Favourite Things: Imagining Sheffield, its banter and its laughs

Author John Birthwhistle in the park alongside Parkers lane at Broomhill
Author John Birthwhistle in the park alongside Parkers lane at Broomhill

John Birtwhistle has lived in Sheffield for 22 years. His latest book of poems, Eventualities, has just been published by Anvil Press. He has been a lecturer at the University of York, and a librettist for English National Opera. He is reading with poet Michael Glover at the Broomhill Festival, in the Methodist Church, Glossop Road, on Saturday.


One icy evening, a man boards the almost empty bus and rebukes the driver in mock impatience, as though to his wife: ‘I’ve been stood here waiting for you. What kept yer?’ They laugh, and he sits at the front and they chat all the way into town. They had been strangers, but there was that instant laugh and recognition.


In a hilly city, the eye is not always brought up short by buildings, but keeps being given vistas of more distant scenes.

The field pattern on a far hillside is outlined in light snow. A wind farm on the remote horizon is lit by hazy sunshine.

The confident 19th century buildings of the Porter Valley were conceived as just such an effect, with schools and houses gazing across to the opposite bank with its chapels and cemetery.


Endcliffe Park Café on a Saturday morning in summer is a paradise of soggy chips, milkshakes, ‘traffic-light’ lollies, babies in buggies, water fights at the stepping stones and football on the green in front.

Teenage girls mark their pitch only with bags and coats for the goals, yet there is no dispute as to whether the ball has crossed an imaginary line, or the exact corner from which a kick should be taken.


Archaeological sites are fields of imagination. At Gardom’s Edge, with its cup-and-ball rock art, what used to be called a fort is now interpreted as a ritual meeting place.

At Swine Sty, a desolate moor, one has to tramp around the bracken and heather to perceive traces of a Bronze Age settlement with houses, pastures and ploughless tillage.

Some of the myriad scattered stones are to be read as huts, animal folds or, on the opposite slope, cist burials, cairns and stone circles.

The moors are at the southernmost limit of the range of the mountain hare. At springtime, any greyish-white stone may leap into life.


The cold in Sheffield is local and distinct. Even though Yorkshire has several words for being cold, such as ‘nithered’ and ‘nesh,’ Sheffield alone uses ‘clemmed’ meaning ‘starved.’


An attractive lady doctor has to give an old man the bleakest possible news. He takes it in carefully. She asks whether he has any questions. He looks thoughtful and replies, ‘Ye. What yer doin’ t’neet?’


A man walking past the Winter Garden looks as though he’s about to fall over on his back. His wasted body leads with its feet. He looks forward and holds himself upright, with stoical resolve.

This is a bronze sculpture by George Fullard, whose life was shortened by war wounds. He was an antimilitarist war hero, a Sheffield lad turned on by European modernism, and a formalist sculptor of human emotions.


Buying cheap roses in the supermarket, the young man asks at the checkout, ‘D’y think she’ll keep me on if I give her these?’

Without hesitation the girl replies, ‘That depends. Are you going to be making her the tea?’


The floor of a demolished factory glistens in the rain. The ghosts of its machine housings are stencilled in black by the oil that used to drip from each lathe or drill.

Hardest to destroy, a concrete lift shaft stripped of its floors is left standing like a medieval tower.

The fence is entangled with butterfly-bush. A deserted steel yard is spread with various gauges of rusty plates and rods on pallets, each coded by a chalked number. The rafters of a small works are the falling ribs of a rotting ship.

The gate says Dangerous Structure, but the façade Suppliers to the Beauty Trade.


The 17,000 horse-power steam engine has just finished its immense thumping performance. A man turns to the attendant and remarks, ‘You know, I can’t help thinking of 17,000 horses.’ ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘and cleaning up after them.’


Two pagan gods watch over us. The Town Hall is surmounted by Vulcan, an ancient tribute to the power of metalwork; and the Lyceum Theatre by Mercury, an emblem of messaging.