Just What Is It About Sheffield?


January 15, 2013 in A WONDROUS SPACE, SHEFFIELD, Wondrous Cities

I have lived in Sheffield now since 1991 – a familiar story…came as a student and stayed. Personally I think Sheffield is one of Britain’s best kept secrets, but sssh, don’t tell everyone!  It’s a great place for a whole plethora of reasons, but I’ll be frank with you and admit I can’t really sum it up any better than this little ditty I’ve cut n pasted from the University website:


A pulsating grassroots creative arts community, a harmonious multicultural population, more parks and woodland than any other UK city, striking Victorian and modern architecture, big shopping at Meadowhall, small shopping at niche independent stores, the best pubs in Britain, dazzling public art, stylish restaurants, champion sport facilities, a legendary music scene, great cafes and coffee shops, secret parties, urban farms, Supertrams, seven hills, five rivers and two and a half million trees


Apart from the Meadowhall bit, I’d concur with all that – even the 2 and half million trees - I’ve counted them! – only joking.

More points to add is that Sheffield is a very SAFE city, welcoming and warm. One of the first things that struck me about it that people just get on and accept each other with no one-upmanship. Unlike most other University towns and cities, Sheffield has never particularly ‘ghettoised’ the student community and they mingle and live alongside locals and the ever increasing number of graduates that choose to remain here.


Its very central to several other cities – only an hour from Manchester, Nottingham or Leeds – 2 hours from London – you can even get the train all the way to Europe from Sheffield with just one platform change at St Pancras. If all this city life is too much and you’re missing the countryside, the peak district is minutes away – Sheffield still remains a proverbial Mecca for a lot of climbers.  Despite some steep and stubborn hills, Sheffield is a very accessible place to be – everything in the city centre is within walking distance. I personally can quite easily walk to work, decent pubs, city centre gigs, and all the bits that I like photographing, all from my house.


As alluded to before, and probably the reason most people are interested in my work, is that Sheffield has a massive and extensively eclectic range of architectural styles and buildings, particularly from the post-war period, that celebrate its industrial heritage. Sheffield was extensively bombed during WW2 and this is reflected in the hotch- potch of building styles you may see even in the suburban areas.  Indeed, a considerable amount of the Eastern side of the city centre was bombed – apparently it was a miscalculation: the German bombers were meant to be aiming for steel works in the east and so the city had to be rebuilt in a brave new pioneering fashion that reflected the optimism of winning a global conflict.


Of course there were many other urban centres and cities around the UK that suffered incredible damage during the war, but what is it that makes Sheffield so different and alluring, and why is there this sudden interest in Brutalist buildings, modernism and industrial legacy?


Primarily, the range of styles and how they nestle almost incongruously against each other - like the variety of chairs stacked around the table at a large family Xmas dinner – makes the urban landscape of Sheffield quite random, quirky and eclectic; you only have to stand outside the station and look around 360degrees to immediately be taken in by several styles.


Secondly, and extensively referenced, Sheffield is built on seven hills like Rome. Historically, up until the Industrial Revolution the topography of the city had always prevented it from being little other than several interlinked smaller towns and villages – possibly explaining the much deserved reputation Sheffield has as a city which is the biggest village in the world! Post-war housing schemes such as Park Hill and Gleadless Valley, and also municipal/civic amenities Castle Market and the Epic development, were specifically built with a mind to exploit the contours of the landscape, leading to accessibility from many levels.  At the time of their conception these ideas had really only been talked about in an academic sense, and indeed were always considered space age, futuristic and exciting. Sheffield boldly embraced these radical new initiatives, maybe out of necessity, maybe as a pledge to providing a city truly accessible for all, or maybe they just got a lot of concrete on the cheap!


Thirdly, in many respects Sheffield paved the way as a social housing trail blazer, replacing its slums with high density public housing schemes and estates.  The book ’10 Years of Housing in Sheffield’, which documents the huge housing developments 1952-1962 under the leadership of JL Womersley, was published in several languages including Russian, a testament of Sheffield’s alignment to Socialist ideals (and if anyone’s got a spare copy…?). It is abundantly clear that in this post-war period there was an optimism and allegiance to the newer Sheffield, its residents and its much more left-leaning politics. “By ‘eck, you’ve never had it quite so good,” springs to mind.  Nothing exemplifies this more than the classic film clip ‘Sheffield: City On The Move’ AKA  the introduction to ‘The Full Monty’.


Go on…you’ve twisted my arm…here’s the full version of ‘Sheffield: City on the Move’:



It feels that many older Sheffielders still retain this incredible sense of civic pride about the place and an almost nostalgic yearning to return to such days. Quite frankly…that’s not a bad thing!


Finally, due to Sheffield’s smaller size, there’s somewhat of a familiarity about it, and because of the hills and several landmark buildings, its quite easy to orientate yourself once you’re there. The explosion of work from new artists,  photographers and other creatives usually means that you’re likely to recognise and place any newer more urban style work that comes out of Sheffield.


Naturally, if you either live in Sheffield now or have lived here in the past, all of this is old news to you and you are more than aware of it.  Be that as it may, one final thing to prove that I’m not a complete Sheffield Sycophant….the roads are terrible…with more potholes than the moon with a bad case of acne. My father in law the right honourable Tom Cooper’s motto is, “Never buy a second hand car from Sheffield!”

Avatar of Sid Fletcher

Sid Fletcher

Sid Fletcher is a Sheffield based artist whose work specialises in the depiction of the modern urban environment. Brutalist architecture and high density social housing form the main focus of his creations – their repeating, monotonous facades and threatening scale have always inspired Sid. Although he has more recently started to incorporate different materials such as Perspex, Metal and MDF into his digitally manipulated art, Sid would tend to describe the process of organising and creating equally as important as the end result. Like the radical town planners that mapped out the urban landscape of post war Britain - Sid’s work is somewhat like Marmite - You either like it or you don’t! Sid describes himself of redbrick extraction (although he does also describe himself as somewhat of a bit of a “kitchen sink” drama queen).