(james benedict brown) on the road

Kelham Island

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 28 January, 2008

Some time last week, I found myself savouring a mid-afternoon pint of Oyster Stout at the Fat Cat on Alma Street, on Sheffield’s Kelham Island. The pub (a multi-award winning CAMRA favourite) is an unmissable stop on any back street tour of Sheffield. Opened in the very early eighties, and joined a few years later by its own brewery out back (the Kelham Island Brewery), the Fat Cat is free house perfection. Two cosy rooms, each with a fireplace, and what could the smallest bar in Sheffield to squeeze in at least a dozen beer pumps. The menu is also pretty special, with good value home cooked food and numerous vegetarian dishes. I didn’t have time to continue with a fair sample of the twenty-something ales that were on tap for the weekend’s Winter Ale Festival, so I engineered another little visit a day or two later.

The area around Kelham Island features some of Sheffield’s most interesting historical industrial architecture. Broadly speaking, the closer you get to the city centre along the River Don, the less original industrial buildings remain. The further you walk towards Hillsborough the more youwill find, including a number of warehouses and factories that are still occupied and in commercial use. Around Cornish Street and Green Lane, however, a number of new residential developments are appearing, some slotting elegantly into the grand old brick warehouses and factories; others rudely inserting newly built monotonous and monotextural apartment complexes. The steel and polycarbonate cladding panels and the plastic glazing units of these speculative builds sit awkwardly in this little neighbourhood, which is exactly half way from viable industrialisation to complete ‘regeneration’ as a residential community.

Crossing the Penistone Road at Dixon Street (click on any of these photos and then ‘Map’ to see where they were taken) I passed living, breathing and heaving warehouses. A bright red forklift truck briefly blocked our passage down the otherwise deserted street, as a lorryload of cardboard packaging materials was unloaded into a warehouse built almost one hundred years ago. It’s sad to walk these largely empty streets, knowing that the factories that once employed thousands are now used primarily for storage or non-labour intensive industrial work.

Some of the more desirable mill buildings next to the River Don (like those above) have already been converted into apartments and offices. But other buildings, including same beautiful saw-tooth-roofed warehouses, have yet to be re-used. In a studio project last year that took me to Selby in North Yorkshire, I was troubled by many of the discussions we had about the preservation of old industrial buildings. While these grand old brick buildings are beautiful because of their scale, quality of construction and frequently elegant architectural detail, in many cases their abandonement is the very proof of their inability to be used. Only so many industrial buildings in Sheffield can be converted to loft apartments, and many others simply don’t lend themselves to conversion.

Upon seeing the River Don for the first time, many visitors or new residents of Sheffield express surprise. We have a river? Why didn’t anyone tell me? Where are the riverside walks and coffee bars?

Sheffield’s relationship with the water that flows through it is, of course, not entirely coherent with most masterplanner’s dreams of regeneration and waterfront living. The 2007 floods reminded many residents of the new riverside apartments why this area remained largely industrial for so long. The river provides a powerful surge of near continuous power, but it comes with a number of cautionary conditions.

My affection for Sheffield tears my emotions. There can be no return to the heavily industrial past that caused these buildings to be built. But what are we going to do with these beautiful spaces?

Peaking through the tightly chained gates does inspire dreams of covered markets, modern art galleries and flexible contemporary dance spaces. But how many Tate Galleries can this country viably support?

I retired to the pub to consider this and the Independent crossword. More photos from a windy day in Sheffield are here.


One Response

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  1. fieldo said, on 28 January, 2008 at 15:58

    funny co-incidence! nice pics.

    I was there last weekend, not this weekend, unfortunately.

    i did some filming in ‘the fat cat’ as part of my table documenting task. check out the film… under ‘films’ on my page.

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