Hidden Histories

The new year has already been very busy and is full of possibilities. This month, I’m saying “yes” to gifts and opportunities that come my way, which seems to be very fruitful so far.

On Saturday, I decided to join a guided walk with a poet that would end with a writing workshop in a lovely real ale pub. But the walk wasn’t in the hills of the peak district. It was one of the “Unregistered Sheffield” walks, a project run by Art in the Park, an environmental arts organisation based here in Sheffield. I was curious about the format of the walk and the techniques that the walk leader, poet Bill Cooper would use on the walk and in the workshop (because I’m interested in leading walks combined with creative writing workshops too!) And also, for months, I’ve been intrigued by Wardsend Cemetery, a Victorian cemetery, abandoned for years, on the banks of the River Don behind Hillsborough. However, I’d been told that it was a bit spooky, so I didn’t dare visit it on my own! I’m a wuss!

Despite a downpour earlier on Saturday morning, it was bright and clear as I set off for the meeting point in Hillsborough. But the streets were already busy with Sheffield Wednesday supporters and alarming numbers of police, before a Wednesday vs Leeds local Derby match. However, by the tram stop next to the Rawson Spring pub at Hillsborough corner, it was easy to spot the walkers – people of all ages, dressed in cagoules and fleeces which weren’t in blue and white stripes! I was pleased to meet Zoe, a lady who had attended the writing workshop I ran in October. We set off towards Hillsborough College and Penistone Road, already feeling “different” than I do on my shopping trips and errands that I usually run around here. As we crossed the dual carriageway – where I’ve driven thousands of times, we stopped under the huge sign for Owlerton Stadium. Bill said that we had crossed an “invisible line”, away from the world of cars and business, and the walk started to take on its own pace. We talked about the church of St John the Baptist, and the Swann Morton factory over the road, which makes most of the surgical blades in the world!

A sculptural stack of tyres

A sculptural stack of tyres at Owlerton Stadium

We walked past Hillsborough College, Napoleon’s Casino and around the back of Owlerton Stadium, where we found this rather sculptural stack of old tyres filling a whole in the fence! For years, I had wondered what the roaring engine noise was that could be heard from Crookes and Walkley on still nights. The stadium has hosted speedway racing since it opened in 1929 and all kinds of motor sports, including stock cars and monster trucks (which might be where those tyres came from!) The stadium is also famous for greyhound racing, which can be a cruel sport for dogs who don’t make the grade. But Owlerton stadium does support the Retired Greyhound Trust. We rounded the corner, and crossed the river at the back of the Cadbury Trebor Bassett factory, which smelled delicious, like toasted chocolate. Bassett’s Allsorts are made here! It was lovely to chat to the other walkers: artists, writers and people curious about hidden Sheffield.

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The river Don, behind the sweet factory!

As we crossed the river, memories came back to me, of driving slowly the long way round to Coopers Car Spares in 2008, after our beloved Fiat Cinquecento had spewed the insides of its exhaust onto Penistone Road and wasn’t firing on four cylinders any more. My last sight of it before I scrapped it was of a very large man being laughed at by his colleagues as he tried to drive the sluggish car up the hill in the scrapyard. I hadn’t even noticed the cemetery then, ironically, as I was taking my car to meet its end! And the cemetery is right next to Cooper’s scrap yard, the mechanical and human remains lying in close proximity.

Wardsend Cemetery

Wardsend Cemetery

We gathered around an impressive Victorian memorial, and Bill explained the background to the cemetery. When someone said: “where did people buried here come from?” Bill mentioned that many of the graves were from soldiers stationed at Hillsborough Barracks (now Morrisons’ Supermarket!), but I spotted that the memorial in front of me was dedicated to John Register, of Fir View, Walkley, which caught my eye. He must have been someone important in the community, with his prominent marble grave, and several other relatives had been buried in the same plot. We were given twenty minutes to wander around the cemetery but I noted the engraving on John Register’s gravestone for a six year old child: “the mother gave in tears and pain. The only flower she had to love. Assured she’ll find it once again. In heavenly fields of light above”. I stood and noted the call of great tits, the shafts of sunlight, the delicious, waffly smell from the Cadbury’s factory, the hum of the nearby electricity pylons, a call of a jackdaw and a distant roar of traffic.

