It is now three Years since Timewalk project started. It started in response to things that people said to me and my friends. Seemed a very simple thing to do. Just map out the old buildings, put a little information with them about the places history and a link to the relevant heritage/history organisation. There is around 1’200 listed structures within the borders of Sheffield, and around 120 community heritage groups and about 12 museums. Some groups have several hundred members and have been working hard for decades, and some are fading due to the old age of their members, while others are growing fast pushed by youthful enthusiasm, and others are taking small nervous steps to create the first history group in the area. Museums range from the great Weston Park to the tiny Garden Tools Museum in Meersbrook Walled garden. Some people may be scornful of the small private museums but every museum in the country started with a small collection. Just because they are tiny doesn’t mean they are unimportant.
We started the mapping and certain issues arose. No point in mapping out buildings if we didn’t know whether there was anything to see, and how easy it was to see. Then when you looked at the listing it doesn’t actually tell you much. It says about the buildings age and architectural features that need to be protected but nothing of the history of the building such as who built it and why, and who lived or worked there, or even who owns it now. So it meant getting out there and looking, photographing and looking up the places history. Seems simple idea but it set up a whole lot of other problems and issues.
I have mobility problems and a limited knowledge of IT. It became obvious that there had to be a way of also showing how accessible a place is. Also a map on its own wasn’t enough. We needed an online presence where we could put more information. I set up our first community Facebook page to call for volunteers to take photos and give me information on their area. Through there met some amazing people and some great photographers and it also meant I could link to a lot of heritage groups in a much simpler way than searching all their websites for event information. Also realised that there was no heritage events site. Many heritage groups weren’t online much, were scared of social media and only advertised fairly locally by leafleting so consequentially even in their own neighbourhood events were poorly attended simply because no one knew they were happening. So I started listing events on a Google calendar My version is clumsy but it works. Someday I hope for an IT expert to come and upgrade it all for us.
Very few of our problems have been completely solved. All I can say is that we now have a collection of access maps, several hundred places mapped and researched, listings of around 2’000 events a year and access to several thousand people online. We’ve watched the explosion of Heritage organisations and events over last three years which shows there is both an enthusiasm there and potential to build upon that. The Fire and Police Station Museum now the National Emergency Services Museum has gone from 3’000 visitors a year to over 40’000, the Cathedral has developed its Heritage side into a great schools programme but also some mega public events, Manor Lodge has restored several farm buildings and developed its WW2 section, as well as running better and bigger historical events.
With the rise of Austerity policies and cutting of funding from many sources is the preservation of old buildings merely a luxury we can’t afford? Why should we preserve old buildings? Can we afford the upkeep and cost or restoration work? We need houses, investment. Isn’t keeping hanging on to old buildings a purely sentimental attitude standing in the way of progress? No, for several reasons.
- Community identity.
At first glance this looks like sentimentality. However many who find the heritage buildings in their neighbourhood important were not born in Sheffield, so it’s not merely the family memories of a place. It is what gives an area its unique identity. It’s how you describe your area to an outsider and often it is where your community meets. Sheffield is fortunate that there are few areas that do not have historic distinctive buildings. There is heritage round almost every corner.
- Economics of Uniqueness
Sheffield shares many attributes with other cities but it is what is different about Sheffield that has to be considered. If 2 similar cities are considered by incoming investors what is it that makes the investors decide which city to pick. Sheffield has many assets and it is impossible to look at Sheffield without considering how Sheffield came into being and how it is now without looking at the wealth of historic parks, scheduled monuments, listed buildings and historic traditions within the city. From the Peak National Park to the medieval farmland that became Meersbrook Park, from ancient British Hillforts to the Art Deco Central Library the history is evident to all. Much of what shaped the Nation started in Sheffield whether it was political, religious, or manufacturing. In world terms Sheffield is a small city but in terms of how it influenced and is still influencing the world it is vast. Where would the world be without stainless steel? Sheffield’s tools built the houses, cleared the land, and developed the technology to develop much of the world. It was this push to design adapt and innovate within Sheffield that built the Technical College, the Mechanics Institute and the Art College that in turn developed into Sheffield and Hallam University with a strong emphasis on engineering , science and design.
