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Sheffield - the best city in Yorkshire?

sheffield peace gardens

Over the last few years I've got to know Sheffield quite well, and I have to say that the more I've got to know it the more I've liked it. And to be honest, if I had to choose any Yorkshire city to live in it would be Sheff. So what's so good about it - read on to discover just a few of the highlights.

Built on 7 hills, near the confluence on five rivers at the very bottom end of the old West Riding, I think we all know Sheffield as being the capital of the steel industry in the UK, indeed the world. And we all probably have enduring images of the city from The Full Monty - you know the sort of thing, unemployed steelworkers, derelict steel mills, despair and poverty. The 80's and early 90's were very tough times for the city, as they were for any city founded on traditional heavy industry.

But the good news is that the city's made massive strides since that time, and though the steel industry has continued to decline, the city itself has leapt forward. It's not exactly digital city yet, but it's got so much going for it, not least the magnificent location on the edge of the Peak District, that I don't see why it shouldn't really prosper in the 21st century.

Transport

sheffield supertram (c) freefoto

Transport always being a priority under David Blunkett's Socialist Republic, Sheffield ended up with the Supertram system. For anyone who hasn't been on one, they're clean, fast and quiet. And they even have conductors, which makes it faster, safer and less open to fare dodging. Perfect urban transport really, except for the rails being slippy and causing cars and bikes to skid. When I used to have to go to meetings at City Hall, I used to come off the M1 at Meadowhall, park at the railway station there and take the tram in. How about that for a civilised urban transport scheme. If only we had such joined-up thinking in our other major cities.

Apart from trams there's plenty of buses and a train station just outside the town centre. But not being on the East Coast or West Coast main lines means trains aren't as good as they could be.

Parks

sheffield botanical gardens

The most amazing feature of Sheffield is that everwhere you go there's trees. Trees and parks. I don't know why that should be, except the place is so damn hilly that there's lots of it you can't build on, but it's great.

To name just a few, the Botanical Gardens (recently refurbished, that's a picture on the left), Graves Park with its little petting zoo and what must be the most lopsided football pitches in the world, Endcliffe Park where you can start among formal gardens and walk right out into Derbyshire, Norfolk Park near the city centre, Ford valley with its aces of woodland, Rother valley County Park (in Rotherham but just a few minutes drive from Sheff) and Shire Brook Nature Reserve.

Plus loads more, and green spaces everywhere. I remenber Leeds once trying to promote itself as the "City in the Forest", but Sheffield really is.

Pubs

The pub scene in Sheffield is amazing. In other major cities the pubs all seem to have been turned into poncy wine bars or fake Irish pubs. Well there's quite a few of those here, but a goodly number of traditional real ale pubs have survived.

It's not fair to single out just one pub, but it's impossible not to. The Kelham Island Tavern has won just about every award going, and rightly so. It always has a great selection of cask ales, a lovely garden, friendly staff, and the Pale Rider is just exquisite. Trouble is, it's so good it shades all the other great pubs - so here's a roll call of just a few: The Fat Cat, The Gardeners Rest (saved and open once more), The Sheaf View, The Devonshire Cat, The Rising Sun and the list goes on and on.

Restaurants

There's a top eating-out scene in Sheffield, centred around West Street, Division Street and Ecclesall Road. There's plenty of really upmarket places of course, but with so many eateries competing for business in such a compact area, prices stay very competitive and standards have to be high. And there seem to be new ones joining all the time. But if city centre dining doesn't appeal, a short drive takes you out into beautiful countryside and there's a wealth of pubs doing great food as well.

Suits me far better than the fine dining school of cookery which seems to be all the rage at the moment.

Museums

With its unique industrial heritage, you'd expect Sheffield to have a pretty good selection of industrial museums and architecture, and it doesn't disappoint. Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet is as good as anything to be found elsewhere in the country, Magna(just outside Sheffield) is amazing, and Kelham Island Museum is well worth a visit.

Lots of other museums too, but for me the industrial ones are always the best.