Eerie gravestones amongst the bracken

Eerie gravestones amongst the bracken

I hadn’t left much time to explore the rest of the cemetery, so I took pictures of old gravestones and the wildlife that had taken over. I made my way quickly over the railway bridge to see the graves on the other side – Wardsend was the only major cemetery in the country bisected by a railway line. The gravestones on the other side were an eerie sight – half hidden by crispy brown bracken as the land on the other side turns into heath. There had evidently been a fire – perhaps in the dry summer, which had blackened some of the trees into skeletons, but the gravestones had survived, stubbornly. When we gathered again as a group, Bill showed us the Obelisk, which commemorated soldiers from Hillsborough Barracks, who had died in the 1860s. We also found a broken column lying on its side – the gravestone of a young girl. The broken column represented a life cut off before its prime. Wardsend cemetery used to have its own chapel, until it was demolished, and the graveyard was abandoned.

Keep Out!

Keep Out!

We walked along Club Mill Road – it had been a “proper” road when I had driven my car to the scrapyard in 2008 – because the bridge we’d walked along had been swept away by the floods in the summer of 2007. But now the road has been blocked to traffic and it is starting to resemble a riverside path, abounding with wildlife. The river flowed swiftly and we saw how the Parkwood landfill tip is being landscaped, with trees planted. We walked past demolished factories and a lady who was one of the walkers said that there used to be cooling towers here, by the side of the river. There was a large, grassy mound there now, and a half demolished, grafitti-covered wall on the other side of the road, it’s “keep out” notices redundant now there was just a grassy hill on the other side, rather than a factory. We mused on how Sheffield evolves and re-creates itself, in the space of relatively few years. Nature is reclaiming this part of Sheffield.

The old mill and the tree

The old mill and the tree

After a while, we reached the point on the road where traffic is allowed, and there are various industrial units. We felt like we were returning to “normality”. But then we heard a cockerel crowing. In yard of a ramshackle taxi garage was a man feeding a small flock of fancy chickens and fan-tailed doves with bird seed. It was an unexpected and endearing sight. We could still hear the cockerel when Gary showed us the old mill, complete with a rusting metal water wheel. The ruined mill, behind a row of Heras fencing, had a really spooky atmosphere – and all of my photos of the mill have come out blurred! There was an incredibly large, twisted willow tree nearby. Near the mill, an angler sat serenely on the river bank.

The old gates of Hillfoot County School

The old gates of Hillfoot County School

One of the walkers was a lady who had grown up on the Parkwood Spring estate, which was demolished many years ago. She showed us the coke depot where people used to queue to scramble on the slag heap for nuggets of coke during World War II and afterwards, when fuel was still rationed. She showed us the gates of her old school, blocked by a young ash tree and buddleia and the scruffy wall of a corrugated factory, where there was once a Victorian School building. Barbara vividly remembered fights outside the school gates and running up the hill when she found out that George VI had died. There was more rubbish and detritus between here and the derelict Farfield Inn – a culvert full of tyres and rubbish bags, an unpleasant cave  full of broken things where a few walls of a demolished factory stood – evidently a hiding place for someone up to no good. The atmosphere became edgy and oppressive as the road became a narrow alleyway.

It was a relief to be on the industrial streets again, and we passed close by Neepsend Gasometer and its huge gas pipe, which I can see from Walkley, but I didn’t know what it was before. It used to be obscured by a huge art-deco factory which was demolished a few years ago, taking part of the building next door with it. As we reached the Gardener’s Rest, a real ale oasis in the post-industrial desert, we stopped to look at the old brewery building and the ingenious graffiti mural. Sheffield ia a virtual gallery of street art, with work around many obscure corners by artists who have become well-respected in the art world. Check some of them out here: http://sheffieldstreetart.tumblr.com/.

