After my degree, I spent a year doing a PGCE at university in Sheffield, and it wasn't the greatest. I realised very quickly that I didn't want to be a teacher, I was broke, and I was cold. But there were compensations: the amazing 1960s Arts Tower with its entertaining paternoster lift, the spacious, warm, Mies van der Rohe-influenced library where I read books on the theories of education which bore little relevance to what I was experiencing in the classroom, the scenery surrounding the city glimpsed from the tops of buses, the university swimming pool, the continuing art self-education at the then Mappin Gallery, and the glorious trains journeys between Sheffield and Stockport with some of the best views you could hope for from a train window.
Nowadays, we have family in Sheffield, and when we visit I see that's it a very different place to the one I knew then. There is lots going on, it feels very local, and it's not trying to be dizzily metropolitan like Leeds and Manchester, which means that many of the best things are barely even an open secret. To make the most of it, you need to be in the know, which is why some of the best guides are produced by people who live, work and play in Sheffield.
Nevertheless, following a great weekend there, here's my very short guide:
Railway station, steel, poems, and beer
The railway station has been transformed and the area around introduces you to pretty much all you need to know about Sheffield. Great railway links: see timetable. Steel: the spectacular, 90m long 'Cutting Edge' steel/water wall leading to more steel street art and furniture (see guide written by the Company of Cutlers). Hills: just looking at the slopes and steps up and away from the station takes your breath away and makes your legs feel weak. Post-war development: behind the station are the notorious/controversial Park Hill flats. A streak of romanticism: poems on buildings by the likes of Andrew Motion and Barnsley poet Ian McMillan. Beer: the Sheffield Tap in the station is a must-see whether you are thirsty or not, for the superb tiled interiors, huge fireplaces, and former waiting room grandeur.
The Mappin Gallery in Weston Park which used to be full of C19 paintings is now a noisy, interactive museum (but the park, trees, memorials, bandstand, and views of the Arts Tower are still there), and the Graves Gallery has become the place for paintings. And what a wonderful place it is. The location on the third floor above the central library and the restricted opening times don't help visitor numbers, but this is an exemplary provincial collection in lovely rooms which are almost empty. There are highly polished, squeaky wooden floors, good light, and all the space you need to admire Lowry, Spencer, Sickert, Riley, Hitchens et al. A couple of my all-time favourite paintings are in here:
A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris (1907-09) by Gwen John which made me do my best to think I that loneliness in an attic in a tiny student house in Sheffield was a positive thing,
and Eating House (c1914) by Harold Gilman which seemed to me to be the epitome of warmth, comfort and affordability. Most places like this have long since disappeared,
but The Quality Chop House in London has managed to preserve one such interior - if not the prices.
When it comes to lists of top cathedrals, Sheffield's barely gains a mention amongst all the Gothic splendours elsewhere. And yet, as is so often the case with underrated places, Sheffield Cathedral turns out to be a brilliant surprise: newly renovated, welcoming, and full of interest. It's been extended in all directions over the years and it's hard to make out the original footprint. Instead, it looks like a forest of pillars and columns with lots of little chapel clearings.
It's been beautifully cleaned and restored, the stone colours and patterns and textures add even more variety, there is a huge amount of local history and enough stained glass interest to keep a stained glass enthusiast happy for a long time (with a break in the new café). Christopher Webb (1886-1966) had one of his finest hours here, and there is a marvellous window by Harry Harvey (detail above).
Marmaduke's Cafe Deli
A mug of Yorkshire Tea and a hefty slice of custard tart here will see you right after walking up and down all the slopes. A fine café, good coffee, ace cakes, nice atmosphere, lovely location on Norfolk Row opposite the RC Cathedral, and bottles of Henderson's Relish on the condiments shelf.
Hathersage from above
If you make only one trip out from the city (and there are so many to be done: Eyam, Castleton, Chatsworth, Grindleford station café), I'd say go to Hathersage by bus, train (18 mins) or car (8 miles). Swim in the lovely heated outdoor pool - as mentioned by Roger Deakin - complete with views of hills and a bandstand. Have a post-swim breakfast of scrambled eggs and black pudding, walk up to the church where you will find some of the most breathtaking views, a lovely walled vegetable garden which once belonged to the old vicarage and is now allotments, and a stained glass window with peaks and rabbits and birds.
Buy fruit and veg (top) from Peak Fruits, a very fine greengrocer's on the main road, and wander down to the Round Building. This is the David Mellor cutlery HQ where you can do a factory tour, buy stylish knives, forks and kitchenware, and have tea and cake in the beautifully designed cafe with DM-designed traffic lights in the middle. Then admire/walk amongst the hills and dales.
For everything you ever wanted or needed to know about coffee shops, bicycle shops, cafes, cinemas (the Showroom in a white-tiled 1930s Modernist car showroom and a Curzon in a former bank), books, walks, events, and Henderson's Relish, go to Our Favourite Places.