Sports Facilities

Overall, Sheffield probably has the best sports facilities in the UK, a legacy of the 1991 World Student Games. This was a straw grasped at by the city leaders, as a way of kick-starting regeneration of the city after the devastation of the traditional heavy industries during the Thatcher years. As part of it, Sheffield Arena, Don Valley Stadium and Ponds Forge were all built. And what a legacy they are. But the cost was horrendous - the games were "won" by Sheffield when nobody else wanted to stage them and after financial disasters on an epic scale the bill was £147m for the facilities and £21m for staging the games. And just about all of this fell on the taxpayer as the government paid virtually nothing and sponsors didn't want to know. While the games were a great event for the city, lack of TV exposure meant the rest of the country were virtually unaware they were happening, and the upshot of it is mammoth debt that will take about 25 years to pay off.

Great legacy or financial disaster, make your own mind up.

Council Tax

Not something to shout about, council tax in Sheffield has always been horrendous. Remember, it was known as "The People's Republic of South Yorkshire" under the Labour administration of the 80's.  This year (2009), it's a whopping £1452 for a band "D" property, compared to £1274 for Leeds. Quite a difference, but it doesn't even start to account for the difference in services between say Leeds and Sheffield. And that's because the government have dumped on Leeds for many years now. Sheffield gets £522 per head from government support grants, while Leeds gets a mere £397 - though that's still low compared to places like Liverpool and Manchester.  Stinks of gerrymandering - but all the years of investment have paid off, with a far better infrastructure than any other city in Yorkshire.

Shopping

retail hell (c)freefoto

image of Meadowhall courtesy freefoto.com

Adjacent to the M1 is the nightmare that is Meadowhall. Thousands of square feet of identikit high street chains, selling the same identikit stuff you can buy anywhere. In the middle is the food court, with identikit restaurants selling identikit plastic food. Of course, some people like that kind of thing, but to me it's retail hell.

Far more interesting is the city centre with quite a few smaller shops having managed to hang on in there. But as is common with all big cities, smaller traders are being driven out in the name of redevelopment. More glossy "mixed developments" with more identikit shops and more designer crap.

Still, there are good places left. London Road is crammed with interesting shops, including a good selection of antique and bric-a-brac shops. Well worth a mooch, and Ecclesall Road is a gem, with a great selection of boutiques, cafe bars, restaurants and all kinds of really individual shops. Exactly what a shopping street should be about. Quite an interesting area, because it's partially a very well-off area mixed in with a studenty bit. And just off the road are The Botanical Gardens, Sheffield General Cemetery, Endcliffe Park and the Traditional Heritage Museum. Just a note on the Heritage Museum - it only opens on the last Saturday of each month, but is quirky, amateur (in the nicest sense of the word) and well worth a visit.

Theatres

There's two great theatres in Sheffield, The Lyceum and The Crucible. They face each other across a square in the middle of town, and even have a multi-storey car park right next door. The Lyceum is a beautifully refurbished Victorian Theatre, while The Crucible is 1970's modernist, and probably most famous for hosting THE SNOOKER. And best of all, they don't get self-indulgent too often with the kind of depressing avant-garde stuff so often featured at West Yorkshire Playhouse.

There is another theatre called "The Studio", but I've never been so can't really comment on it.

Music

In no particular order - Joe Cocker, Baby Bird, ABC, Arctic Monkeys (Gordon Brown's favourite band my arse!), Paul Carrack, Jarvis Cocker, Def Leppard, Richard Hawley, The Human league, Heaven 17, Pulp and Jilted John (Shuttleworth). And they're just the ones an old git like me can remember, goodness only knows who's emerged in the past decade or two.

I can't believe there's another city that can boast an array of talent like that, so it goes without saying that there's a great local music scene. The top venue is Sheffield Arena, which the good burghers of Leeds are hell-bent on destroying by creating their own state funded arena. Shameful! And even more outrageous is that they're trying to do it with funding from Yorkshire Forward which was intended to promote the regional economy as a whole. I could rant on at great length here about the current level of national debt and the economic neverland we're living in, but suffice it to say that I hope Leeds and Yorkshire Backward get totally stuffed on this one.

That's All Folks

And that sums it all up. No airs and graces, still true to its roots and the home of some of the nicest people you could hope to meet. It pleases me immensely.

I've only touched on what Sheff has to offer, but if you want to explore it further I'd recommend Activ Sheffield as a great guide to the city. It calls itself "the most comprehensive guide to Sheffield on the internet" - and I think it is.

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