When I started Timewalk project I said I would give it 5 years and that 5 years is up now, so time to take stock. I have enjoyed myself and sometimes ended up way beyond my comfort zone giving interviews and talks and writing reports. There are a lot of amazing people out there, but I knew that when I started as that was my main aim was to champion them. There has been some great achievements and some great things in the pipeline but are the powers that be really aware of the great unique heritage that is round every corner in this city?
I started looking at ways of promoting heritage after reading a letter sent by the Arts Council that stated Sheffield wasn’t interested in Heritage or Culture. I couldn’t understand how they reached that conclusion, but looking at the Council’s website gave me a clue, as well as looking at Google maps. According to Google Cannon Hall was in Meersbrook Park, and Bishops House not even in the park and somewhere along the road. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the Council website listed Bishops House as being in Derbyshire. Of the Top 10 places to visit on the Council website 3 were not in Sheffield. The information suggested too that the Peak District National Park started outside Sheffield Boundaries not that part was actually within city boundaries. Manor Lodge despite its brand new Discovery Centre and craft workshops was not even mentioned.
I remember asking a Councillor why the Council didn’t promote places like Manor Lodge and was told they were short of money. I asked how much money it took to add an entry to their website. I didn’t get an answer so maybe that is why the Arts Council felt Sheffield wasn’t interested in Heritage.
Advertising for Heritage events was poor partly due to the fact that many organisations didn’t have an online presence, or if they did it was frequently a website that someone forgot to update. The list of organisations was also problematic as some that were still listed had closed and others had formed but weren’t listed. The only way to get any idea was to go to the Central Library and pick up leaflets and then either scan them in or write out an add. As I found more leaflets it got really time consuming as so much had to be typed in to a calendar of events. It was a great relief when more groups started on Facebook and on Twitter. As I could just click and forward to my page or retweet.
When I started not only did people not know of events in the city centre, they didn’t know of events in their neighbourhood. As we started mapping old buildings across Sheffield and researching them it became obvious that Sheffield history books miss out a lot, and are downright wrong in some places. Even some of the listed buildings are dated wrongly and often older than Historic England says they are. Many pubs that are listed as Victorian are Georgian. Many important historical buildings have gone because there was not enough research into their importance or consideration for the historic character of an area.
The Grand Depart in 2014 was a game changer for Sheffield’s heritage in a variety of ways. The Yorkshire Festival which led up to Le Tour meant many organisations got funding and advertising. Organisations such as Friends of Porter Valley, Friends of Wincobank , Sheffield Cathedral and Museums Sheffield. But what also occurred to everybody was the lost opportunities to market Sheffield to the world that could have happened if Sheffield had been more coordinated. A chance meeting with a Council officer from marketing led to an offer of a meeting room where several heritage groups could get together. This was the birth of Joined up Heritage, which is now a Consortium .
The Council has a Welcome to Sheffield site which lists some of the Heritage sites and events. It also recently began to list some Heritage venues suitable for conferences. There is more to be done but things have really moved on in 5 years though sometimes when you think of the distance still to go it’s easy to forget the triumphs.
We have the beautiful restored Samuel Worth Chapel at the general cemetery, Grenoside Reading Room, significant Roman archaeology at Whirlow Farm, the buying and restoration of Zion cemetery, the restoration of the Wheel at Abbeydale plus new visitors centre, the opening of the WW2 farm at Manor Lodge, Lyceum Theatre upgraded, both Cathedrals, the Fire and Police station now a National Museum with hugely expanded visitor numbers, and the amazing Wadsend Cemetery which from unknown is on every Councillor’s lips. Events that used to have a couple of people and a dog now have to ticket events because otherwise they are over capacity.
Heritage Open Day, that previously had one entry if we were lucky, has turned into the biggest HOD event in the country. It has brought together businesses grassroots heritage the Civic Society and the Universities in one great collaborative expression of our heritage. It has also had an impact outside Sheffield in that not only does it bring in visitors it has inspired other places to organise their own HOD. Sheffield’s heritage is very definitely back on the map.
However some of the same problems remain. Arts and Lottery funding is lower for Sheffield than elsewhere. Developers are still being allowed to encroach on Conservation areas with disastrous results. Some ancient buildings have been lost, an old farm cottage in Tinsley, an old barn in Walkley, the old dairy farmyard and cow stalls at Norton, Loxley Chapel, Travellers at Wadsley Bridge, to name but a few. Many more are planned to be cleared, facaded or totally eclipsed by the plans for retailing in the City Centre, even though Major retailers are failing every week or abandoning their presence in the high street. Community assets are being sold by the Council and others are being left to rot by absentee owners from outside the city.
There has to be a plan drawn up to protect and conserve and utilise our unique heritage, and an understanding by Sheffield Council and businesses why it is important to the economic and community health of the city. It isn’t about a group of elderly men grumbling in the corner about how things used to be, or turning every old building into a museum. It’s about a pride in our history and the way our city developed. It’s about walking round the corner and seeing an unusual building and having a great coffee there. It’s about a tourist or a worker feeling what’s special about the city and being literally in touch with the past. No tourist wants to visit a brand new skyscraper that blots out the view of what’s unique, or go shopping in shops that only have the facade left. They want to feel what it was like to be a shopper there in the past. Give them a bland shiny interior and it is just the same as they get at home in a thousand other cities.
There has to be a plan on how we present our history to locals and tourists alike, but no point having a plan, if an important landmark that tells so much of the story is demolished to make way for empty office blocks or empty student flats. No point in saying that is where it used to be, before they put a shop on it and then knocked that down, and now there is an empty building that no one uses or particularly likes. Let’s think about what the place will look like after it’s gone and realistically whether losing it will help or hinder how we market our city. Let’s not replace that which has lasted for 100s of years with something that will be demolished in 30 after many years of crumbling to bits. Let’s use the old buildings to tell our city’s story past, present and future. It’s a history to be proud of. Not hidden or swept away. Yes it looks messy and has several different styles of architecture and many buildings have changed use several time over but that is how city’s grow and evolve, keeping the useful older buildings, and adding in new to the mix.
So do I stop now and leave it to others and go back to my research in the various archives? It’s very tempting as my life has been very busy over the last few years. I certainly need to change my website as it has developed a contrary life of its own. As for filling out the events calendar with over 2’000 events a year I am finding it hard to keep up. Photographing historic sites is a bit like painting the Forth Road Bridge in fact even worse as before I have got to the end places that I photographed at the beginning need updating. Entries to my blogs are spasmodic and don’t have as many guest posts as I would have liked. Likewise the photos on my Facebook pages now featuring a proto Timewalk Rotherham site. Recent research into the owners of Meersbrook Hall has proved fascinating and I’d like to do more.
But despite my original promise to myself to give it 5 years and walk away there is so much to be done re promoting Sheffield’s heritage and the communities it is important to. Plus I don’t think the Council and the National funders have got the message yet. I think that all the heritage lovers in our city still need to have their voices heard so for now I will continue passing on their messages.
Happy New Year