- Good for the Environment.
When Jessop wing was demolished to make way for the shiny box which is the engineering block, vanity got in the way of both environmental and community heritage. The argument that knocking down a 100 year old building because a new one would be more efficient and greener doesn’t match the facts. Older buildings are greener. The materials used to build them have been made years sometimes centuries ago. It is estimated that for a new building to even break even by being energy efficient will take between 40 and 60 years to match the cost of demolition and rebuild. A third of non degradable landfill is from demolished buildings. But aren’t old buildings cold draughty and use more energy to keep warm? They don’t have to be. New technology and better insulation can make old buildings more energy efficient.
Tourism is not something that Sheffield really considers from a Heritage point of view. Sheffield is the city of the Outdoors or Festivals such as Tramlines or DocFest. A lot of people enjoy these festivals and DocFest brings in people from all over the world, but people coming to visit the Industrial Archaeology or the ancient Hillforts or the magnificent Cutlers Hall? A few perhaps but compared to even smaller cities than Sheffield, the city fares badly. Looking at Sheffield there are some great assets but being realistic there needs more development in that area. We have the 2 oldest Football clubs in the world, the works where stainless steel cutlery was invented, the battlefield of one of the greatest Saxon battles, the hunting lodge of the prestigious Talbot family, the Tudor farmhouse of the Chaplin to Henry V11, and countless other historic places and buildings. However there is no Tourism budget and funding is lacking for organisations to develop the tourism potential of the area.
Research has proved that old buildings far from holding back innovation, are where in general startup and creative industries blossom. They supply cheap rented space to experiment and start new businesses. Many businesses like the feeling of continuity an old building gives their business. Throughout Sheffield old buildings are taken over by incoming businesses , new businesses and expanding old businesses. A look at the area round Devonshire Street and also Abbeydale road will show new retailing is evolving in these areas and the stimulus is the historic character of the area and the availability of a wide variety of suitable buildings. Likewise in the Shalesmoor and Neepsend area new and innovative manufacturing businesses are developing. And there are the older existing businesses, some which stretch back 300 years. If we tore out these older buildings we could be in danger of tearing out our economic heart
That is the quality of an area that makes people want to live and work in the area. In Sheffield there is a higher percentage of graduates who stay after their studies are over than other University towns. A quick sample of historic buildings found that around 50% of new businesses started in old buildings were started by University graduates. In Manchester the city centre changed by redevelopment of old industrial buildings for the middle to higher priced apartments. Older buildings do not require the same amount of money to convert as it costs to build new. They also create an area with a distinctive character.
The problem that we have in Sheffield besides underfunding is the lack of data, and with that no strategic planning in relation to our historic areas in the city. We do not know what the economic impact of restoring buildings is compared with redeveloping the area. We do not know how many businesses rely on our old buildings. We have no assessment of an area’s viability or how our old buildings , parks waterways and woodlands relate to either our mental well being, the commercial viability or the environmental impact and yet the Government wants us to say where new housing should go. The present austerity measures and planning laws are creating problems in funding our parks, museums and heritage buildings and pushing the planning authorities to make quick decisions without any knowledge of what a decision may do to future regeneration plans or to the community that lives and works within the city.
So 2015 has been a year of looking at the research from elsewhere on these matters and of talking to experts and concerned people. I have written articles, did a radio interview and even given a speech. Timewalk has worked together with a consortium of heritage groups and as a consequence in April we will have a Heritage conference, and later Timewalk is working with Hillborough Fest a new exciting cultural festival. Timewalk’s aim is to continue promoting Sheffield’s heritage but to work together to setting out a plan with as many organisations as possible to put forward Sheffield’s view of how Sheffield’s heritage should progress.