Graffiti mural in Neepsend

Graffiti mural in Neepsend

Once inside the warm, sunny conservatory of the pub, we ate lunch, enjoyed a drink (I had a pint of shandy), and chatted. Bill talked us through a series of writing exercises, asking us to list the things we had found charming, or sad or shocking on our walk. We listed verbs: “glitter, sparkle, splash, squelch, crunch, reflect, fester, cockadoodledoo”, and imagined conversations taking place in the cemetery, at the gates of the old school and at the garage where the man was feeding the chickens. We had time to draft a piece of writing inspired by one of the exercises. I’ve been writing more poetry recently, but I found myself writing a story about some sixth-formers from the college holding a seance in the cemetery, which I’ll try to finish soon! If it works, I might have a great Young Adult novel on my hands – in my head, it’s threatening to develop into something much longer.

The walk was a great adventure. It felt like we were exploring a hidden world, yet only a short walking distance from home. I met an interesting mixture of like-minded people – and I’ll definitely be going along to the Unregistered Sheffield celebration event this Sunday afternoon in the pavillion in Hillsborough Park. There’s always something interesting, stimulating and creative to do in Sheffield – and even in the midst of industrial decay, there is beauty and wonder – and amazing stories.

Soaring above Stanage

I’ve not finished with 2013 yet. It’s been a year of massive change – of getting rid of the job that had come to dominate my life – like “a big block of lard on my plate”, as I described it during a coaching session with the amazing Beverley Ward who works for Writing Yorkshire and helps writers to be productive and creative. I said that I wanted my life to look like a plate from a brilliant buffet, or plate of tapas, with lots of interesting dishes to sample rather than one thing dominating in my life!

My life has definitely been full since leaving my job at the end of April. There have been moments of celebration, and moments of fear and panic – but I’ve learned so much about where my life and my writing is going, and the things that are really important to me. It was important to reach this Christmas alive and creative, to celebrate it on my own terms.

This time last year, my life was a mess. I enjoyed Christmas with my partner and family, and New Year’s Eve with friends in Bolton. But I was knotted up inside with anxiety, utterly miserable in my job, and desperate to escape, but not sure what I wanted to escape to. I tried applying for admin jobs – without getting anywhere. I didn’t even know if I’d have a job once I returned to the office in January.

This year, life is very different. I needed to take a break for Christmas, but it was my decision when to stop, and how. Perhaps my life is now more like the Christmas dinner I made for my family: creative, adapted to suit me, making use of everyday ingredients: breadcrumbs, carrots, parsnips, leeks, butter beans and chestnuts. I used my creative mind to turn each dish into something special, with garlic, herbs and spices. And I felt proud to serve the meal in my transformed dining room. It’s been so much work recently, spending all my spare time covered in paint, painstakingly painting the skirting board or stretching to touch up the ceiling and hiding grotty corners with filler. I defy any slugs to crawl through the skirting board now! Ha! Once the decorations come down, I won’t have a sad, shabby room, I’ll have an inspiring, creative space. And my family and friends have chipped in to help, with Christmas presents of armchairs and money towards furnishing. The carpet is still grubby, but that’s another project!

We’ve been lucky with the weather so far too. The south of England has suffered with stormy winds, floods and power cuts over the Christmas period, and as I’m writing, the day is gloomy, windy and wet. But there has been plenty of gorgeous winter weather too. I’ve been walking with friends, my partner or family almost every day of the festive period so far: to Allestree Woods with my dad; onto the Bolehills with Katy and her dog Dave to gather holly and ivy for Christmas, and a quick wander around Walkley with my parents, my partner and his brother on Christmas day, after dinner!

