Intake Manor Park The Wicker Norton Freshville Hackenthorpe Shalesmoor Wombwell Catcliffe Brincliffe Attercliffe Ecclesall Woodhouse Wybourn
There are several towns and cities in the north of England that I have only experienced while waiting to get somewhere else. Lancaster, on the way home from Windermere. Doncaster, on the way to York, not wearing enough clothing for January. Manchester, on a ten-hour coach journey from Glasgow to London on New Year’s Day. Most were experienced while changing trains, and you don’t get much from a train station; they follow the same codes, have the same Costas and Whistlestops, and the only sign that you’ve gone somewhere is the change in accent over the loudspeaker.
A couple of years ago, on the way to a campsite in Edale, I stopped at Sheffield. There was just under an hour’s wait between trains, which I spent in Sheffield Tap, the pub next door, with a pint of cask ale. From the window in the pub I could see Park Hill, the brutalist council housing estate that was listed by English Heritage in 1998 and is now being renovated. On the way back to the station I ran my fingers through the huge cylindrical water fountain in Sheaf Square and then headed to platform 2C and the tiny, two-carriage train to Edale.
I saw a similar Sheffield this weekend: good beer, steep hills, modernisation and dilapidation in equal parts. We walked everywhere, led by my friend Stuart (who lives there). It’s hard to get a handle on the geography of a city as a whole when you follow someone: the map your head makes is linear, and then streets connect unexpectedly. But being a passenger lets you take in the transition between different areas.
Stuart lives in a terraced house on Shoreham Street, approachable only by the back yard, which opens onto a vista of red brick roof tops, chimneys, washing lines and fences. It’s a house where the stairs are a few inches wide and ascend sharply, as if the building is breathing in. Stuart lives in a room that just accommodates a small double bed and wardrobe so the rest of us stayed at the Ibis Budget Hotel, out of town near the Meadowhall shopping centre and next to a giant ice rink. On Saturday morning the pollution was so bad that when we looked out of our fourth floor window the air beyond the ice rink was a bright haze. The road that led back to Sheffield’s city centre was empty of people, host to the large hardware stores found in retail parks and also several ‘adult shops’ with non-adult names like Hanky Panky.
The city centre made me feel the same way that all town centres do: tired and a bit sad, like I’m pushing an invisible buggy on my way to BHS to buy towels. The money that the council had to develop it fell through with the market crash in 2008. In 2013 they started plans to regenerate it again. Currently the city’s buzz is concentrated on the indoor Moor Market, with stalls selling fruit, cheese pies, dog treats, wool, and craft beer.
Moor Market replaced the old Castle Market, Sheffield’s ’cavern of weirdness’. Castle Market was the more interesting and jumbled centre, but fell out of line with the Millennium Square fountains and the tropical Winter Garden, the image of a shining successful town. It was empty when we passed by, and so were the surrounding buildings: a local co-op was closed, pubs were boarded up. Walking along the River Don, just north of Castle Market, it was barely any busier – a man in flip-flops dropped bread down on the ducks below, watched by a couple of people sat outside the Riverside pub.
Kelham Island, the site of the old iron foundry and a power station, and now home to an industrial museum, epitomised a juxtaposition between old and new. The balconies of modern riverside flats faced a large closed factory, its windows either boarded up or smashed. Next to them, The Chimney House was taking advantage of the latest trend for dilapidated chic and would not have been out of place in east London, “a Grade II listed building […] with a respectful nod to its industrial roots but with a realisation for its eclectic present and future.” But perhaps this is the best option for many of Sheffield’s empty buildings, which can’t stay empty forever.
Five minutes walk from Kelham Island are the Fat Cat and Kelham Island Tavern, both serving a huge selection of local ale that included mild and porter. It was here we found people: not in the front of the pubs but in the gardens, circled by walls and drinking beer, with the old chimney looming into view over the top. There was still space for us to sit. Pubs like these are rare in London, where beer gardens are crammed full on a warm spring day. The same goes for the Nichols building, selling antiques over two floors – a Shoreditch equivalent would be ten times as busy and twice as expensive.
In comparisons to London the capital comes out unfavourably. The pubs are one element; in London I get tired of floorboards and flocked wallpaper, and roast dinners for £15, and having a straight choice between Doombar and London Pride. Perhaps it was down to the haze but the sense of time felt different too. A friend noted that it was hard to shake off the ‘London walk’ – the speed at which you weave between hordes of tourists and march down escalators. When I stood still in Sheffield to look up at the layers of chimneys and roofs, no one walked into the back of me.