A case of blood, sweat and weirs

Part of the Five Weirs Walk
Part of the Five Weirs Walk
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THEY knew when they started it would take blood, sweat and tears. In the end, it was actually blood, sweat and 21 years.

“We had a vision and we knew it was ambitious,” says Simon Ogden. “But no-one ever imagined it would take two decades.”

The Five Weirs Walk Trust in 1986 with Simon Ogden back row centre

The Five Weirs Walk Trust in 1986 with Simon Ogden back row centre

That vision was the Five Weirs Walk.

Today, this £8 million pathway stretching 7.5 km along the River Don from the city centre to Meadowhall is not only well-used by everyone from walkers to canoeists, anglers to nature lovers; it is also recognised as one of the UK’s finest water corridors.

But back in 1986, it was nothing more than a seemingly impossible idea floated one morning by a group of Sheffield City Council workers trying to come up with affordable ways to regenerate the post-industrial east end.

Now, a new booklet charts the history of the walkway from that very first discussion to the moment it opened in 2007.

The guide forms a part of an academic study into the development of urban rivers carried out by the University of Sheffield.

“The Five Weirs Walk is an incredible Sheffield success story,” says Professor David Lerner, director of the university’s catchment science centre and the man behind the booklet. “Five years after opening seemed an appropriate time to record how the project developed.”

The enormity of that project was not always obvious.

“We thought it would take about three years,” winces Simon again, who back then was an area planner with Sheffield City Council. “It seemed like a good idea for business, for heritage and for wildlife. We were sure it would be a no-brainer, and people would get on board. But perhaps we were naive.”

The trouble was, in 1986, there was no public access to the Don and the old steel industries which lined the banks were sceptical to having a pathway running over their land.

As such the Five Weirs Trust was set up as a registered volunteer-run charity to promote the scheme.

Naturally enough, the body appealed to cyclists, anglers and environmentalists. But it also brought on board various business people and professionals who supported the concept. A solicitor who steered the group through its trickiest legal obstacles signed up after enjoying a guided walk along the banks.

By 1988 much of the support was there - with the pathway made a key part of Sheffield’s future planning strategy - but the first work was not carried out until the early Nineties.

Then a short pilot route, funded by local companies, was built along a scrap yard.

“We broke everything into manageable chunks so the task was never overwhelming,” says Simon, who is now secretary of the trust as well as Sheffield City Council’s regeneration manager.

“Getting that first phase done felt great.”

Slowly, more of the route came together with developers, landowners, the council and grant bodies all contributing money or expertise. Slowly, the River Don was transformed into a place people wanted to be - “as well enjoyed as Endcliffe Park,” says Simon.

In Tinsley, the development of Meadowhall resulted in so-called ‘planning gain’ funding; while the council agreed to foot the £1 million Cobweb Bridge under the Wicker Viaduct in 2003.

And when it all finally opened in 2007? There was a sense of completion yes - but also a desire to move on.

“The river stretches goes on to Hillsborough,” says Simon. “An Upper Don Walk Trust has been set up to do something similar. It will take time - but then so did the Five Weirs Walk, and I hope people think that was worth it.”

The Five Weirs Walk: How Voluntary Action Transformed An Urban Riverside is released this week. It will be available free from the university on 0114 222 5725 or via links from www.fiveweirs.co.uk