On Boxing Day, I went on a more dramatic walk with my friend Louise. We made sandwiches from Christmas dinner leftovers – mushroom and chestnut bake and home-made stuffing – essentially a bread sandwich – but it tastes quite chicken-like! We headed out to Redmires again, under blue winter skies. We walked around the top reservoir and up the path that leads to Stanage. We’d never walked this route before, but it seemed very popular, with families and groups of friends all with the same idea. After quite a short walk, we reached Stanedge pole, a pole amongst a group of rocks. We didn’t know anything about it, but I’ve since learned (thanks to Wikipedia), that it’s a marker on an old packhorse route. it must have been a welcome sight in past centuries, a sign of civilisation on the desolate moors and the treacherous gritstone edge of Stanage. The spelling difference is deliberate! The pole seemed to be a gathering point for groups of walkers and we joined them for a quick bite of Christmas cake.

We marvelled at the view – Stanage Edge sharply marked out against a bank of white cloud, with the silhouettes of paragliders swooping over the cliffs. As we walked closer to the edge, the scenery was stunning, although after eating our sandwiches and admiring the view, our hands froze numb and the fog rolled in, hiding the village of Hathersage from view, and we remembered how inhospitable the Peak District landscape can be when the sun isn’t shining. I’ve been on some wet, desolate walks on Stanage, as well as glorious, soul-soaring ones!

I always feel proud that I’ve got such beautiful countryside on my doorstep. I started this year being forced to commute to an uninspiring industrial part of Derby – but over the course of this year, I’ve been drawn into Derbyshire and the Peak District; to the beauty of my local community in Sheffield. My work in Derbyshire at the Newholme hospital is set to continue, and expand into other areas. Perhaps areas where people are surrounded by beauty and possibility, but need help to set their imaginations, and themselves free.

Sometimes the real world doesn’t look like the map…

That’s what I found myself thinking on Sunday as we found the stile several hundred metres from where the path seemed to start on the Ordnance Survey map, and then found ourselves sinking in a bog. It was the first time I’d convinced the other half to go on a walk with me in a long time and it wasn’t quite what I’d envisaged.

I’d been able to tempt him out by reports that Redmire Reservoirs were haunted. Visitors to the Sheffield Forum reported a “strange sense of unease” when walking there. Some people have reportedly seen the ghosts of the World War One soldiers, the Sheffield City battalion, who had their camp and trained in trench building near the dams. 248 of these men died in the battle of Serre in 1916. There are also reports of a “ghost plane” in the area, perhaps a world War Two bomber, or the American Airforce plane, which crashed into the nearby Lodge Moor hospital in 1955.

The reservoirs themselves date from 1836; a chain of three. They were built to provide Sheffield with clean water following a cholera epidemic in 1832. Sheffield is surrounded by reservoirs, fed by clear moorland streams and dammed rivers.

It was a crystal blue day, the first of the winter frosts, but with the woods still rich in autumn colour. We could have been miles away from anywhere, on the top of the moors, but we were only a few miles away from home, still within the Sheffield city boundary.

We set off early on Sunday morning and drove to Lodge Moor, along Redmires Road, until it narrowed and the road was bordered by fields, woods and the odd isolated cottage. We parked in a car park at Wyming Brook, where an inviting, well-maintained bridleway, formerly a road, wound through a wooded valley full of birdsong towards another set of reservoirs, the Rivelin Dams. But we had come here to walk around the reservoirs. I’d looked at a map on the internet and it looked like there was a nice clear path, running all the way around the three reservoirs.

An almost empty reservoir

An almost empty reservoir

The map indicated that there would be a path through the wood, and after walking past an isolated farm, we found a footpath. It was boggy in places and there was an eerie atmosphere as the sun filtered through the pine trees and we passed an overspill that looked like an abandoned bob-sleigh run. We ended up at a water treatment plant with twentieth century houses which would have belonged to the water board. Redmires is almost the highest point in Sheffield and it was so cold and crisp that I couldn’t feel my feet any more, despite hiking boots and two pairs of socks. The tarmac drive was slippery, the grass was white and there was a large icy puddle. Winter was coming fast.

