"We can't give up": The fight to bring beautiful Sheffield bath house back to the community
A community fighting to save one of Sheffield’s most historic and beautiful buildings has been battling to bring the gem back into public use for around two years, with tough challenges and some fascinating discoveries along the way.
The Friends of Birley Spa are determined to restore the derelict Grade II-listed Birley Spa bath house, on Dyke’s Lane, Hackenthorpe.
Once lively with community events, wedding receptions, boating, history tours and as a children's playground the site - which has a natural spring running inside - now sits hauntingly in darkness under a deteriorating ceiling.
Is it the only Victorian bath house left in South Yorkshire and the Friends believe it could be the only one like it in the country.
Down a short path from the building is a pond and lush woodland brimming with wildlife as well as an old wishing tree. Foxes, squirrels, owls, hedgehogs, woodpeckers, a kingfisher, fishes and a variety of insects have been spotted in the area.
From what started out in 2018 as a small group fighting against Sheffield Council’s decision to put it up for auction, with a guide price of up to £100,000, has snowballed into a campaign which gained support from local MP Clive Betts, a 1,200 signature petition and more than 700 members in its Facebook group.
Fiona Milne, one of the first members of the Friends, has lived in the area for around 20 years and describes the building and grounds as “magical”.
“When I first got involved my biggest passion was the pond and the wildlife, the memories of taking my kids there,” she said.
“As all of this has gone on I am 100 percent committed to the building as well now. It’s absolutely fascinating. It’s magical, and so important.”
Victoria Wise, also a long-standing member of the Friends, has lived in the area her whole life and fondly remembers playing there as a child and now wants it to be open for the next generation.
She said: “To me it means the most for the children. I grew up with it and I want them to, it’s their local history. No one else has this on their doorstep.”
Throughout their battle to save it so far, they have learned of all sorts of stories and believe there is much more to be discovered.
Fiona said: “There is so much that’s not known, we had to learn the history to tell other people.”
Some findings include a cannonball, a large lost headstone dated 1701, that the bath could have existed as far back as 1780 and that in the 1950s, microlithic flints were discovered in the area.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the group held heritage days which they said were very popular and even attracted visitors from as far as Essex.
The group also had to learn a lot about the processes required to bring such a site back into use.
Fiona said: “It’s been a massive learning curve, I have never been involved in anything like this before and I will never be involved in anything like this ever again. It’s been at the same time the most soul-destroying thing I have ever done and provided the most joy.
“I will never get sick of standing at that door [looking into the building] and seeing people go ‘wow’ and that instantly makes it all worth it.”
The building has two floors which include a kitchen and the plunge pool. Former uses include a spa, housing and a hotel.
The Friends ultimately want part of the site to be used as a cafe and for the building to be open for public visits and learning about history. Upstairs they hope could be turned into a wellbeing studio or something else that could help generate a sustainable income to keep the building maintained.
But it is a big challenge. The site is badly weathered with damp and little sunlight and will require much work to bring it back into use.
Around the late 1990s the council was given a £293,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant to restore the site and Victoria reckons it will cost at least the same amount to repair it again.
She added: “I don’t think it will do another bad winter. All it takes is that downpour of rain and it’ll damage.”
The group visit regularly to maintain what they can of the building but they need help from Sheffield Council and funding to get the project moving along quicker.
Fiona said: “We know we need to raise money, but given the pandemic we are struggling and have had events cancelled that could have generated income. And it’s hard to put events on here when we don’t yet have the facilities.
“We would like the council to be a bit more supportive than they are, they say supportive things but don’t often take action.
“We can’t give up, I certainly believe it will still happen.
“Given the horrors of the pandemic and the difference it’s got to make to how we live our lives, it strengthens the case that already stood for Birley Spa. It was built for health and wellbeing, hundreds of years on, it’s about time we made the most of that.”
The next steps are to make the building safe again, secure funding for restoration and agree plans for the long-term sustainability of the site and how it will be used in the future.
These were in motion before the coronavirus pandemic put breaks on the work but the council said it still aims to work with the group to progress the project now the city is beginning to move again.
Councillor Paul Wood, cabinet member for neighbourhoods, said: “The council continues to work constructively with the Friends of Birley Spa and local ward councillors in assessing plans for the long term future of the building. This includes identifying potential funding opportunities for the site, to undertake the necessary repairs to the building and bring it back into use.”
To donate to the cause, contact the Friends at [email protected]