'A misunderstood area with a close-knit community and a royally good park' - spotlight on Firth Park, Sheffield

Teresa Brill and Maggie Hoyles, of the Friends of Firth Park
Teresa Brill and Maggie Hoyles, of the Friends of Firth Park
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When Stephanie James moved to Firth Park a couple of years ago, she recalls her daughter telling her 'you'd never get me living there'.

Fast forward 24 months and the same daughter is house-hunting in the area, not just to be near her mum but because it has so much to offer for a fraction of what you would pay to live in Sheffield's more sought-after postcodes.

Outdoor gym equipment in Firth Park

Outdoor gym equipment in Firth Park

The tale is emblematic of a neighbourhood which is often viewed with suspicion if not distaste by outsiders, but where those calling it home cherish the 'close-knit' community.

The northern suburb takes its name from the lush 36-acre park commanding spectacular views over the city centre, just 20 minutes away by bus, and the surrounding countryside.

Sheffield's first publicly-owned park was donated by steel magnate Mark Firth and opened with great fanfare by the future King Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, in August 1875.

More than 140 years later, the park remains the jewel in the area's crown, but a bustling shopping centre, busy social calendar and good transport links add to its appeal.

Stephanie James

Stephanie James

Teresa Brill and Maggie Hoyles, chair and treasurer of the thriving Friends of Firth Park group, say the area is often misunderstood by those not living there.

"Some people put it down but it's a lovely place," they explain over drinks in the First Start Children's Centre café on the park's northern tip.

"A few years ago we entered Sheffield in Bloom (for the city's best floral displays), and the woman looked at us incredulously as if the idea of flowers in a place like Firth Park was beyond her comprehension.

"But when people come here, they see how lovely the park is, with such wonderful views, and appreciate what a friendly, multicultural area it is."

The entrance to Firth Park bowling pavilion

The entrance to Firth Park bowling pavilion

The friends group is responsible for the popular summer and winter festivals in the park. It also organises year-round activities for people of all ages at the pavilion beside the bowling green, from keep-fit sessions to conversational classes for those looking to improve their English.

Firth Park councillor Alan Law says the ward may be Sheffield's second most deprived, but it has 'an unbelievably strong community'.

As well as the park, he says it is home to 'arguably one of Sheffield's best' libraries, a diverse range of shops and a fantastic children's centre.

"One of the magic things about the area is the brilliant amount of community involvement. Everyone really works together," he adds.

Firth Park - just 166 miles from London

Firth Park - just 166 miles from London

It is a sentiment I hear echoed in various forms by many of the shopkeepers, dog walkers and young families I meet on a short stroll around Firth Park.

Jane Hickinbotton, who runs the household store Hand It To You with husband Kevin, talks fondly of the 'close-knit neighbourhood'; Sharon Way, who works at the grocery store Herons tells how 'friendly' the locals are; and Caroline Ovendale, who works at The Codfather fish and chips shop, says 'we all look out for one another round here'.

Firth Park hit the headlines for the wrong reasons last summer, following a spate of muggings and complaints about drug-dealing and prostitution in the area.

But the majority of those I speak to say crime has since died down and is now no worse than in most other parts of the city.

Today, it appears the biggest cause of complaint for many locals remains the lack of a big supermarket to fill the gap left when the Co-op closed a year ago.

There is also unrest over the impending closure of the local Yorkshire Bank branch, concerns about a lack of activities for young people, beyond the bowling alley, and anger about littering and antisocial quad bikers churning up the park grounds.

Firth Park library

Firth Park library

Firth Park's cluster of shops radiate out from the pristine roundabout, where the remains of the tram lines which once ran through the neighbourhood can be seen.

One of those shopping parades is home to the charity SOAR's employment support centre, where jobseekers can get help with CVs, interview practice and much more, as well as being hooked up with major employers and educational establishments offering apprenticeships.

Employment advisor Tazer Restaino has only worked there for six weeks but says her first impressions of the area have been positive.

"It's a vibrant area and the variety of shops is amazing. Anything you can think of you can buy in Firth Park," she says.

At the other end of the spectrum is Andrew Mitchell, a 65-year-old ambulance technician who has lived in Firth Park all his adult life but is preparing to move south to Millhouses as he approaches retirement.

"I've been very happy here and I'll be sorry to leave because I know there's much about the area I will miss," he says.

"I love the park and leisure centre here, and there are great bus links, but the best thing is the people.

"Every time you're out walking you'll meet someone and get chatting because it's such a friendly place."

As if to prove his point, he is chatting to Stephanie James, who is out walking her Staffordshire terrier Rose, when I interrupt the pair.

Stephanie moved up two years ago from Meersbrook, primarily because the cheaper house prices meant she could finally buy somewhere mortgage-free.

"My daughter used to say 'you would never get me living there', but she's now started looking for a place here," says the 59-year-old retired carer.

"She says there's a proper community and she likes the idea of having the library and sports centre close by.

"But the biggest attraction is not being saddled with a huge mortgage like she would if she bought somewhere on the other side of town, where you might end up paying double the price for the same property."

Firth Park's First Start Children's Centre

Firth Park's First Start Children's Centre

Firth Park Methodist Church

Firth Park Methodist Church

Andrew Mitchell

Andrew Mitchell

The view south from Firth Park

The view south from Firth Park

The roundabout at the heart of Firth Park

The roundabout at the heart of Firth Park