Sheffield Central Library to be replaced by hotel? It’s not the full story, and it shouldn’t just be rejected out of hand


Sheffield Central Library, Surrey Street. © Copyright Chris Downer and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The instant reaction to today’s story in Sheffield’s Star newspaper “Chinese plan to turn Sheffield Central Library into five star hotel” is inevitable. People will of course be appalled, in fact horrified is probably a better word. Many won’t read any further than the headline, as the reaction on Twitter is already showing. But here’s why I don’t think we should dismiss this idea out of hand.

First of all, it’s the headline. It doesn’t tell the full story. It could easily have instead been “Plan to invest millions in building new Sheffield Central Library.” The headline instead is typical clickbait and will make many people react in anger without even reading the story. The reality is that IF this goes ahead Sheffield will get a new modern Central Library, and the older building that currently houses the library will be turned in to a five-star hotel. That’s something that the city doesn’t have at the moment and it needs it if it is to compete with other similar sized cities, something which I desperately wish it would do on a more level playing field.

Secondly, it’s about the appalling state of the Central Library building. Whilst it has some brilliant sculptures and art deco features a lot of its structure was knocked up on the cheap in the late 1920s/early 1930s. As a result, the steel frame is severely corroded, the window frames are almost falling out and the roof leaks to such an extent that it causes panic for art gallery staff every time there is a heavy deluge of rain. It also has terrible disabled access and its IT facilities are poor. If it was a 1960s build that was in a similar condition it would probably have been demolished by now, but because it is a beautiful and much-loved building the council has tried to keep it patched up and preserve it as best they can at a time when there is very little money around to invest in it properly.

At the moment this is just a proposal. There’s no guarantee it’ll happen and if it does become a firm plan it needs to be heavily scrutinised, but what it could give us could be something brilliant. Investors (who happen to be from China) would buy the current Central Library building from the city council and turn it in to a hotel thereby preserving one of the city’s favourite buildings. The city as a result gets a modern state of the art library building in return which I hope could be of some architectural significance too. I’m not someone whose instinct is to defend the city council’s ideas. I also love the Central Library and I’m there on average twice a month often more, so this is something that means a lot to me personally. But I’ve also seen the facilities that the new library buildings have around the country and they’re much better than what Sheffield has to offer (For example, I love the interior of the new Library of Birmingham). It may also give us the opportunity to create more space and move many books that are currently in storage on to the shelves where they can be borrowed more easily. It would also be nice if it could at the same time create more space for the city’s art collection which is similarly often in storage as there simply isn’t room to show them properly (at present it’s proposed that the Graves Gallery would move to the ground floor of the existing library building but perhaps there might be a better alternative).

I don’t deny there’s lots to consider properly in this proposal, and I know as little about it as is in the article in The Star. But we shouldn’t just reject it out of hand just because the headline is sensationalist and it involves wealthy overseas investors getting something they want too.

Heritage Open Days – part two

As much as I love history and architecture, there’s some other loves that can sometimes distract me from my weekend plans – sleep, coffee and blogs by other people who enjoy exploring places and whose writing is far more accomplished than mine. This morning after waking up late, I did as I usually do on a weekend morning put on some filter coffee and start up my laptop and open up some of my favourite websites. Suddenly, the next thing you know it’s nearly midday and you’ve done nothing useful, although I suppose relaxing on a day off is the whole point of having them really. But on to where I did get to…

Horn Handle Works, Club Garden Road, Little Sheffield

Horn Handle Works, Club Garden Road, Sheffield

Starting where I left off the previous day, I began this morning with a trip to another local factory, but unlike Portland Works this one is no longer used for its original purpose. It got off to a slightly flat start with rain, low clouds, a venue that was difficult to park near (it turned out it wasn’t but the pay and display behind the building wasn’t obvious) and a destination that was deserted when I arrived. Having wandered round an empty building I was about to leave when I stumbled on someone outside doing a tour with a small group. I tagged on the end and he started the tour again shortly after.

Horn Handle Works started off life as Hill Brothers who made the handles for umbrellas and walking sticks largely out of stag horn unlike other local companies who imported ivory and other rare bones from abroad. Next door was a small separate factory next door that made the umbrellas themselves. Although the company closed in the 1970s the building survived and has now been taken over by Regather, a local co-operative that is using the small building for a host of community activities and events. When I visited they were in the middle of preparing food for an event tonight, the smell of which made me very hungry.

