The living River Don, Sheffield

Heron on the River Don, Sheffield
Heron on the River Don, Sheffield

There was a time, back in the 80’s and much further back than that and nearer today too, that you would not have dipped the tip of a finger into a Sheffield river. The rivers stumbled through the city’s valley’s, those conduits of filth, filled with a chemical soup of toxic substances spewed out by industry, commerce and the less enlightened inhabitants who saw nothing but a receptacle for prams, shopping trolley’s, garden waste and that most ubiquitous of all hinterland treasures, the car tyre. Common amongst the areas anglers was the belief if you cut yourself in the brown scummy water you needed to get to the Northern General Hospital fast and have nurse pump some anti tetanus oil into your veins. Optimists to a man, and they were all men, rejects from the steel mills that were silenced and left to rot on the river banks, they fished not to catch the fish that could never have thrived but to rake back a little control over lives ruined by the money people elsewhere.

As industry left the city’s valleys the silent buildings stopped spewing their orange and brown liquids into the rivers. Derelict buildings don’t attract casual passers by or anglers with time on their hands. Men with no jobs want to sit in nature with at least a hope of catching something, rather than have to scrunch their nose at the scum that drips from the line as they reel in to try another day.  So the riverbanks fell silent, only frequented by those bent on dumping bin liners of rubbish and anything else that was cluttering the view across the patio.

The money people had abandoned the rivers like the steel mills, how can you make money from space where no one wants to go? The politicians turned away from the rivers as they turned away from the people.

Take humans away and nature will take its course. Trees along the banks of the river will flourish, weeds will colonise the edge space between water and dirt, the water will begin to cleanse itself of all that humans have done to it. At some point the city’s rivers got a little help, maybe we just cannot wait, maybe the damage we had caused was too great for the river to be able to heal itself, maybe we are still so arrogant we think only humans can clean up the mess humans make.

Then one Sunday morning whilst people were singing “All things bright and beautiful” the rivers quietly came back to life.

Humans once again frequented the river banks, this time they stepped into the water, bent down stuck their gloved hands into the cold soft liquid and pulled out not a plum but a pram or, prize of all prizes, an old car tyre. Scientists and conservation specialists planned a recovery of a near dead being. And ordinary people saw some hope that their local environment could be made better, but knew it was they who had to do it.

The settling pool on the River Don, Sheffield.
The settling pool on the River Don, Sheffield.

So they did. Local residents, families, school children, anglers, birdwatchers, naturalists, anyone who suddenly found that they could make a difference, they could be heard, were to be found on and in the river. This space lost to junk and nature was awash with voices and sounds and piles of rusting metal and bin liners, and heaps of car tyres.

Soon the river flowed and those who knew built staircases for Atlantic beasts, so they could walk up onto the moors and bring new life. Came the fish too, trout and grayling and they in turn brought the heron and the dipper and glory of all glory’s the kingfisher. Children played in outdoor classrooms in woodland glens, people walked and cycled safely away from traffic, reaping the health benefits of a cleaner, quieter, calm environment. No longer was there a smell of raw sewage no tangy essence of rusting metal melded with a concoction of noxious chemicals.

On a sunny day recently I walked with friends along its eastern bank heading out of the city following the rivers course as it worked its way to the source high upon the moors above Sheffield. We came across an old weir, the steel mill it was built for now long gone and forgotten. It was possibly built of cut Crawshaw Rock from Wharncliffe Crag. It is a wonderful piece of craftsmanship, wide enough to wander about on at low water the blocks so well made and packed together that they have hardly moved in what must be over a hundred years. At some point it must have carried traffic, like a ford, the cut stone was bordered by oak set into the stonework with holes where handrail pillars must have been placed. I stood in the centre and looked up stream gazing along a wide settling pond sitting on a bend of the river surrounded by trees the sky breaking through at their highest point, it’s almost still water waiting to slip over the weir edge. As I pondered this marvel of engineering I became aware of the quiet and stillness and peace.

