“IT’S nice here. It’s peaceful,” said Sarah Whiteley after her tour of Victoria Quays/Sheffield canal basin last Saturday.
The event was part of the English Heritage Heritage Open Days weekend in Sheffield, which saw well over a dozen volunteer-led events aiming to allow visitors into local places of historical and architectural interest, including buildings often not open to the public. Last year’s event attracted over a million visitors around the country.
On Saturday, around 40 people took part in historical tours around the canal basin, led by Malcolm Fielding, secretary of the South Yorkshire and Dukeries branch of the Inland Waterways Association, and long-time enthusiast for the city’s waterways.
Malcolm knows the affection that Sheffielders feel for the city’s canal.
He recalled the day in 1991 when the local IWA held a rally in Sheffield and a fleet of canal boats made the trip down to the canal basin.
“I looked up at one of the bridges and saw a man who was stood crying. I asked him if he was all right and he said he remembered seeing lots of boats on the canal when he was a boy and never thought he’d see the like again.”
Eric Smith’s grandfather worked at the canal basin between around 1900 and the 1920s.
“My mother said he was one of the canal bobbies down here,” he said.
“There’d often be ten barges run by different families, so it was quite a thriving community. On Sundays everyone would get dressed up and a parson would come down for a service. It was still quite busy in the 1950s and 1960s, I can remember lorries pulling up to collect the grain for the breweries.”
Malcolm’s tour took in the old terminal warehouse where grain was stored and loaded to and from barges which could pull into the building itself.
The ground floor features the last stretch of Sheffield canal actually within the building and the giant hoppers for grain. The higher storeys are flats but the ground floor has stood empty for years, much to the surprise of Malcolm Fielding. “It was going to be a pub, I think, but it never took off.”
The redevelopment plan for the Canal Basin in the 1990s envisaged a future that was anything but peaceful: there would be shops, pubs, restaurants, hotels and a thriving community of residents and workers.
Malcolm suggested at the time that the redevelopment team should go to Wigan Pier to see how it had been developed into a busy tourist spot. “It was snided all day long there and I suggested they could look at bringing something like that back here.”
In Wigan, all interested parties got together behind the same plan, said Malcolm, whereas in Sheffield the scheme was much more piecemeal.
The result, he and the heritage tourists said, is a lovely spot but one that has yet to attract anything like the level of locals and tourists as Wigan.
On Saturday, the vast majority of people at the city centre canalside were from the heritage tour or from a wedding party at the Hilton Hotel.
The ‘out on a limb’ nature of the site is one reason for the peacefulness of the canal basin, said Julie Jephson.
“Many people don’t even know this exists down here. It’s a surprise to me that so many people who are born and bred in Sheffield don’t know about the canal basin.”
This was one reason for the Heritage Weekend last Saturday and Sunday, which included the historical tours along with several other events on the canal, put together by the lottery-funded Blue Loop organisation, which promotes the canal and Lower Don.
(One suspects that Sheffielders may still prefer to call their former industrial waterways the canal and the River Don than the Blue Loop – certainly the rebranding as Victoria Quays did not meet with much approval among the heritage walkers.)
Malcolm noted that there had been plenty of improvements over the years: the site was essentially derelict in the 1970s and 80s and more recently the river stewards and others have helped clear up the spots where drug use was rife.
In the past, he said, the area around the basin was designated as a new road and then a pedestrian space, until the current arrangement took the shape of a pedestrian space surrounded by several new and old roads.
“I think the main reason people won’t come here is because of Exchange Street. It’s a physical barrier, even though it is quieter than it used to be.”
Malcolm hopes redevelopment of the markets area and of Park Hill flats may improve the footfall at the canal basin but noted that it will take time. “I feel quite sorry for the businesses down here. We’ve just got to get rid of that road, that’s the thing.”
Sarah Whiteley enjoyed the tour.
“We saw the old workings and hoppers and you could imagine how busy, noisy and dirty it was in its heyday, and you realise how far we’ve come, but then you see some other cities where the canals are open and they’re a hub of activity now.
“When it’s finished off, and the links are joined up, I think it could be like that here as well.”