Old Coach House restoration set to create Sheffield's 'best park'
It is a long time since anyone showed the Old Coach House any love.
The 242-year-old building in Hillsborough Park had long been collapsing in on itself, a bowing front wall was propped up three years ago and the roof was full of holes.
Owned by Sheffield City Council, it hadn’t been used since World War Two and urgently needed investment and repair.
That was despite its Grade II listing in 1973.
A heritage report states it is: “One of Sheffield's few examples of the 18th Century 'Adam Style' of architecture, which focused on balance, order and discipline in layout and elevation.
“Playful motifs such as the round and arched windows are evocative of this style, making their protection and preservation of utmost importance.”
The Old Coach House was built, with Hillsborough House (now Hillsborough Library), in 1779 for Thomas Steade. At that time the area was in countryside well outside the Sheffield boundary.
It eventually became part of a 103-acre estate that stretched north to the current junction of Leppings Lane and Penistone Road, and encompassed the site on which Hillsborough Stadium now stands.
But for generations of park users it was a crumbling building to be avoided.
Its fortunes started to change in 2016 when Age UK Sheffield launched a hunt for a new activity centre.
Chief executive Steve Chu approached the city council and was offered the dilapidated wreck.
He said: “At first I thought ‘no way’. I was looking for a modern activity centre we could use straight away.
“But I live locally, my children play here and I walk the dog here. Talking to my wife that evening I realised a facility like this could be exactly what Hillsborough Park needs.”
The charity worked with the Friends of Hillsborough Park on a survey which showed people’s top two priorities were a cafe and toilets. That chimed with Steve’s experience.
“We’re a young family and we would drive for half an hour to Endcliffe or Millhouses Park for the facilities. We got a lot of feedback that people would love to use the park more but the lack of toilets was a barrier, especially for those with toddlers, or Age UK Sheffield’s target audience.”
It was the start of a huge project that will preserve a heritage building and create a public cafe and loos.
An adjacent potting shed will be converted into a dementia friendly activity centre for older people offering wood and metal working as well arts, crafts and gardening.
Steve added: “I have no experience of building and I thought it was in a terrible state. But heritage architect Mike Leigh thought it wasn’t too bad structurally.
“He did some initial plans and got in touch with the Heritage Lottery Fund and they were very positive right from the start.”
A bid submitted in December 2018 led to final approval, in June 2020, of £631,500. Age UK Sheffield put in £100,000 and raised £335,000 from funders.
Work started in March with bats relocated to boxes on nearby trees, under the watchful eye of an ecologist, and after young pigeons had fledged.
Site manager Chris Kirby, of Sheffield-based Creative Building Projects, said they had arrived ‘in the nick of time’.
The building was collapsing in on itself and ‘very precarious’.
“Another year or two and it would have been beyond economic and structural repair,” said Chris.
As well as bowing walls, the repair of some brickwork had been left half-finished and propped up by sticks, he added.
It was constructed without foundations, they had discovered, with large pieces of locally-quarried sandstone placed onto clay just six inches below the surface. Lime mortar, ‘which technically never sets’ had allowed the building to move.
And it appeared to have had various uses over the years.
A black streak up one wall, above stone turned pink by years of very high temperatures, indicated the work of a blacksmith, although no chimney remains.
This week, steel columns were being attached to walls. A large beam will be installed between them to brace the structure.
But surprisingly three original roof trusses will be retained. Only one will need a ‘steel shoe’ where it has rotted.
Looking up, Chris pointed out matching marks on different pieces of wood.
He said: “The joiners built them on the ground as a ‘test fit’ then marked them so they could easily be put back together up there.
"I like to find out what buildings were used for over the years, it’s nice to do a historic restoration.”
The charity has taken a 125-year lease with Sheffield City Council and will pay a peppercorn rent initially.
Steve Chu added: “The authority really wants to see investment in parks using resources from other funders. It’s perfect in that respect.”
The project will also see a direct route opened into the walled garden to the rear, an original feature which is still something of a secret. It will be a lovely spot to have a cup of coffee, says Steve.
The cafe is set to open in December.
The 50-acre park has a playground, pond, sports pitches and parking. But the new facilities will see it rival the best, says Steve.
“It’s taken a long time and there’s been a huge amount of work gone into the lottery bid. It’s the biggest project I’m ever going to be involved in,” he said.
“But people will travel to the right places and this will create Sheffield’s best park.”