Sheffield. A place so open they have no ticket barriers at the station. Instead you are greeted by multi level, reflective fountains and a poem on a tower block.I’m gonna like this place I thought.
Then I found the Peace Garden. A public space in front of the Victorian splendour of the town hall, re-dedicated, by public vote, as a place of peace, with survivors of Hiroshima. Not a memorial to the fallen heroes of war, but a dedication to those who fell in the pursuit of peace, including in Spain against fascism. This place wears its social conscience and its heart firmly on its sleeve. I’m gonna really like this place I thought.
The Crucible. A place I’ve only ever known as where the hushed reverence of snooker could take place. I heard my Mum’s voice whisper in my ear ‘plop’ as the ball went in the pocket. The Winter Garden. A beautiful, modern place. An indoor public space you can sit in on a cold day. For free.The Millennium Gallery. Another modern building, flooded with light, housing historic collections of Sheffield’s proud industrial heritage. I’ve learnt a lot about the history and craft of metal. The Ruskin Collection moved me. The painting of St Mark’s Basilica evoking the emotions of standing in St Mark’s square all those years ago. The public library in a beautiful Deco building that also houses an art gallery. And a theatre. This is the working class culture of my childhood. Of aspirations for society, not individuals. Of the arts and their place to be of shelter and sanctuary and to raise us all up. Sheffield I bloody love you I thought by this point.
Then I traipsed up to Park Hill via the Steel steps. There’s a lot of steps in Sheffield. The view from the top worth the climb. Park Hill is now the largest listed building in Britain. It was home to thousands. Currently derelict this massive, brutalist monument to a different age is in the process of being reborn as new housing. But for now it sits, quietly, guarding the City from above. I wandered about its winding towers regretting not having my camera (or a ladder) astonished by its scale. Not just physically, but emotionally. This was public housing built in the new era in the new style to house the people. It was unashamededly modern. It was a powerful statement. It was brave. It was bold. It must have been magnificent. It may have gone wrong, spectacularly so, but the intent was admirable. There was a nursery, a pub, a health centre, bus routes all included. It was a village, a community, a place for looking to the future.
I was alone there, no sounds other than the wind. It didn’t feel eerie. Or frightening. Or even sad. Other than the empty, abandoned children’s playground which did catch me slightly unawares. Is there a sadder sight than rusty, broken down play equipment with no-one to play on it? I caught myself listening, in the wind, in the rustles of the leaves, for laughter, for children and found none. If these rusting poles and concrete walls could speak! Oh what stories they would tell. Tales of young love, of hiding in the stair wells for a snog, of children roaming freely, laughing gaily as they played hide and seek. Of neighbours hanging washing side by side, leaning over balconies shouting down come in for your tea you little bleeders.Tales of hope, of longing, of belonging, of community and knowing who’s little git had caused all the trouble. Maybe I am being rose coloured, influenced by a childhood on an estate a little bit like this. Or maybe in the rustling of the trees I really could hear the voices of the past.
As you round the final corner, past the burnt out pub you see the new Park Hill. I bet some good times were had in that pub. Wedding receptions with drunken Aunties. Plenty of fights too, no doubt. The new Park Hill is colourful and bright with shining chrome stairwells. And a new nursery, with play equipment and children’s laughter once again ringing out across the courtyard. I’m not ashamed to say that it made me cry. There was the Sheffield phoenix, rising up on that hill, to be a lived in place for the people once again.
I’m an outsider, I know potted piece’s of the history of this place. But I liked it. I liked its boldness. I liked its bravery. I liked its scale. I liked its ideals and its ambitions. It was a place about people and that shone through the dirt and grime of neglect and decay.
I hope to return, with camera, to document what I saw. To meet people who lived there and hear their stories. To see it once again filled with life.
Sheffield stole a little piece of my heart before Richard Hawley even sang a note.
He was the reason I was here. For the 3 Ring Circus, part of Sensoria arts festival. A bringing together of him, John Grant and Bill Ryder-Jones. Each playing an opening, a middle and a finale across 3 venues with the audiences remaining static and the artists dashing about in taxi’s. I’d chosen the University Drama Studio (housed in a former church) for its intimacy and acoustics.
I arrived early to secure my front row spot and made new friends, who had all also travelled from afar – London, Liverpool and Bristol.
We had Hawley first. Oh that voice. Sublime. Its rich, its warm, its lived in, its romantic, its real. Being quite so close to him felt almost too much. Ashes on the Fire, Standing at the Skies Edge, For Your Lover Give Some Time, As the Dawn Breaks and others were just perfection. It was like being in a wonderful dream. Being so close I could appreciate the virtuoso guitar playing he’s known for (that Gretsch) and watching him get lost in the music himself with his eyes closed made for a spine tingling experience.
Next was John Grant. Another great voice, once described brilliantly as a safe pair of hands. He was indeed that. A big man, with an even bigger heart, wonderful lyricist and superb musician he commanded the space without dominating it. I adore him. Having seen him be quite so brilliant at 6 Music Festival in February I wasn’t sure how this would work. But his genius made it just as special in a different way. I could see, as well as feel, the emotion he put into each song and I couldn’t not react. Fire Flies had me weeping.
Bill Ryder Jones. I’m not sure what I can say about the only act I hadn’t heard of. I’d deliberately not listened to his stuff so that I could be surprised, one of the absolute joys of live music for me is discovering new music. Nothing could have prepared me for the entertainment that followed. A jelly snake may have been involved. And a lot of gags. And a stunning Welsh language cover of a Super Furries track. And a beautiful, fragile voice.
It was a memorable gig for all the right reasons and my only complaint was it didn’t last longer. I’d have sat there from 4pm for 3 full sets! The road crews deserve a lot of credit for packing up and down all the gear so speedily between the artists.
I knew the gig would be special. What I hadn’t counted on was Sheffield being so as well. So thank you Richard Hawley for your magnificent, beautiful music and for being the coduit for all the rest.
Thank you Sheffield for being so warm and open and welcoming a soft Southerner to your splendid City. I’ll be back someday.
Photos taken on my phone of Park Hill can be found here