How a former barren landscape continues to thrive – one of Sheffield’s most popular green spaces attracts hundreds of visitors every weekend
Mountain climbing, urban tobogganing, off road cycling, and freestyle cable trapeze: the slopes above Neepsend have long been a beacon for extreme sports in the eyes of outdoor citizens like 79-year-old Ray Swift.
“My dad put me a bike together to go over the jumps in the quarry, and in the winter old biddies would throw their ash out to stop us sledging down the roads.
Further up towards Owlerton we’d climb pyramids of stones from the tips and jump in the buckets swinging over on cables fifty feet in the air to the power station,” he reminisced while weeding at Parkwood Springs Forest Garden.
“Looking up here then it was barren. There was a brickyard, a ganister pit and two tips. But it was our playground growing up here in the 1940s.”
The remaining woodland from the medieval Parkwood Springs deer park was cut down by local families to stay warm in the 1930s depression, he said. “The trees here now have all grown up while I’ve been here.”
And there are plenty of them in Sheffeld’s ever-growing central park, as well as heather heathland, football fields, grassland and rock formations of Special Scientific Interest.
“This area used to be seen as a blot on the landscape,” said Sheffield Council community forest manager Tim Shortland.
“But now it really is a country park in the centre of the city, and there’s more variety of trees here than any other park in Sheffield. To have a big green space where you can see out over the whole city is one of a kind in the country.”
“The only other place to compare would be Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh,” said Neill Schofield, chair of Friends of Parkwood Springs.
On a sunny January morning, Sheffield’s central park was filling with footballers, dog walkers, runners, volunteer community foresters and a stream of mountain bikers descending the slopes, watched by a film crew.
“As soon as the commercial side really cotton on to the massive potential here it’s going to be amazing for the city,” said Ed Birch of Salt Street Productions.
The change has come through partnerships with locals, the council, conservation groups and landfill operators Viridor over the six years the Friends have been meeting, said Neill.
“Ten years ago, Parkwood Springs was not somewhere to spend a pleasant Saturday morning. There was antisocial behaviour, with cars being set alight. But now I think this is a key part of the Outdoor City.”
The free mountain bike trail which opened four years ago brings cyclists of all ages at all times of day, which helps make other visitors feel safe to explore, said Neill.
Now, he added, there are two big ‘step changes’ on the horizon. Firstly, the derelict ski village site is being offered up by the council for new activity developers – and ideas involving fresh air, exercise and improving health in a country park will be viewed favourably.
Probably not a motor racing track, said Neill, but snow sports, mountain biking or even rope swing activities might work - a builder of modern artificial snow slopes is already taking an interest.
“We’re offering somebody the perfect opportunity to create a world-leading urban, outdoor attraction which embodies Sheffield’s standing as The Outdoor City,” said councillor Leigh Bramall, deputy leader of Sheffield Council.
The second change follows the closure of the landfill site and subsequent restoration: a valley on the east of the site is to be developed, perhaps over the next 18 months, into a wide public pathway suitable for cyclists, pushchairs and strong-armed wheelchair users to climb north from Neepsend, with a series of ponds for wildlife and drainage. The Friends are pressing for this wide path to be extended through to Shirecliffe and Longley, replacing a very narrow, boggy, tightly fenced right of way that only the brave now follow.
Neill, Ray and fellow Friends will continue their consultations as more of the landfill site is restored and handed back, and hope one day to see a cafe looking out at some of the best views in Sheffield.
“It’s a lot better than when I was a kid,” said Ray. “It’s wild and peaceful here, and we don’t want it too commercialised and turning into a circus. What we’re aiming for is a playground where we can all get along.”
Visit Parkwood Springs for details.