Friendship’s vital role in appreciating Sheffield beauty spots

Friends of Porter Valley Walk: Shepherd Wheel Mill Dam
Friends of Porter Valley Walk: Shepherd Wheel Mill Dam

There was once a ‘bathing dam’ in Endcliffe Park, where the youth of 100 years ago took dips in the waters of the Porter Valley, even on Christmas Day.

Hard to imagine on a damp January day in 2016, but Sue Turner has the photos to prove it. “There were press reports of ‘improper use of the bathing sheds’,” she noted. “Interpret that as you wish.”

Friends of Porter Valley Walk: approachong Forge Dam

Friends of Porter Valley Walk: approachong Forge Dam

Sue was leading her first ever Friends of the Porter Valley guided walk, telling the almost 20 wet weather walkers about the industrial and natural history of the valley, ably assisted by fellow Friend Chris Nicholson, and his binoculars. “There’s a dabchick,” he announced, by the former boating and bathing lake. “Nice to see. Also known as a little grebe.”

There are now close to 600 members of the Friends of Porter Valley volunteer group, set up over 20 years ago to ‘preserve and enhance the natural and historical characteristics of the Porter Valley for public benefit’.

The group raises funds for conservation and renovation work (the popular duck race in April brought in £10,000 last year, for example), liaises with the public and the council about plans for the area, and runs a regular programme of walks and talks about the valley, which now holds a grade II listing from English Heritage.

“Among the Friends, we have a great range of experience in all sorts of things,” said Chris Nicholson, a retired engineer. Chris runs the monthly walks programme, and is looking for new walk leaders, usually focussing on a particular subject: so far, the 2016 programme includes bats, fungi, mosses, butterflies and his own dawn chorus walk in May, usually very well-attended despite starting at 4.30am. “It’s very rewarding to lead or take part in a walk, and for us the more people we can get knowing and loving the valley the better.”

The Friends also run conservation sessions twice a month, sometimes responding like Batman and Robin to an electronic alert from another Friend’s scouting missions.

“We got a message last week about a blocked goit,” said Chris (the message was from a local bestselling natural history author, as it happens).“So we went out and unblocked it.”

Goit clearance is all in a day’s work for Team Porter, whereas the large projects need patience: the restored Shepherd Wheel is now up and running every weekend after several years’ work by the Friends, the Industrial Museums Trust and the city council, while the current major project, to desilt and improve Forge Dam, is inching towards the £360,000 needed.

The Friends have raised around £80,000 towards the project to add to £70,000 from council ‘planning gain’ money, and have now run two surveys looking at silt composition (to find whether accumulated dam mud can be used on local farmland when dug out) and another ‘hydro geomorphology’ survey on the incoming brook flow into the dam, and whether the Porter can be diverted using underwater rock-filled gabions to reduce silt deposits in the dam area. Watch this space, say the Friends.

The walkers meandered along the river and goit channels, as Sue Turner told the story of the metalworkers of the early industrial valley, which at one time ran nearly 20 water wheels to make cutlery and farm tools.

Naturalists learned about the native dippers and grey wagtails, spotted a convenient kingfisher, and looked out for the water voles which can be seen at some of the valley’s dams.

In 2016, the Friends will continue their fundraising towards the Forge Dam work, and hope to add more information signs to direct people to the dams and former industrial sites, along with more leaflets to help visitors explore in more detail.

The conservation work will continue, with Friends also volunteering as guides at the Shepherd Wheel site.

Friends secretary Glynis Jones said: “The volunteers make a significant contribution to the valley, but it’s also very rewarding.”

She added there are also concerns that such effective voluntary work can reduce the pressure to support green spaces through national and local government funding.

“The real thing is that we need more investment, and I’d like to think our beautiful city will get more government support,” she said.

“It’s a risk, but what do you do? We do want to do something to help.”

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