The big idea?

Sheffield is the largest of Yorkshire’s seven cities (typical Yorkshire; it has to be the county with the most cities!). And surprising because the very different communities that form the basis of the city each retain their individual personality, hence why it was once named the ‘largest village in England’. And as such, it’s a city of many characters.
 
And despite Sheffield’s reputation as the steel city, with its connotations of anvils and, well, steel, this is actually a very green part of England. In fact, the origins of the city are in a great hunting park that was on this land in Norman times. And from that rugged green land came its very distinctiveness. Because it was so cut off, they had to give people a very clear reason to visit and trade, and did that by only producing the best quality tools. So sprang the very nature of this city of communities: top-of-the-tree craftsmanship – and when steam and then steel arrived years later, this craftsmanship simply turned its attention to a new raw material.
 
So if craftsmanship, friendly people and getting back to nature are your thing, come to Sheffield and you’ll fit right in.

Welcome to rocky country

Sheffield is in a part of the country known as Hallamshire – ‘Hallam’ means ‘rock’ – and is on the edge of several things, and in between several others. It’s on the border of lowland and highland Britain, at the bottom of Yorkshire, and straddles the Midlands and the North. But it’s also at the top of the majestic Peak District, the second most-visited park in the world (the first is Mount Fuji in Japan); indeed, fully one third of Sheffield is in the Peak District’s National Park.
 
And here’s the killer; Sheffield can lay claim to being England’s greenest city, with150 woodlands and 50 parks in the area, as well as more trees per person than any other European city, and it’s said that the best rock climbs in the country are around Sheffield (not even to mention mountain biking or walking along the brooding Trans Pennine Trail). Add to this classic country parks like Rother Valley and Thrybergh Country Park nearby – and Europe’s largest paintball and outdoor laser venue in Bawtry Paintball and Laser Fields – and you’re really getting back to nature with a trip to Sheffield.
 
For those who prefer more leisurely pursuits, try Sheffield Botanical Gardens; nearly 180 years old, covering 19 acres and comprising 15 distinct garden areas, including Mediterranean, Asian and the original Gardenesque style designed by Robert Marnock.
And smack-bang in the centre of the city is the Winter Garden, the largest temperate glasshouse in any European city, with over 2,300 exotic plants from around the world, and the Peace Gardens, combining fountains, lawns and beautiful floral displays that represent the hills, rivers and industry of Sheffield.
 
And around the city you’ve got Norfolk Heritage Park – one of the earliest public parks in England; Ecclesall Woods, South Yorkshire’s biggest semi-natural woodland; Wentworth Castle; Wentworth Woodhouse Gardens, with distinctive features such as the Bear Pit and the Hot Walls, and Renishaw Hall Gardens. Oh, and we mustn’t forget Weston Park, with it’s wonderful museum and home to one of the most complete examples of the later work of Robert Marnock (yes, him again), one of the most outstanding horticulturalists of the 19th century.

Made in Sheffield

‘Made in Sheffield’ is famous globally as a mark of quality (even Chaucer wrote ‘A Sheffield thwitel baar he in his hose’, in modern parlance, ‘he carried a Sheffield long knife in his trousers’). And that brings us to two places that really bring the superior craftsmanship of old Sheffield to life.
 
Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet neatly tells the story, via the Works Gallery, of what was once one of the world’s largest water-powered industrial sites, where you can see the last surviving intact crucible steel furnace in the world; and Kelham Island Museum, just to the north of the city, is home to the mighty River Don steam engine – which used to power a huge rolling mill that made armour plate for warships and tanks. There’s a load of exhibits and things to do here about life during the Industrial Revolution.

The largest village in the country

One in five of the population in Sheffield is a student, some 100,000 of them. This in itself gives the city a certain buzz and vibrancy. And this melting pot, coupled with the natural friendliness of the locals – strangers call you ‘love’ – just makes it a very welcoming and friendly city. Even the Sheffield Council slogan gives the game away: ‘Sheffield: where everyone matters’.

The essence

Craftsmanship.
This is a city that knows how to craft things: scythes, knives, tools.

Interesting bits in the history

Sheffield was formed at the confluence between the River Don and the River Sheaf. In its’ early life, after the Norman Conquest, what is now Sheffield was in the central spot of a large hunting ground belonging to the lord of the local manor (that’s where the name comes from; literally ‘field by the Sheaf river’, as it was in the centre: incidentally it’s worth remembering this ‘split’ when visiting: to the West of the River Sheaf and Don are the museums, art galleries and theatres; to the East the football and sports arenas).
 
Fine. But the location of this village is what had the biggest impact on its contribution to the world stage. Not only was it relatively isolated (a result of hills, rivers and rocky terrain), but it had an abundance of all the raw materials required for making quality tools (and later, the perfect conditions for making steel).
 
This isolation meant that buyers weren’t exactly passing by, so they had to have a very clear reason to make the detour; hence the early establishment of the quality for which Sheffield was to become renowned. Initially, its reputation for cutting tools spread, and the Sheaf Valley became famous for scythes, but over time Sheffield gained a national reputation for the craftsmanship of its cutlery. The onset of water power in the 17thcentury brought the various processes altogether, which speeded things up, but it wasn’t until the end of the 18thcentury that the first steam engine geared for iron and steel production, with familiar tall brick chimneys, was erected; and signalled the development of the Don Valley into a steel powerhouse, including the massive Huntsman crucible. Less than 100 years later, the output was 100,000 tons a year. In a relatively short period of time Sheffield had transformed itself from a maker of quality blades and cutlery into a huge steel exporter; by 1843 it made over 90% of the UK’s crucible output and half of Europe’s.
 