The overflow in the woods

The overflow in the woods

We took a wrong turning on the path to the reservoir, and ended up at a derelict post war water treatment centre. This place certainly had a strange atmosphere, with its doors and windows shuttered with metal, peeling paint and a defunct sign next to a rusty doorbell: “press here for attention” on a side door that hadn’t opened in years, complete with a decrepit doormat. We turned back and found the path.

There was a jogger and a couple of dog walkers on the path around the top of the dam. But a sign said that walkers were not allowed up there. I decided to ignore them. After all, if questioned by some water board official, I still have a valid water hygiene card from my old job in the utilities industry (which allows me to go behind the scenes in water treatment works, or enter excavations – not as exciting as it sounds!) We scrambled up the bank, and were disappointed that the reservoir was mostly empty. There were excavators, temporary Heras fencing and the rattle of generators, but the view from the dam was breathtaking.

Approached the second dam, we clambered up the steep grassy bank. There was even less water in this reservoir! We walked around the gravel path, feeling a little illegal, until we arrived at another temporary fence, blocking the reservoir from the road, with a large digger parked in front of it. The fence wasn’t very well secured, and there was a way to squeeze out onto the road. Despite the reservoir being a construction site, it felt sinister, and there was a dead hare lying in front of the fence. It had obviously been dead for some time. The site compound was opposite here. No one stirred, but one of the welfare unit (toilet/shower) doors was swinging open, and it felt uncomfortably like someone was watching us.

The abandoned hut

The abandoned hut

We walked on, sticking to the road, which curved around the top reservoir. There were more people around now, parking up to enjoy a walk. Further on, a river flowed into the reservoir, with a path leading off it towards Rivelin. There was a large bell-mouth spillway, like a giant plughole. Next to the path was a ruined brick building, looking like a witch’s hut from a fairy tale. We enjoyed exploring it, and posing, looking out of the windows that had long ago lost their glass.

The rest of the walk along the road was enjoyable, admiring the smooth expanse of blue water and sky, the reservoir only ruffled by swimming mallards and seagulls bobbing in the water. Families and groups of walkers were parking up – but we’d hardly seen any people so far around the other reservoirs. The road ran out, with thick, mysterious woods on one side and a sign for ‘Redmires Lodge’. There’s a house in the woods and a very isolated shooting lodge, which would be a spooky place to spend the night.

All the walkers were making their way up a path which leads towards Stanage Edge, another favourite landmark for Sheffield walkers. The path didn’t go in the direction we wanted to go, and it was crowded with people strolling and chatting in large groups. We decided to take a path which would lead us higher up around the other side of the reservoir, near some interesting looking stones on the map. Unfortunately, this is where we got stuck in the bog – perfectly ordinary looking grass tussocks that squelched and oozed when we stood on them. We retraced our steps and found a muddy but stable path around the other side of the reservoir. We scrambled up onto the dam of the top reservoir and climbed over a wall before rejoining the road and making our way back to the car.

Clear blue skies and water

Clear blue skies and water

It was an interesting walk, and we managed to find a way to walk around the reservoirs. We enjoyed ourselves and exercised in the fresh air. In the clear, sunny conditions, we didn’t find it spooky, but it was certainly atmospheric, although I’m sure I would find it terrifying if I was alone here at dusk. However, we will definitely be back to explore Redmires – investigating Wyming Brook, the path with the spooky ruined cottage, and the track leading to Stannage. I can’t believe I haven’t been here in eighteen years of living in Sheffield, but we will have many more years of enjoying this place. There were difficulties at times, but we had fun in the sunshine.

This blog post is about a walk, and it isn’t an extended metaphor, but my life does feel like this walk at times. If I keep going, I will reach my destination of having a stable career as a creative writing tutor, with a thriving editing business and my own novels published and read by thousands of people. There are bound to be diversions, adventures, blocks and boggy bits along the way, but they are part of the journey, and I am already on my way there.

Cool as Folk

Some folk music - on the train to Edale!

Some folk music – on the train to Edale!

