miners had been waged - to look for some sense of place. It was a dull, dispiriting, rain-spitty morning. All we seemed to be able to find was a main road on the way to somewhere else. There was a sign beside the road – Orgreave, it said. We turned left and threaded our way, slowly, through a housing estate. We found a few surviving street signs – Coal Pit Lane, for example. But almost everything else had gone. There was so little to look at on that main road. We asked at a petrol station – there was one of those – whether they could show us where the Battle of Orgreave had taken place. This fellow looked back at me as if I had a screw loose. He didn't have a clue what I was talking about.

Percy Riley Plaque, Hero of the 1984 Coal Miners' Strike

Then we spotted a lady out shopping, of the right sort of age to have such memories. "Oh ay," she said, when we asked where the battle had taken place, "It's ovveer there, ovver the Silver Bridge, that's where it happened." The Silver Bridge? Was this a sci-fi film in which I was starring? And yet there was a new bridge which could roughly answer to that description just beyond the brow of the hill, and, just beyond that, a huge roundabout, and just beyond that, a giant estate was coming into being whose purpose, it seemed to me, was to obliterate everything that anyone had ever remembered of the past. It was called the Waverley Estate. How bizarre! What did this particular corner of South Yorkshire have to do with the novels of Sir Walter Scott? Nothing. It was the same message, I felt: don't think about them miners. Let's pretend they never existed at all.

And then, one day, at the top of Fargate in the city centre, the plaque in memory of Percy Riley was pointed out to me, the man, South Yorkshire's first communist councillor, who collected money, day in, day out, throughout the strike, for miners and their families. He died soon after the strike ended. His health had always been fragile. When I saw it, I recognised immediately that, modest though it was, this was to be the location.

Some of the smaller museums were great discoveries for me too: the Turner Museum of Glass, which is situated on an upper floor in the Earth Sciences Building of Sheffield University just off West Street, and the Museum of Zoology in the Alfred Denny Building, run by the marvellously enthusiastic and indefatigable Tim Birkhead. Both of them are free to enter.

At the Turner Museum of Glass, I listened enthralled to the story of Helen, the wife of Professor Turner, whose personal collection of studio glass the museum contains, and as I did so, I found myself staring with a mixture of curiosity and bemusement into a recessed cabinet containing a wedding dress, shoes, hand bag and a hat. Why were these objects so extraordinary? And why were they in this museum of glass anyway? What had a wedding to do with a museum of glass?

Wedding dress made of glass threads, Turner Museum of Glass

What I listened to was no less than the story of Cinderella in Sheffield. Helen, Professor Turner's wife to be, wanted to get married in her favourite material (and the couple's professional passion), glass, and everything in that cabinet, and everything she wore or carried on her arm on that happy wedding day of hers in the 1930s, had been made from blue spun glass. You can imagine what injuries her feet suffered. Wearing glass shoes on one's wedding day is no easy matter. And there they all are, looking rather ghoulish, in a locked, recessed cabinet.

Over at the museum of zoology in the Alfred Denny Building, which was once the zoology department's materials store, there are drawers containing birds' skulls, tinier than you could ever imagine. When Tim Birkhead, its curator, pulled out a drawer to show them to me on that afternoon, they rattled around a bit – like pinballs in a pinball machine. Where did they all come from though, all these perfectly preserved skulls? I asked him. Who was he, this mysterious benefactor ? Tim didn't really know. All he knew was that one day a man had brought them all in, in a couple of World War One suitcases. They were a marvel though. And they still are. This museum is free too, though you have to book ahead. It's only open on certain saturdays. And it's much in demand – as it should be.

I don't now exactly remember how I got wind of the existence of what is said to be the oldest living thing in South Yorkshire, but I do know that it took an awfully long time to find it, along a track, beside a farm house, beyond another group of old houses, and then back again - nor am I going to tell you exactly where it is, except to say that it's in Bents Green, part way up the arrow-straight Roman Road that leads out to Ringinglow. Why am I being so cagey then? Because it lives in a private garden, and in order to see it, you have to ask the permission of the owners of that garden. You will find David's email address is in the book. He will welcome you there at an agreed day and time, I have no doubts about it. David and his wife have given us permission to include it in the book, and in order to see it, you have to get in touch with them.

Thryft House Yew Tree, the oldest living thing in Yorkshire

They regard themselves as the custodians of this marvellous Yew tree, which is probably at least eight hundred years old, and therefore antedates the Plantagenets. It looks like an ancient, gnarled sculpture, in its steely greyness. One side of it, surely, is irrevocably dead and hollowed out, so dead that it looks like bone. But the other side is flourishing with new life. How can an ancient thing be both dead and alive simultaneously? You'll spend a long time staring at it. It's very reverence-inducing.

This book tries to spring some surprises, and there are few things more delightfully surprising than the Norman motte-and-bailey fort at High Bradfield, one of Sheffield's most stunning villages. One of the wonders of Sheffield – and I do emphasise this in the foreword to the book – is the way that the city is engulfed by spectacular countryside, and of how, like some miracle, you can walk from Hunter's Bar in the centre of the city through a linked series of linear parks until you emerge at Forge Dam, and then on into open countryside.

On this day, we parked outside the Old Horns Inn – I do recommend its back garden as a place to sit in and nurse a pint – there's even a bouncy castle in that garden, just to the left, for the young at heart of all ages. The sweeping panorama of the Loxley Valley from that garden takes some beating. Anyway, we finished our drinks, re-traced our steps, and pressed on through the church yard, past the marvellously gargoyled and crocketed church of St Nicholas.

Walk through the church yard, admiring the quality of the Victorian funerary monuments – how those prosperous Victorians loved to say farewell to the world with a flourish! - and then pass out through a gate at the other end, and throw a little right up hill. You will have had a few conversations with sheep on the way, I don't doubt.

Scaling the Norman Fort

Now comes the surprise. Not far up that hill, the ground begins to fall away again, and you see in front of you an extraordinary, man-made mound, probably Norman. It would have been surrounded by a stockaded moat once. The steepness is what takes your breath away. It took a long time for my photographer to bring over visually the shock and the delight that the human eye experiences when it confronts that uprearing mound, which is almost wholly hidden away until you are almost upon it. It's one of Sheffield's greatest and most unexpected natural-cum-man-made delights. A bit of both. As I say, the challenge, when photographing it, is to bring over the way it rises so steeply, so suddenly. Trees cling to its slopes for dear life. There's a track up the side if you have good, grippy boots. The difficulty, once up, is to get down again.

And as you leave High Bradfield, if you take the road which climbs uphill, you may spot some of those road markings from the 2014 Tour de France – vroom, vroom Froome! What a place.

How a city is presented to the world creates an appetite to visit it. All cities are defined by their eye-catching civic triumphs – from the Rue de Rivoli to the Empire State Building. All cities choose to ignore evidence of decrepitude, dullness, poor roads and dirt. The problem with Sheffield is that no one – until now – has put on display its wonderful virtues, from the nature of its landscape to the nature of its people, from the strength of its craft beers to the raw energy of its music. In the past it has been defined, at best, as gritty, northern and monochromatic. This book brings full colour, quirky angles of view, and high production values to the city for the very first time. It is indeed a place ripe for the world's discovery.

~ Michael Glover, Author, 111 Places in Sheffield That You Shouldn't Miss

Find this guidebook and the entire 111 Places collection at your favorite local book shop and online store.

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