And that’s why this little multitude of villages had so much importance on the world stage. In the 19thcentury, Sheffield was effectively the ammunitions arsenal of the British Empire, making nearly three-quarters of the Navy’s protective needs, and, from the River Don engine, rolling out foot-thick battleship armour.
 
And as Sheffield expanded, it continued to swallow up individual neighbourhoods. But somehow each one retained its individual character (look at a map at the pattern of the city – it doesn’t spread out from a central point like many; instead it’s more a collection of places close to each other).
 
By the end of the 19thcentury, steel production had peaked, but one important offshoot of advances in ferrous-metallurgy was the establishment of Sheffield University, which is now at the centre of the city.
 
And, as with many other cities, the 20th century saw Sheffield shift away from manufacturing and towards services. This trend is continuing into the 21st century with the opening of the Millennium Gallery, The Square, and The Winter Garden. They form the centre of the Heart of the City project, and are steadily revitalising this vibrant city.

How it can make you fee/who's it for

Sheffield’s great for people who like the outdoors; sporty types and extreme sport lovers, or for craftspeople of all persuasions; home builders, green-fingered gardeners and designers.

On the one hand, the geographical aspect, coupled with the village perspective, give a relaxing and community, feel to the place. However, if you simply ‘vont to be alone’ then it’s only a short ride to real solitude.

How to experience

Why not start right at the beginning of the Sheffield story, at Manor Lodge? About a mile outside the city to the south east is the last remains of what was once the Great Sheffield Deer Park, dating right back to Saxon times. From here it’s a short step to Norfolk Heritage Park, opened in 1848 by the Duke of Norfolk; it’ll give a nice flavour of the green delights ahead.
 
Then work your way to the south west of the city to drop by at Ecclesall Woods: look out for the Sawmill, home of local artists and crafty folk – they’re definitely carrying on a local tradition. (On the way across, why not pop in to Sheffield FC? Officially the oldest football club in the world and holders of the FIFA Centennial Order of Merit – one of only two clubs in the world to hold this honour, the other being Real Madrid). Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet is also here in a lovely setting down by the River Sheaf.
 
Once you’re done in the outskirts, head into the city, stopping at the Botanical Gardens. If you fancy comparing rose gardens with woodland; rock and water gardens with Victorian planting; or Mediterranean gardens with Asian, this is the place to come.
 
And if you’re interested in the history of typical Sheffield trades like file making, engraving and the like, there’s the Traditional Heritage Museum nearby.
 
Once in the city, head for the top of Fargate, near the central shops, but make sure to stop by at the Winter Gardens and Peace Gardens first. Then check out the two floral sculptures/statues outside Sheffield Town Hall: ‘Sheffy Stan’ represents a steel worker, and ‘Mary the Buffer Girl’ is buffering cutlery.
 
Nearby is where you’ll find some of Sheffield’s museums and the world-famous Crucible Theatre (although it’s probably more famous for snooker than acting). The Millennium Gallery houses four individual galleries under one roof, including the Ruskin Collection and the nationally renowned metalwork gallery – there’s also a unique tie-up with the V&A and Tate, which brings some first-rate exhibitions to the city. Just around the corner is the Graves Art Gallery, home to Sheffield’s visual art collection, housing works by renowned artists such as Cezanne and Turner. From here, head round to the rather intimate Crucible Theatre, the legendary snooker venue, named after the ‘crucible process’ which was invented in Sheffield. Incidentally, the Crucible and Crucible Theatre, together with the Lyceum and the Library Theatre, form the biggest theatre complex outside of London; so it’s well served for the arts.
 
Now, before heading down Fargate for the shopping, why not look for Sheffield’s office campus, Electric Works? While office campuses are not usually that interesting for a visit, this one contains Britain’s first indoor helter-skelter, whizzing you down three floors in just seven seconds. Brilliant!
 
Cross back and cut through to Fargate; just over the road you’ll find, or more likely hear, Sheffield Cathedral, the city’s oldest mediaeval building, and one of the oldest centres of change ringing (ringing the bells in a series of mathematical patterns) in Yorkshire.
 
A must-do next is to head out north of the city to Kelham Island Museum to see one of the early ‘Little Mesters’ and the massive River Don engine. You’ll also find some impressive collections associated with Sheffield’s industrial past.
 
Finally, head out west to Weston Park; here you’ll come across the statue of Ebenezer Elliot, the politically influential poet dubbed the ‘Corn Law Rhymer’, who did so much for the working man’s plight. There’s also a beautifully refurbished bandstand, and the recently refurbished Weston Park Museum, where you can explore all manner of worldly wonders, such as Snowy the polar bear and Egyptian Mummies.
 
There’s a simple choice next: either head out south west to the breathtaking Peak District – the first and largest of Britain’s National Parks with its dramatic grit stone outcrops, rolling dales and heather moorlands; or head east to one of Europe’s largest indoor shopping complexes, Meadowhall, with over 270 shops and restaurants.
 
Whichever you choose, you’ll likely return sometime soon.

When to visit

City pics

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Durham