On Tuesday night, I took the folk train for the first time. I wasn’t sure what to expect. My friend Louise had decided to try it for her 30th birthday, bringing along me, another friend, Fraser and Louise’s mum. We had a pint in the Sheffield Tap, the brilliant real ale pub on Platform One of Sheffield railway station and then bought return tickets for the 7.36pm train to Edale, a tiny village in the Peak District, in the shadow of Kinder Scout, the highest point in Derbyshire. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinder_Scout

We clambered on board the shabby train. One carriage was ram-packed, with people of all ages, ranging from twenty-something hipsters to elderly ladies. A group of people in the middle of the train started playing accordions  There was a lady who was supposed to be playing the fiddle but her strings had snapped en-route to the station, due to the extreme cold. Luckily, a lady getting off the train at Grindleford lent her fiddle for a couple of songs. The train rumbled into the Peak District and we soaked up the atmosphere, noticing that at each village station we passed, the snow still lay deep on the platform.

At Edale, everyone shuffled through the snow into the Rambler Inn, next door to the station, and we drank pints of ale while singing along with old folk songs such as ‘She moved through the fair’ and ‘The Irish Rover’. I thought the inclusion of the comedy song, ‘Why Paddy’s Not at work today’ was particularly funny, as it sounds just like some of the accidents I have to investigate as part of my current job. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iA5RGI3zn20

As a carriage-full of folkies piled onto the train back to Sheffield, we must have been a shock to the surly-looking lad with multiple piercings, who had probably been on the train since it left Manchester Piccadilly. On the seat in front of him, the group of grey-haired, Arran-jumpered folkies got out their accordions and began to sing about barrels of ale, the young man pushed his headphones further into his ears, stared intently at his phone and tried to pretend that the whole thing wasn’t happening. When we reached Hathersage, the painfully cool young man, pushed his way through the corridor to stand by the doors until he could finally escape at Grindleford. We all thought it was hilarious that the lad had got out of the train at Grindleford, which is a picturesque Peak District village. Perhaps this young man has parents who are Morris Dancers and has finally escaped from Grindleford to live a cool urban life, only to find himself terminally embarrassed by the occupants of the folk train.

On New Year’s Eve 2005, I made a New Year’s resolution to do more stuff that I liked, including folk music, even if I had to do it by myself. My twenties had been quite “full-on” and, along with my circle of friends, we’d spent a lot of time at gigs and clubs. I was interested in getting into more folk music, but I’d been worried about it being a bit uncool or that my friends wouldn’t want to go with me. In May 2006, I volunteered as a steward at Wychwood Music Festival at Cheltenham racebourse, which eclectically combined folk, indie and dance music. For various reasons, my friends didn’t want to come. I was a bit nervous, but I went alone, on the train, lugging my tent for miles until some friendly Oxfam Stewards gave me a lift. I set up camp with them, in the middle of the racecourse. I met an amazing bunch of Oxfam stewards, including Louise and Fraser who accompanied me on the folk train. It was such a good weekend that I had completely lost my voice by the time I returned to Sheffield.

I’ve been stewarding for Oxfam at music festivals ever since the summer of 2006.  I’ve signed up to work for them at Download, Glastonbury, WOMAD, Beautiful Days and Shambala this year. It might not always be the most glamorous job in the world but you get a chance to make a real difference to people’s lives – at the festival, as well as the people who benefit from the money that Oxfam receives for providing a top-class stewarding service. Try it – you won’t regret it! http://www.oxfam.org.uk/stewarding

I’ve now got an international network of friends of all ages and from all backgrounds, ranging from hip young students to elderly hippies in woolly jumpers; anarchists to people who work for the military. And that’s only happened because I decided to take a step on my own and do something I wanted to do. From taking that small step, amazing things have happened. I’m about to take a much bigger step, into a whole new career, but now I know the power of following my heart and “doing the stuff that I like”!

The Folk Train. It really is “Cool as Folk”: http://www.folktrain.org.uk/

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