The stone weir come ford across the River Don
The stone weir come ford across the River Don, Sheffield.

The Don Catchment Trust

Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust

Wardsend Cemetry

Extreme Destinations development at Parkwood Springs, Sheffield

Sheffield Ghost Buildings

The ghost building at the rear of the former PCL works on Eyre St, Sheffield.
The ghost building at the rear of the former PCL works on Eyre St, Sheffield.

Ghost buildings are a sign of a past use gradually diminishing backward as time moves forward. This is the rear of the former PCL works on Eyre Street. It is within my lifetime that this site lived and died as a manufacturing works, in the heart of Sheffield. The company decamped long ago to one of the industrial estates on the outskirts.

I walked around the works in my early days selling them engineering products, but I cannot remember what happened in this ghost building. Women making air inflators and such populated the floor, the men mended machines and managed everything. It was a common setup in those days. Almost everyone was on the clock and those on the floor had a piece rate bonus. People worked in groups and they looked after their own, managing the workflow so no one got left behind. On Saturday nights everyone went to the Working Men Club, had a game of bingo, watched an act and had pork pie and pickled onions with ham sandwiches. It was a micro community that had common social values and standards of conduct. They sorted their own problems out and kept the cohesion in society.

Hope church – Peak District

The graves of some of the descendants of Thomas Firth, Sheffield steelmaster. Hope Chuch. Hope. Peak District. White Peak Walks East. Author Paul Besley. Publisher Cicerone Press
The graves of descendants of Thomas Firth, Sheffield steelmaster. Hope Chuch. Hope. Peak District.

The Peak District’s proximity to the industrial cities brought many of the great steel masters to the area. Charles Cammell of Cammell Laird, armour-plate manufacturers lived at Brookfield Manor in Hathersage and is buried in the churchyard there. Joseph Whitworth of screw thread fame lived at Darley Dale and is buried in the churchyard of St Helen’s.

One of the major steel makers in Sheffield was the company of Thomas Firth, a major armaments manufacturer and the supplier of high-grade steel to Samuel Colt in Connecticut USA, for his gun barrels. Thomas firth and his son Mark are buried in Sheffield, but other offspring reside in the churchyard of St Peter’s in Hope, their twin graves facing the city of Sheffield.

Read more about Charles Cammell here

Read more about Joseph Whitworth here

Read more about Thomas Firth company here

St Paul’s Church – Sheffield

Sometimes I like walking through the streets of Sheffield. Urban walking has a different feel to the moors, a perspective that has more of the human than the landscape.

Walking along streets gives a view the human desire to be unique, to make a home, a community with all its hopes and dreams. I like the houses that are different, it says to me someone had the courage to stand out.

I often choose a walk that has a specific building in mind. A few weeks back I wanted to look at a church built in the late 50’s and designed by Basil Spence, one of two he designed in Sheffield at the same time he was thinking about Coventry Cathedral. The Sheffield churches are both listed buildings and reflect the confident attitude the country had at that time.

St Paul’s Church, Parson Cross, sits on a major road running through a sprawling housing estate of mixed private and council housing. The area in parts has seen better times and has enclaves of anti social behaviour, mixed with neat semis with nice front gardens.

The building sits, sentinel like, back from the road, surrounded by a low brick wall and grass. Made of brick, glass and steel the large windows allow you to look through the entire church, one end to the other. It is almost scandi in its simplicity, the interior items designed and made to fit in with the building, so at first glance it looks a little empty. Then eyes set on a font, modern, simple, elegant. The church organ set on a mezzanine above a wood lath screen that shields the congregation from the outside world and yet lets light flood in. Pews set in rows, a simple square design of wood and steel. The lectern, wood and square tubular steel.

It mixes modern with the ancient. It must have seemed like a new world was dawning when the first congregation entered for worship. The building now puts forward a slight utilitarian face, a hoover stored against a glass window, posters advertising Africa Aid and the next jumble sale, bits of the design altered to accommodate technology never imagined.

But it is, in my eyes a beautiful building, simple, elegant, pleasing.