Today history was made. To some it would seem merely a conference on Heritage but to others like me this was a significant day. Our theme was Making History for a Successful City. Cohesion and Community Pride.
Today was both inspirational and daunting. Seems that the keynote speakers were quite blown away with the huge numbers at the conference. I was thinking not that many, considering how many I know there could have been there. I suppose after years of being told people weren’t interested in Sheffield’s culture part of me believes it. But the truth is that Sheffield have been always interested in their culture but they haven’t shouted as one voice before about it. Now they have.
The people and organisations were wonderfully diverse. From a couple from Rivelin Valley desperate to find ways of preserving their local heritage to National Trust North. All have their own view of what Heritage is, and everybody’s view equally valid. There are many different views but not at odds with each other. Despite their particular interests whether it be brutalist architecture or digging an Ironage site, or running a business, they are all in agreement Sheffield Heritage matters.
There was in amongst this massive Heritage army a dissenting voice, not from a Heritage organisation, saying “the pot of cash is smaller now. You will all have to fight for it.” As if we were roaming packs of historians tearing each other apart for HLF funding. No one in any case was there to talk about money. They know about money and no one involved in heritage expects instant pots of money. Some of the most successful organisations have taken between 10 and 20 years to get to this point. You need an incredible thick skin and dogged determination to be involved in preserving local heritage.
That doesn’t mean we couldn’t do with money but in Sheffield the pot has always been small and we have learnt to use what we have with great care. Sheffield has the most volunteers of any city. Our heritage economy is kept going by the blood sweat and tears of the volunteers. Travel round during Heritage Open Day and talk with the people and their stories are of hard work and struggle, and often against the local authority. Our city has many great historic buildings that were planned for demolition and now lauded as a part of what is good about Sheffield. It is true they are monuments to what is good about Sheffield but it wasn’t done with a ready pot of cash and pretty often despite the local Council.
So why Now? Why were we all together? Because our heritage is under threat and has been for some time. It is not the lack of money that worries us. We are used to that. It is that in the race to encourage investors and build more housing we are worried that the very things that are part of what brings and could bring more investment to the city are the most likely to be lost. No good 5 years after you have torn out the historic area of a city coming to the conclusion that you should have kept it. No good building huge housing estates without a distinctive neighbourhood that gladdens your heart as you approach your home after some time away. We all need a sense of collective identity. That is what heritage gives us whether it is a Carnegie library, an iron age hillfort or the local pub.
If you have ever been in the habit of using a budget hotel you know there is the initial confusion, when you wake up as to where you are, as the hotels are all fitted out the same. It is only when you get up and look out the window that you know where you are. The landscape gives you your bearings. Ask directions to somewhere and it will not just be turn right and turn left. They will point out historic buildings and features in the landscape. Likewise our heritage gives us a sense of place and to incoming people a connectivity.
Sheffield is branded as the Outdoor City as if that was all there is on offer. It is a great green city with ancient woodlands and amazing public parks and part of the National Park is within Sheffield’s city boundaries. But people that like the great outdoors can go to Derbyshire and get much of that without ever crossing the city’s boundaries. There’s the Sport from Football to athletics, from cycling to climbing. Sport is a big part of the city’s economy and Sheffield is the birthplace of Soccer, ice skating, Yorkshire Cricket and so much more. You can’t talk about anything in Sheffield without ending up talking about the history behind everything.
Our nightclubs and pubs and high class eating establishments are in heritage buildings. Our theatres, all nine of them are all in listed buildings. Many of our hotels are. Our heritage is not disengaged from our day to day life, not our work or our leisure.
The dissident voice speaks of great shopping centre bringing in new retailers and having to sell the city to make them come, so that we do not lose the richer shoppers to another city but won’t we lose the shoppers we have who will find the city centre no longer theirs? And will we be able to bring in the shoppers from that other city when our centre is just a clone of all the other cities. Shouldn’t we be marketing what is distinct and unique about our city instead of hiding our identity under a glossy new shopping centre as if we are ashamed of who we are, and the history of our city that has both formed and still influences our day to day lives?
Is that important? Research would say so but even more convincing is the 100 plus at the conference spending their Saturday in a University lecture theatre, and seminar rooms. Can we change things? Can we bring together all aspects of Sheffield and market it as the Sheffield experience? The pubs, clubs, theatres, music venues and the creative industries, the manufacturing, the high tech and the low tech, the Universities, the parks, the woodlands, the waterways, the ethnic diversity, the radical history, the farms, the innovators, the buildings from medieval to brutalist, the ancient hillforts and Saxon crosses. Why not?