Heritage Open Days is one of those things that’s always put in to my diary early, as soon as I know the date. But sadly, it’s often ended up clashing with work commitments so with it this year falling on a clear weekend, and an already scheduled day off, it was obvious I had to plan a weekend of heritage, architecture and exploring Sheffield. So here’s part one of my visits:
St. Catherine of Siena Church, Richmond Road, Woodthorpe
Built in 1959 this is one of Sheffield’s most modern listed buildings as grade II, but most significantly it’s one of two churches in the city designed by Basil Spence of Coventry Cathedral fame. The church was constructed for the new Richmond parish to serve the residents of the new Woodthorpe Estate that had grown up behind the church.
One thing I learnt straight away today was that the fall back fundraiser at Heritage Open Days is coffee and cake, as every place I visited had them offer. However with no signs outside indicating that St. Catherine’s was part of Heritage Open Days I did feel ever so slightly as if I was intruding on a coffee morning. Despite this I pressed on in to the church. It’s a fairly small and simply designed church, with little natural light and as an anglo-catholic church a strong smell of incense. It also had slightly surreally music that started playing as you entered although this did however create a sense of calm and atmosphere that was pretty pleasant.
On the way out the priest appeared and pointed out a nice painting in a small hall behind the church proper which intriguingly shows the building the opposite way round from how it was built. After a very short look around I went to examine the bell tower which personally I think is the best bit as it makes a fairly low key building stand out.
St. Paul Church, Wordsworth Avenue, Parson Cross
Having visited one of Basil Spence’s Sheffield churches I thought I’d go and explore his other one which as a grade II* is his Sheffield masterpiece. Like St. Catherine’s, St. Paul’s was built in 1959 to serve a new housing estate which when built outside the Sheffield boundaries was unnamed and so unusually the parish church was named after the road it was on.
This building was more wholeheartedly in to the Heritage Open Day experience, with signs, information guides, people greeting you and telling you about the building, along with the usual coffee and cake. However what it also had was a young enthusiastic trainee priest who wanted to discuss my faith. As it was a church I suppose I can’t really object but I always feel uncomfortable when ‘on their patch’ and asked to discuss my views on the church and whether I have any ‘spirituality’ with someone who so clearly wholeheartedly believes in something that I absolutely do not. What was interesting though was discovering from him that the Archbishop of York has decided to use the opening of churches to the public over this weekend to go and engage more with the public in his province who don’t normally attend church, and Sheffield is this year’s focus for their efforts. With enthusiastic priests such as the one I spoke to I’m sure some of their churches will at least have a good future. During our conversation and after saying what I do for a living he did however also turn out to be one of the biggest Tim Farron fans I’ve met with the words “Wow, I can’t believe you know Tim Farron” being repeated several times during our conversation.
Back to the church. Whereas St Catherine’s was a little gloomy, St Paul’s has lots of light with large windows at both ends and beautiful undulating walls and warm looking modern wooden pews. Whilst clearly struggling with major 1950s design and technology flaws, it is still a masterpiece 60 years on. It is archetypal minimalist modernism. Once again though I have to say a bit about the bell tower which adopts a similar approach to St. Catherine’s and makes it obvious that it’s the same architect, but this one is also linked to the church via cloister like walkways which gives a sense of entering and leaving a peaceful sanctuary despite being in the middle of a Sheffield council estate.
Grenoside Reading Room, School Lane, Grenoside
Now let’s go back in time. Grenoside Reading Room started life in 1790 as a school room but has gone through various uses until it became a community building clearly very well used by local residents. Along with yet more coffee and cakes (and some very impressive ones at that) the main focus of their participation was to celebrate the building and showcase what it does. It had bunting fluttering outside, posters, two vintage cars parked in front, and displays showing many of the groups and activities that meet there. It also had an exhibition from its local history group about health in Grenoside.
Unlike the other buildings architecture wasn’t really the focus here, but it was nice to see a lovely local building still being very actively used. I also ended up catching up with a former local councillor for the area who happened to be on duty when I was visiting, in a day that despite being off work was developing a worryingly Lib Dem theme.
Walkley Community Centre (former Walkley Reform Club), Fir Street, Walkley
Tucked away in a backstreet off Walkley’s ‘high street’ of South Road is the former Walkley Reform Club, set up by local Liberals in the early 20th century, but now serving as the community centre. Architecturally the building is not that significant but as this is Heritage Open Days it’s about history not just architecture, and the building has long held a significant place in the local community.
For me the political history was understandably a very interesting part, and this was thoroughly embraced by the volunteers involved in the building now and it’s impossible to go around the building without noticing many plaques and displays that show this off. I don’t know why I should be surprised about that really given it’s the original reason for the building’s existence, but given the current political situation I thought they might be a little more shy about it. Mind you there were the odd passing comments about how the Liberals were really quite left wing you know perhaps to appease the area’s currently left-leaning local residents. The most fascinating part of the building was the billiard hall upstairs which included four full-size billiard tables whose size makes you realise how small the ones are that you see in pubs. At the end of this room was a lovely commemorative window for members of the Reform Club who were killed in the First World War – a result of research by local historians spurred on by the recent commemorations of the start of that conflict.
Over a coffee (yes, more of that on offer again) I spent a long time talking to various volunteers involved in the centre about local history and a lot about family history generally – there’s and mine. It was an enjoyable discussion and I suspect might lead to this not being my last visit to the building.
Portland Works, Randall Street, Highfield
My final visit of the day was something very different. The campaign to save Portland Works from a planned redevelopment in to apartments has been very high profile in the city, and resulted in a very significant (and unusual) success in that the planning application was withdrawn and a fundraising effort resulted in it being sold to a not-for-profit company who now run it and are trying preserve the building whilst retaining both its traditional use and renovating it so new tenants will move and so make it financially sustainable.
Portland Works started off as the premises of Mosley’s cutlery manufacturers and was built in 1880 in an area that at that time would have been full of other cutlery works. This was a place that had really gone to town on making sure that it was a worthwhile experience for those of us who were visiting – clear signs outside, a small group of volunteers welcoming people and handing out a short leaflet that included a self-guided tour, and then many other volunteers stationed around the building.
The tour takes in buildings dedicated to various stages of the cutlery making process – grinding, polishing, maintenance of the machinery, plating and also the offices and showrooms. What was especially interesting was seeing how much of the old machinery is still in place and still being used by craftsmen today to continue with the making of bespoke knives, and also other businesses in some of the newly refurbished workshops with artists and one man who appeared to make electric guitars. To my surprise, the tour also gave you the opportunity (health and safety should look away now) to go up some fairly flimsy looking metal stairs right up on to the flat roof of one of the old buildings where there was a great view over the building and surrounding area.
All in all a fascinating visit to a building that I’d heard and read so much about but not actually visited before. It also goes to show that given the opportunity, people can turn traditional buildings that might be deemed scruffy and antiquated in to a viable thriving centre for craftspeople and artists.
So there ended the first part of my Heritage Open Days weekend with more to come…
Photographs from Heritage Open Days 2015
All of my photographs from Heritage Open Days 2015 on Flickr