Despite the lacklustre start and despite the history of the building still in the process of being uncovered by volunteers, the brief tour was interesting and the man who did it was pretty engaging. You really needed the tour though as this was about the history of the building and the wider Little Sheffield area rather than what there was to look at in the building itself which was fairly limited. What’s clear is that they’re still at the beginning of developing something bigger in a little known bit of the city and their next event – Little Sheffield Feast (based on a real festival that used to happen in the area) – is a sign that in future there will be much more to take part in.

Christ Church, Pitsmoor Road, Pitsmoor

Christ Church, Pitsmoor, Sheffield

My experience of Heritage Open Days is starting to look like it’s all about the factories and churches, but this visit was for another reason – my family history. Both my great grandparents George Wakefield and Sarah Jane Woolhouse and my great great grandparents (on a different side of the family) John Radley and Thirza Chapman, were married at this church within three years of each other. Having driven past lots of times this was a good opportunity to see inside.

What was beginning to concern me at this point however was that this was my second visit of the day, and there still no coffee and cake! But this place had a very local charm about it. Greeted by the vicar I was asked the standard question at all Heritage Open Days – “so are you visiting for any particular reason?” – and I was then pointed towards parish registers (which sadly didn’t cover the 1880s when my family were there) and a random large collection of photographs, news clippings, parish magazines and other items that the church had clearly dug out of a cupboard somewhere and piled up on the tables. That sounds critical, but really it’s not meant to be, and they’d produced some posters that explained a bit about the history of the building. Consequently there were a lot of “ooh that’s such and such a person” from local residents perusing the photographs.

For me though, most of all it was great to stand in the spot where my ancestors did and which ultimately resulted in me being born just under a century later.

Wincobank Hill Fort, Jenkin Road, Wincobank
and Wincobank Undenominational Chapel, Wincobank Avenue, Wincobank

This is a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. In a city that dines out on its industrial heritage, it all too often forgets about its much earlier history and that included the brigantine fort at Wincobank.

Wincobank Undenominational Chapel, Wincobank, Sheffield

This visit started off at Wincobank Undenominational Chapel which was built in 1841 by the sisters Mary Ann Rawson and Emily Read of Wincobank Hall. The chapel has a definite oldie worldy charm dominated by a huge (and apparently unique) organ, but the most interesting thing from visiting the chapel was discovering the story of these two phenomenal sisters who were leading lights in the campaign to abolish slavery, supported a variety freedom fighters and missionaries, who were benefactors to many local causes, and who should probably be much better known.

The bit I was most looking forward to with this visit was the guided tour of Wincobank Hill Fort. Led by a very knowledgeable geeky long-haired local guy in Brigantine costume complete with fake sword, and accompanied by two other local ‘friends’ of the fort, our small group of visitors were led past the dumped sofas on the street next door up to the woodland around the fort. The route that we took was actually well thought out as it led us along the hillside and up to the fort from below giving you a really good sense of the outer banks, ditches and ramparts and how sizeable the structure is. Reaching the top what was then really dramatically striking was its position. The views from the fort were dramatic, not only across the Don Valley but also across the Blackburn Valley towards Keppel’s Column and over northern Sheffield. Only by visiting the fort do you truly understand why it was built where it was and its strategic significance as you can see for miles.

The tour around the site was interesting, although there were moments when the main guide’s enthusiasm for the era needed reining in a bit as I got lost with all the detail of the people, the battles and the moments of Romano-British history that impacted on the site. It made me want to learn more about that time however. The walking tour over an hour and a half but it did give you a real sense of the significance of the place that you wouldn’t get from visiting on your own.

Wincobank Hill Fort, Wincobank, Sheffield

Wincobank Hill Fort is probably one the most significant historic monuments in Sheffield, if not the region, and yet it is little explored. What this visit really did was remind me how little we cherish our pre-industrial heritage with houses encroaching so closely to the fort that they felt as though they’d been built within the fort itself. Perhaps there is much more potential for the city to make more of this time in our history.

There ended my visits as part of Heritage Open Days. I’m looking forward to next year already.

