Finding peace in secret corners of our busy city

Cllr Joe Otten sat in Whinfell Quarry Gardens.
Cllr Joe Otten sat in Whinfell Quarry Gardens.
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Whinfell Quarry Garden is one of Sheffield’s best-kept secrets.

Nestled behind an unremarkable stone wall, off an unremarkable lane, off Ecclesall Road South, the two-acre patch is a botanical utopia.

Here, Californian redwoods tower over Himalayan rhododendrons, Japanese acers and South American gunnera.

But these exotic species of plants haven’t been bought at a nursery, they were personally brought back from travels across the globe.

Their importer was the garden’s founder, Samuel Doncaster, who started work on the garden and its exotic plants in 1895.

Samuel was a steel magnate and leased the land off Earl Fitzwilliam to build the garden, which was designed to complement his huge home – Whinfell House, which has since been knocked down.

The garden, fortunately, is still here. And what’s more, it’s ours.

One of its regular visitors is Kris Burrows, a part-time body therapist who regularly makes chalk pastel sketches of the garden.

“You feel as though you’re in the Himalayas when you sit here. And the redwoods really make it feel exotic. You can walk through the park through this winding path and see it from all different vistas.”

But while the garden belongs to us, the city of Sheffield, it fell into a bad state of repair more than 10 years ago. Desperate to return the garden to its former glory, the Friends of Whinfell Garden run ‘working days’, when volunteers roll up their sleeves and get stuck in.

Chairman of the group David Jordan said: “It’s a fascinating place with a fascinating history. The redwoods are the tallest in South Yorkshire and the second tallest in Yorkshire – the tallest redwoods are in Halifax. There were so many kinds of plants brought here when it was first established.”

To help with costs towards restoring the garden, Friends of Whinfell Quarry Garden have received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

And as part of the project, David has been researching the history of the garden – and it has proved to be fascinating.

“One of our members is Samuel Doncaster’s grandson and he has shown us the diaries that Samuel kept when he travelled to America at the end of the 19th century. The diary is so interesting. He sailed from Liverpool and talked a lot about the showers on the ship.”

On his return to Sheffield, Samuel was armed with hundreds of species of plants.

“As many as 10,000 seedlings were planted in the garden and then 10 years later 9,000 had to be taken out – that’s how many trees were planted.”

But the garden’s stone valley dates back to way before Victorian times, as David explains.

“One of our members’ uncles is a professor at Cambridge University, and is quite an expert on rocks. He wrote an article on the stone in the garden and estimates that the rocks are 316 million years old and once formed a river that ran from Scandinavia through Sheffield.”

Whinfell is a Grade II Listed garden and – funding pending – it will start to look like its founder intended.

But Whinfell is not the only hidden emerald gem in Sheffield.

There are dozens of parks in the city that are barely known. And one man who knows about them is Coun Joe Otten.

“It’s lovely that there are so many green spaces in Sheffield,” he says, looking at a council map of all the parks and gardens.

He points to a little-known wood in the Totley area.

“There,” he says, looking at the map. “Gillfield Wood.”

The wood is right on the border of Totley and almost in the Peak District. It’s a vast ancient woodland that’s almost completely secluded. It feels like Ecclesall Woods, only more remote and peaceful.

And then, as if this weren’t enough, at the end of the woodland is a gateway to what looks like a rural idyll – rolling fields, lambs, hay and farmhouses. It feels more like a scene from The Darling Buds of May than somewhere a couple of miles out of an industrial centre.

“It’s amazing what there is in Sheffield,” says Joe.

And he’s not the only one to think that. Through a small clearing in the hedges is another little-known park, Totley Hall Park, which is populated by a handful of teenagers.

In fact, so secret is Totley Hall Park that it’s not even on the council’s park map yet, but like Whinfell Quarry Garden and Gillfield Wood, it’s ours.

Yet here, in the park’s vast space, is a playground, a sports field and even a BMX track, which is used by BMX-lovers every day of the week.

These are just some of the 93 parks and gardens in Sheffield.

Well, 94 if you count Totley Hall Gardens.

Who knows what other spaces are waiting to be discovered.

Secret Places

There are 93 parks and gardens in Sheffield.

Steel magnate Samuel Doncaster purchased the land for Whinfell Quarry Garden in 1895.

There are Japanese acers, Himalayan rhododendrons, Swiss alpine plants and Californian redwoods in the garden, making it one of the most diverse botanical attractions in the city.

The redwoods in Whinfell Quarry Garden are the tallest in South Yorkshire.

Totley Hall Park once formed the grounds of Totley Hall, which was knocked down after being turned into a teacher training college in the 1950s.

Totley Hall Park has a playground and BMX track.