Northern Lights: Look to the skies to see the future of our city emerging all around us’

Cranes on the Sheffield city skyline
Cranes on the Sheffield city skyline

My house is situated on one of Sheffield’s many hills – and hills have often been a feature of my life growing up in the seaside town in Lancashire, seeing daily the landscape of the Lake District across the bay from our fairground, and then moving across the Pennines to come to the University of Sheffield as a young student.

As a young archaeologist working in Lincoln in the late 1980s, I subconsciously rented a room on Steep Hill, which by Sheffield standards was ‘nowt but a stroll in the park’ but it made me feel settled.

You cannot pass through the centre of Sheffield without seeing the cranes above you

Travelling with my family on the fair in the 1990s in Cambridge with the vast expanse of sky pushing down on me daily made me irritable and melancholy and it was not until I returned to Sheffield that I realised that hills made me happy.

So my life has been framed by looking up at hills, climbing hills or mountains (metaphorically I might add, as anyone who knows me will testify), or looking down from them and seeing the panorama of the city.

The seven hills of Sheffield offer a unique picture of how the city has changed and from my room in Walkley the lights that now twinkle in the skyline are red, beautiful and are as vibrant to me as the Illuminations I grew up with because of what they signify.

Nightly I counted them absently, as one counts sheep, but without any realisation of what they were and what they signified but they have become a familiar and reassuring presence as I gaze across the city.

They started to appear early in the year and then more and more began to materialise and soon they danced nightly across the skyline adding a vibrancy to the night sky.

However it was only recently when I counted nine, that I started to wonder what these nighty apparitions were and the answer supplied to me by the canny City cab driver one late evening, was of course cranes, not the beautiful graceful birds of nature but mechanical wonders that are transforming our city.

However, as I gaze nightly from my window the symbolism of cranes both mechanical and biological struck me as similar.

The dance of the Cranes is a phenomenon of nature – the courtship of these beautiful and graceful birds has inspired poets and artists for generations and folklore from around the world has created a mythology associated with the species.

Currently I am listening to Paul Weller’s The Cranes are Back and the lyrics and the line ‘come see the sky hear the people cry’ and ‘ been a long time making a show’ made me think about the symbolism of both the birds and the machines in history.

Cultural mythologies from Asia, North America and Europe link the arrival of cranes to prosperity, good luck and in the case of the Chinese a symbol of longevity, wisdom, good fortune and immortality.

The history of the machine which takes its name from this much loved bird are invariably linked to construction.

First developed in Ancient Greece for the construction of taller buildings and the city complexes, they were developed and built into sea harbours for the unloading and unloading of ships during the Middle Ages.

The onrush of the Industrial Revolution enabled a wider and more complex kind of operation with greater flexibility and power and they were often the unsung heroes of major industrial development.

Cranes then are a symbol of regeneration, they show change and development rather than plans and empty promises – to some they represent disruption on a daily level and occasional irritation as roads are closed, pavements barred and the normal daily pattern is altered.

Some of the most iconic images of the building of the Rockefeller and the Empire State buildings were taken in 1931 and 1932, showing construction workers, dangling from cranes over the city or having their lunch on girders.

These daredevil construction workers were the face of change, progress and a new skyline.

These images both from the Rockefeller and Empire State Building are heralded as some of the most iconic of the 20 th century.

The City of Belfast is proud of its crane laden skyline and the recent economic survey lists over 30 or so in the city as it undergoes a major transformation.

Today you cannot pass through the centre of Sheffield without seeing the cranes above you, they are the greatest visual symbols of the city’s regeneration and show the hope and belief that investors both from China and locally have in our city.

From Kelham Island to the city centre, the Moor up to the planned new Faculty of Social Science, new accommodation, new retail, new businesses, new education facilities will emerge from the dust and disruption signalling regeneration, prosperity and hopefully good fortune.

The skyline of Sheffield is changing daily with developments marking one of the most dramatic changes to the city in many generations with upwards of between 12 to 15 cranes spotted on social media (#sheffieldcranewatch).

So to return to Mr Weller and his lyrics, they have indeed ‘been a long time making a show’ but now they are here, let us look to the skies and see the future of our city emerging around us.

n Professor Vanessa Toulmin is the director of city and culture, office of regional partnership and engagement, at The University of Sheffield.

n Northern Lights showcases the views of Sheffield, by those who know it best, and make decisions in the city. If you are interested in taking part, email with your name and contact details.