Sheffield in 8 pints

When it comes to Sheffield, the one thing everyone bangs on about is the Park Hill flats. Like a lot of things – HD eyebrows, Brexit, a Hollywood star’s face – the flats look better from a distance. Walk out of the train station into Sheaf Square (a space that shows that the city is at least trying [1]), past the water feature/sculpture that looks like a big urinal (‘The Cutting Edge’, which, according to Sheffield City Council’s web site, “combines the city’s famous resource – steel – with water and light”. OK) turn 180 degrees and the flats look down from the steep hill, their arms crossed in a ‘come and have a go if you think you’re tough enough’ attitude. Like the Zulus fringing the horizon at Rourke’s Drift as Michael Caine kept a stiff upper lip. To be honest, that’s about as close as you want to get to the flats. Unless you fancy the full on urban tours experience – there’s nothing like a fridge being dropped on you from a gangway (sic) to endear a place to you.

Welcome to Sheffield.

You have to be selective when visiting Sheffield. Much of it is a mess, made more for cars than people (and certainly not trees). And this accommodation of the combustion engine leaves the streets feeling dirty and greasy, particularly when it’s raining (rain or shine, West Street makes me feel grubby every time I walk along it), and it also generates a lot of dead space that needs to be crossed if you want to get anywhere. Its best bits are spread apart beyond walking distance. Namely Division Street and Kelham Island. Leopold Square (a bit too posh and self-consciously upmarket to be really welcoming), some pubs on Norfolk Street near to the theatres, and the Winter Gardens (a lovely space) are worth a mention. But the rest… Humph. Its main pedestrian thoroughfare, the Fargate, is a haphazard, clumsy and strangely claustrophobic collection of utilitarian boxes (flanked on all sides with shops you can see anywhere in the country) whose sole purpose is to flog things without any pretence at warmth or friendliness (some of the branches off Fargate, like Chapel Walk, have character, but almost always seem empty and lifeless when I’ve walked along them). Get down as far as Snig Hill and the Crown Court and, to quote Morrissey, every day is like Sunday – streets overlooked by passively hostile, anonymous office buildings, which are almost empty of people, except for the smokers gathered around the doors of the aforementioned Crown Court.

Scaffolding is the City’s main architectural statement, the ‘regeneration’ seems like a never-ending project that doesn’t appear to have any prospect of coming to any sort of cohesive conclusion. Sheffield is like the householder who asks you to excuse the mess, but they’re just in the process of cleaning up – but you know they’ve been at it for the last twenty years without it looking any better. The city seems to be continually under construction without – decade after decade – any real feeling of improvement or consistency.

Sheffield’s most iconic building from the present day – run any search for Sheffield on the internet and it always seems to come up as the main image – seems to be a multi-storey carpark known locally as ‘the cheese grater’. This is the Q-Park multi-storey on Charles Street (Allies & Morrison, 2008), just off the windy canyon that is Arundel Gate. The ramp is a tight corkscrew that climbs with such nauseating insistence that as part of his pre-space training Tim Peake used to drive his Ford Focus up the ramp at 70 miles an hour. It came third in a vote to find the coolest car park in the world (the winner was Michigan Theatre, Detroit, USA, and in second place the Veranda Car Park, Rotterdam). Below the Cheese Grater, across from a blingy, Hello! magazine, the Only Way Is Essex kind of place called ‘The Genting Club’ is the Roebuck pub, a squat relic of Sheffield’s past. Like an old foundry worker rubbing shoulders with the shiny suited office worker. The contrast works well. Let’s hope the town planners continue to think so. If not, I know which one will have to make way.

The ‘new’ nave (1966) attached to the side of the squat Cathedral (it was originally a parish church, and it shows) now looks like a uPVC porch bolted on the side of an old house – a good (and practical) idea at the time, but now woefully dated. Paradise Square (about the only old part of the city centre to be (slightly) praised by Ian Nairn in Britain’s Changing Towns [2]) has been taken over by solicitors and barristers, and is consequently a sniffy, lifeless place. The foreshortened square outside the City Hall (typically of Sheffield it accommodates vehicular access) is a pleasant area to congregate before a show, but what was once the first choice from visiting acts from Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix, The Small Faces et al, now tends to get niche bookings, the bigger draws pulled out of town thanks to the Arena which is situated in what is essentially a city outside the city, i.e. the Meadowhall/Centretainment estate of buildings sited next to the M1. The Arts Space (clustered around its headquarters in an impressive neo-Brutalist building near to Sheffield’s only semi-legendary music venue, the Leadmill – the closest Sheffield got to something like The Hacienda in Manchester. The Smiths never played here, but they should have done, it’s that sort of place. I saw The La’s here in 2005) is a nice idea, but suffers from Sheffield’s main problem (as exemplified in the Meadhowhall/Centretainment excrescence) – it doesn’t feel to integrate with the rest of the city.

Recommended: Rare and Racy bookshop on Division Street (amongst a group of character buildings that the council is trying to pull down), you’ll always find something to read or a CD/vinyl that will brighten up your day and give your brain something to think about. Bungalow and Bears also on Division Street – a bar in an old Fire Station decorated in a shabby boutique style that serves great burgers and a range of craft beers. The Steam Room (Division Street again), for those who like their coffees from an independent shop (an arty relaxed space with some nice décor touches – great artwork by Tom Newell. Though the biscuits are over-priced). The Showcase Cinema which is the main home to the annual Sheffield docfest, housed in a building whose predominant feature is the art deco windows, with their narrow rectangular panels.

Pubs (conveniently starting from the train station): The Graduate, Surrey St, Sheffield S1 2LH. Head of Steam, 103-107 Norfolk St, Sheffield S1 2JE. The Brown Bear, 109 Norfolk St, Sheffield S1 2JE. Brown’s, St. Paul’s Chambers, 8-12 St Paul’s Parade, Sheffield S1 2JL. The Benjamin Huntsman, 12-18 Cambridge St, Sheffield S1 4HP. Bungalow and Bears (again), 50 Division St, Sheffield S1 4GF. The Original Bierkeller, 104 West St, Sheffield S1 4EP. The Botanist, Unit 5A and 5B Leopold Square Sheffield S1 2JG (the bar is not as good as the one in Leeds, but the restaurant, complete with a Victorian-esque pagoda in the middle of the room and some amazing period-feature sky lights, on the top floor is a delight (take the lift)).

[1] Sheaf Square is named after the river Sheaf (which obviously gave Sheffield its name, but it seems like one of those pieces of information I am obliged to impart) that runs underground at this point. The railway station flanks one side of this messy, busy space, whose low, unobtrusive Victorian façade always reminds me of those pre-fabricated suburban castles that could be bought from magazines in the mid-nineteenth century, like the one owned by Mr Wemmick in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (if you haven’t read it, you should).

[2] A word of advice to anyone following in Nairn’s footsteps (pubs) and looking for the Mulberry Tavern on Mulberry Street (in Nairn’s opinion the best of Sheffield’s city centre boozers) – it was pulled down in the 1970s.