Photographs from Heritage Open Days 2015

All of my photographs from Heritage Open Days 2015 on Flickr

Heritage Open Days – part one

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

St. Catherine of Siena Church, Sheffield

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

St. Paul's Church, Wordsworth Avenue, Sheffield

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

Grenoside Reading Room, Grenoside, Sheffield

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

Walkley Community Centre (former Walkley Reform Club), Walkley, Sheffield

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

Portland Works, Randall Street, Sheffield

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

A better Kelham Island?

Ball Street Kelham IslandThe day after Sheffield City Council approved an application for another 89 properties on the old Richardson’s site between Alma Street and Russell Street seems apt for a meeting of Kelham Island residents organised by our local councillors.  But when our councillors met up with the 50 or so local residents, organisations and business owners in the classroom at Kelham Island Museum, they didn’t quite get what they had anticipated from their careful planning.

The meeting was designed to be a way of capturing people’s concerns and ideas with the intention of seeing what could be done to try and resolve them.  To achieve this, they’d brought in a facilitator who asked people to go to the middle of the circle of people, write on a bit of paper an issue they wanted discussed, honk a horn (which in my view was perhaps one of the worst things he could have suggested if wanted to avoid us thinking it was all a bit ludicrous) and then stick it on to a board.  From my point of view, and apart from the horn, all well and good.  The idea being then to break in to corners of the room allocated to each issue and we could move round and talk about them in groups.  Again, all well and good.  However, the meeting soon degenerated in to a way of having a go at the councillors and expecting the councillors to simply tell everyone what they were doing already to resolve issues that we had yet to discuss.  This perhaps wasn’t helped by one of the councillors admitting that she had never attended anything with residents in the area and so giving the impression that she didn’t know the local issues, but I also felt that blaming the councillors for them when our specific councillors aren’t in charge of the council and cannot resolve every problem was a little unfair.

However, order soon returned and apart from the odd moan about councillors, it then turned in to a positive group discussion about what we all wanted thanks to strict time keeping on each issue.  Generally there were a number of issues on which everyone was agreed – parking, crime, street cleaning, street lighting, and developments happening that perhaps don’t fit with what people now want from the area.  But what struck me was that the discussions that got people most animated apart from perhaps parking was when we veered off in to ideas for what the vision for the area should be.  Many of the ideas were great, like more trees and open space, better signage for visitors, something for the families that will start to move in, more community shops (as opposed to big chains), and how we bring the community together more.  It was all good stuff, and although perhaps not all of it was consistent or realistic, what it served to do was highlight what really needs to change about Kelham Island.  It’s a great area and each individual block of flats has a decent community spirit, certainly mine does, but we haven’t really come together as a wider area to discuss what we want.  We were demanding that our councillors make the area better, but we couldn’t really tell them what we were demanding as we hadn’t ever discussed it.

Kelham Weir, Kelham Island, SheffieldWhat I did feel uncomfortable with however was the idea that we should just expect the council to make Kelham Island better.  Some of the basic council services like street cleaning and broken street lights, are things that a council should just do as a minimum, but bigger more visionary types things, can’t just be done immediately, will involve lots of groups, organisations, businesses and people, and in my view certainly can’t just be put in to practice by individual councillors who represent around 13,000 electors each (and in the case of Central Ward, more like 28,000), have other demands on their time, and crucially may not actually have the same vision for the area especially given that they don’t live in it.  We should want the support of councillors and want them to help facilitate and break through the blockages in the council – as a former councillor myself that’s what I think the role is – but on the bigger issues they really need to be guided by what the community wants.  If we continue to discuss this we will no doubt establish that we can’t all agree on what we want the community to be, but so far we haven’t even drawn up a list.  One thing I noticed is that there may once have been those kinds of discussions when the residential developments first started to appear, such as Cornish Place, but they haven’t been had in the nearly three years I’ve lived here now, and what has changed in the meantime is that we’re now probably at more of a critical mass of people to make us a more viable community that can demand recognition for its own ideas.

I hope tonight’s meeting is the start of something positive for the future.  I’ve loved Kelham Island since I moved in and hope to be living here for some time.  I can give you many different reasons for that, but one is that it is something pretty unique in Sheffield, and hopefully the enthusiasm and ideas from people tonight can be harnessed to make it even better.  But what we need to do is push it forwards and help make it happen ourselves rather than just expecting someone else to sort it out for us.

Pecha Kucha Sheffield #9

It’s ages since I blogged, but after such an enjoyable night out I just had to tell people about it.

