Restorations - Sheffield Guides face huge repair bill for 300-year-old activity centre

You wouldn’t choose a 300-year-old listed building as an outdoor activity centre - the costs of maintenance, using only approved heritage contractors, would be a sure-fire deterrent.

By David Walsh
Friday, 6th August 2021, 3:30 pm

But the rich and unique history of the former stables and staff cottages of Whiteley Wood Hall could also be an asset for Girlguiding Sheffield - who must find £300,000 to repair the roof.

An 11-strong committee is developing plans to raise its profile and ensure it survives with a determination that would be applauded by the women who founded the centre almost 90 years ago.

In 1935, Lucy Dawson, wife of mail order tycoon J G Graves, was among prominent women, including a Tyzack and a Coles, who acquired the hall, the stables and nine acres of land for Sheffield Girl Guides.

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Committee chair and former Brownie leader Gillian Nottingham at Girlguiding Sheffield's Whiteley Woods Outdoor Activity Centre.

Dating back to 1663 and overlooking the Porter Valley, the hall was steeped in Sheffield’s industrial history.

Most famously, from 1757 it was home to cutler Thomas Boulsover, inventor of silver plating, known as ‘Sheffield Plate’. This more affordable substitute for silver saw an explosion in its use on items from jewellery to buttons to snuff boxes.

It was also home to Samuel Plimsoll, from 1864, inventor of the Plimsoll Line, indicating maximum safe loading on ships, and from 1913 to 1925 William Clark, managing director of Vickers Ltd which made armour plate, ships, cars, tanks and torpedoes.

Ten years later, the Guides paid £3,200 for the whole site to make a base for girls to get outdoors and have a taste of adventure.

Gillian Nottingham in the courtyard. The buildings were originally the gardener’s cottage and the coachman’s cottage (later the chauffeur’s cottage), stables, storage for carriages, a tack room and a barn with mounting steps. There was also a hay loft.

Almost nine decades on, that ethos - and need - are just as strong.

Committee member Ann Evans, who first visited as a 12-year-old Guide in 1960, said: “Some children are so protected these days, to cook a sausage on a stick is amazing.

“One Brownie said excitedly to her mum, ‘I’ve been allowed to do the washing up and peel carrots and potatoes’. They’ve got to learn somewhere, and where better than a safe and fun environment? Where else can you teach a Rainbow to kayak on a pond? Kids can run free outdoors and have adventures. That will never change.”

Whiteley Woods Outdoor Activity Centre was battling back after being ‘floored’ by Covid shutdowns when a roof survey found repairs of £300,000 were needed.

A date stone from the original hall, with three ‘A’s of the couple who had the hall built, Alexander and Alice Ashton, and the date: 1663.

Two £3,000 grants from South Yorkshire Community Foundation and the Harry Bottom Trust were spent on immediately treating woodworm - but it still leaves the organisation with its biggest ever bill.

This is where its heritage could become an asset. The gates will be thrown open to the public on September 11 as part of Heritage Open Days - and who knows who will walk through the door?

Committee chair Gillian Nottingham said: “We want to make sure people know about us. It’s not about making money, it’s about providing as many opportunities to children in Sheffield and beyond as we can.”

The centre can accommodate two groups of up to 30 indoors and has four campsites for up to 50 in the grounds. The committee wants to maximise its use, taking annual income up from £80,000 to a possible £120,000.

Committee member Ann Evans in a dormitory with old roof timbers exposed.

But despite making a manager redundant, it costs £1,000-a-week to run and will never make enough to cover its large new bill.

Most listed buildings are in residential or commercial use where the quality of restoration is a key selling point and is likely to be cherished.

In contrast, the OAC must withstand hundreds of excited kids.

In the dormitories, gnarled old roof timbers sit over metal bunk beds and store rooms full of plastic boxes and trestle tables have 300-year-old cobbles on the floor. Round the back, an extension, although in stone, has a flat roof and a basketball net is attached to the kitchen garden wall and a satellite dish to a chimney.

Acknowledging this uniqueness, Ann said: “Young people and heritage value have got to work together.”

Clearly, planners at Sheffield City Council understand that - but will the Heritage Lottery fund and others?

Ann Evans in the former orchard.

The hall, off Common Lane, was eventually demolished in 1957. The remaining buildings to the rear, which comprise the OAC, form a three-sided courtyard.

They were originally the gardener’s cottage and the coachman’s cottage (later the chauffeur’s cottage), stables, storage for carriages, a tack room and a barn with mounting steps. There was also a hay loft.

Back then, carriages went around the sweep of the drive to the front of the hall, dropped off passengers and continued round to the courtyard.

A date stone originally set into the hall was kept and in 1960 was set into the wall of a ‘saluting base’ built in the grounds to commemorate Guiding’s golden jubilee.

It is now very worn, but it is just possible to make out the three ‘A’s of the couple who had the hall built, Alexander and Alice Ashton, and the date: 1663.

Gillian said she first attended the OAC when she was 10. She went on to become a Brownie leader before joining the committee - several of whom are under 40, she stresses. Irrespective of their age, their commitment is total.

She said: “We will do it. The alternative is to sell up and there are several of us who would lie down on the drive to stop that happening. This is a really important resource for Sheffield and Girlguiding. But it’s going to be a heck of a challenge.”

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Thank you. Nancy Fielder, editor.

Entrance to the former orchard.
Former coachman's and gardener's cottage.
Ann Evans in a former stable with original cobbles.