A cathedral fit for the modern world we live in

Sheffield Cathedral opens its doors once more after refurbishments. Stone pillars have been moved outside at the start of a new path leading to and from the city centre
Sheffield Cathedral opens its doors once more after refurbishments. Stone pillars have been moved outside at the start of a new path leading to and from the city centre
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There were, says Reverend Peter Bradley, many reasons why Sheffield Cathedral needed the £4.3 million transformation it has just undergone: the heating had stopped working, the electrics had been condemned, the lighting wasn’t fit for purpose and there was limited disabled access.

But perhaps one incident above all else proved the final straw.

“The pews were falling apart,” remembers the Dean of Sheffield. “Someone sat on one a few years ago and it collapsed. He converted to Roman Catholicism not long after.”

It was, thus, in 2009, the ambitious Gateway Project was launched to completely renovate the Cathedral Church of St Peter and St Paul.

Now, five years on, this majestic Grade 1, six century old listed building has just reopened its doors after 15 months work.

And, as parishioners who attended an early Easter service clearly agree, the facelift - the most extensive for half a century - is certainly impressive.

Out have gone those rickety pews, dark corners and a rather odd purple paint job thought to have been done in the Seventies. In has come a magnificent new stone floor, wheelchair access and light, airy spaces.

Dedicated shop and reception area complete with plasma billboards have been created, while a heritage interpretation centre featuring interactive touch screens takes pride of place close to the entrance.

Memorial stones and busts have been cleaned and moved to more prominent places; a new font has been commissioned in Sheffield steel; and modern spot lamps - similar to those used in theatres - have been installed to light up key features such as eight 15th century angels hanging from the sanctuary ceiling.

“Before you couldn’t see them because the car park style lighting blinded you every time you looked up,” notes Rev Bradley.

Heating has been updated, a state-of-the-art sound system has been wired in, and clutter has been removed to make the nave more spacious and versatile for a range of events.

Outside, meanwhile, the new glass entrance has been re-angled to face the bottom of Fargate rather than Cutler’s Hall, while Cathedral Square - the new name for the forecourt - has been planted with a grass area. Victorian pinnacle gates, previously discarded round the side of the building, have been moved to a prominent place in the square.

At night, both a relaid path and the entrance itself will be lit up.

“By re-angling the entrance, what we’re doing is facing the city more,” says Canon Keith Farrow, the cathedral’s canon missioner. “This entrance invites people in and also encourages us to go out into the city - it’s a two way thing.

“The main idea has been to bring out the best of the old and make more of our history; preserve the best of the past and make it more accessible again.

“This building has so much heritage - a church has been on this site for 1,000 years - and we want people to come in and see that. It always amazes me how many people from Sheffield have never been in for a look around.

“But on another level, this is the home for a vibrant community of Christians and we want to celebrate that too. This building tells the story of Christianity.”

It is hoped further improvements - as yet unfunded - will include a new baptistry being built and the electronic organ replaced with a pipe version.

The work itself has gone relatively smoothly.

The need for change was first mooted 25 years ago but the project only really got off the ground in 2009. It was then that Dean Bradley appointed London-based architects Thomas Ford and Partners to develop possible plans.

These were eventually approved by the cathedral’s external Fabric Advisory Committee and funding was acquired from sources including charitable body The Sheffield Church Burgesses Trust, the Heritage Lottery Fund and private donations. The whole scheme tied in with the fact that 2014 marks the centenary year since this former parish church was first made a cathedral.

During the actual 15 months work, congregations have been held in the smaller Regimental Chapel of the York and Lancaster Regiment located to the side of the main nave.

“When people saw it for the first time on Easter Sunday, they got very emotional,” says Rev Farrow.

“I think they’ve been coming here so long and are astonished by how beautifully it’s been adapted.

“The whole place feels more light and airy. In a way it’s hard to believe it’s the same place. There are so many places that draw the eye now.”

A celebratory service will take place on June 8 but Sheffield Cathedral is now open to all.

A brief history of Sheffield cathedral

900s: The Sheffield Cross, a Saxon religious monument now housed in the British Museum, is believed to have been sited where today’s Cathedral is.

1100s: William de Lovetot builds the first church here. Stones from this first building can still be seen in the east wall of the cathedral’s sanctuary.

1266: The church is burned down during the Second Barons’ War but is rebuilt some 14 years later.

1430: A new church is built. It is this which forms the basis of the cathedral which stands today.

1520: The Shrewsbury Chapel is built – the first of several expansions over the next 500 years.

1805: A diarist records the church is ‘one of the most gloomy places of worship in the kingdom’ and the nave is later pulled down and rebuilt.

1914: The church is granted Cathedral status. There follows four decades of expansion and improvements.

2015: The £4.3 million Gateway Project is completed, starting a new, more visitor-friendly era in the cathedral’s history.

Not the biggest plan for redevelopment in its history...

The £4.3 million renovation of Sheffield Cathedral may have brought it dramatically into the 21st century but the transformation is nothing compared with the changes which would have happened if plans drawn up in the 1910s had come off.

Then, a second spire, a massive new south-facing nave stretching across Cathedral Square to where the trams now run, and a complete redevelopment of the north side would have made the building one of the largest cathedrals in the UK.

The plan was drawn up by ecclesiastical architect Charles Nicholson in 1913 when the then parish church had just been granted cathedral status.

Sheffield, at the time, was a confident and newly rich city and the cathedral would have reflected the area’s growing stature.

But, while huge swathes of the development were indeed completed - including the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, the Crypt Chapel of All Saints and the Chapter House - most simply never happened.

Two world wars and an economic depression in between meant the money just wasn’t there.