Pecha Kucha is the Japanese for ‘chit chat’ and essentially that is what it is.  People come in and talk about something they are interested in or on which they have a particular knowledge (see the Pecha Kucha website or Wikipedia for more).  The 20×20 format is how it’s run and it’s very simple.  A series of people have 20 slides that are shown on a big screen and they talk to them with each slide shown for no more than 20 seconds.  It was invented by architects with the intention that it would limit how long they can talk for and is particularly popular with design and arty types, but I think I’d sum it up by saying if you’re just interested in stuff, stuff that happens around where you live and the people who do this stuff then it’s for you.

There were a number of speakers but a few particularly stick in my mind.  The one that everyone who attended is bound to remember for some time was the very emotional talk by Julia O’Dwyer whose son Richard O’Dwyer is currently up for extradition to the USA for running a website which provided links to websites which allowed you to do illegal downloading.  I can’t do justice to what she said and so I’ll just provide a link to her website if you want to know more.

Another great speaker was Erica Packington on Roller Derbys.  A subject in which I would have never expected to have any interest but it was actually informative and thought provoking.

I also particularly enjoyed the two urban explorers as it covered two things I find fascinating –  photography and interesting derelict buildings around Sheffield.  Urban exploration isn’t something I’d have the guts to do, although I do occasionally stick my camera through broken windows in derelict buildings just to see what’s inside.

Other speakers included Rob Lee on perspective art (I knew I recognised him couldn’t place him and then found he works at the Showroom, which explains it), Dave Carlson on the Burton Street Foundation where the event was hosted and a building that I was probably last in about about 20 years ago when it was the Langsett Music Centre (for those who don’t know Sheffield it was where the job centre scene was filmed in The Full Monty and the outside was used as the school which is what it was originally anyway), Jonny Douglas on Sheffield specially to celebrate the Pecha Kucha Global Cities Week (since becoming a councillor I keep seeing these presentations both amateur and professional on the city and I keep thinking how great it would be to collect them all together in one place as they are all different), and Nynke Wierda on photography of the dead (strangely fascinating)!

I must also give a mention to The Mother Folkers who played music in the break halfway through.  Very good musicians to the point where I bought their CD and I’ll definitely make the effort to see them perform again.  Another mid-event event was showing two amusing and interesting videos from YouTube, including this one that whilst getting across a message is also interesting to any Sheffielder who is a fan of Tinsley Cooling Towers.

I thoroughly enjoyed the night.  I found about things that I knew nothing about before, (or would have expected I’d want to know about), I met people I’d never met before and I just wish I’d heard about it before.  I’ll definitely be back.  This is exactly the sort of thing I find fascinating and I just wish I’d found  out about it before.

Keep an eye on the Pecha Kucha Sheffield website for details of the next event in April.

Photos from Sheffield “Chance to Dance 2010”

As anyone who knows me well will confirm, I am not exactly the world’s greatest dancer.  Despite this I love watching people dancing and if I’m in the right mood (which happens rarely these days) I will enjoy dancing despite my complete inability to do it properly.

Today was the 10th Chance to Dance event in Sheffield.  The atmosphere in the city centre was amazing with music, dancing and smiling people.  If this what we will get regularly if Sheffield wins the City of Culture 2013 bid, then I want us to win it even more than I already did, (apologies to anyone I know from Norwich, Birmingham and Derry/Londonderry, who are also shortlisted).

This seemed like a good opportunity to take some photos and so these are my favourites.  If anyone who appears on one of these photos would like me to remove the photo or alternatively wants a copy then let me know.

More to come…

Summer in the city

The wet weather has put a real dampener on this summer’s outdoor events (not withstanding the success of last weekend’s Sheffield Music City), as shown with this sorry sight that greated me as I walked up The Moor in Sheffield earlier today:

Summer in SheffieldCoupled with the indoor sand pit the usual summer activities in the city look pretty washed out compared to usual.  This guy was doing his best with his singing to brighten things up, but in the pouring rain huddled under an empty shop canopy he wasn’t getting much interest.

One of the benefits of being off work during the week is finding out about things that I didn’t know happen because I am usually at work.  Yesterday it was seeing the open-air bingo (it hadn’t started raining at that point) in the middle of The Moor!  Four hours later when I walked past again it was still going strong.