The Star Looks at Sheffield's Libraries: Garden restoration the key to a bright future at Broomhill

Kathy Harbord, library trustee, and Jill Sinclair, garden historian, hold a picture from 1931 showing how the garden used to look. Picture: Marie Caley
Kathy Harbord, library trustee, and Jill Sinclair, garden historian, hold a picture from 1931 showing how the garden used to look. Picture: Marie Caley
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Broomhill Library could have faced a bleak predicament when it became one of more than a dozen Sheffield venues handed over to their local communities as budget cuts intensified - but, nearly three years on, Jill Sinclair thinks a brighter future is on the way.

"We could complain about the council pulling out and leaving it up to volunteers. But it does really introduce a sense of dynamism that I think is very difficult to create in a normal council service."

Volunteers Ann Hailey, Lorraine Moshiri and Catherine Oakley at Broomhill Library. Picture: Marie Caley

Volunteers Ann Hailey, Lorraine Moshiri and Catherine Oakley at Broomhill Library. Picture: Marie Caley

The library, housed in a smart former Victorian villa on Taptonville Road, is supported by a team of around 70 helpers as one of the city's 'co-delivered' libraries, where the council continues to pay for maintenance.

The rest is left to goodwill, of which there is plenty in Broomhill, as efforts to turn the place into a bigger 'hub' are picking up steam in its diamond jubilee year.

There are already plenty of activities on the calendar to draw in visitors, including art and craft sessions for schoolchildren, storytime readings for younger ones and free computer support sessions every week. The library is doing a roaring trade in used books, too, generating around £1,500 annually towards projects.

However, funding is needed to realise the wider vision of creating a venue called Oriel House - as the building, once a family home, was known until the 1930s. Unused spaces such as the attic and basement offer potential for more events and talks, while properly restoring the library's back garden, Jill says, could be the key to unlocking grant money.

Jill Sinclair, garden historian and Tilly Dixon, Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust volunteer, pictured using the Schmapped App, in the library garden. Picture: Marie Caley

Jill Sinclair, garden historian and Tilly Dixon, Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust volunteer, pictured using the Schmapped App, in the library garden. Picture: Marie Caley

Designed by Percy Cane - an important horticultural figure in his day - the garden has historic features that have been emerging from the undergrowth following clearance work and archaeological digs backed by Sheffield University.

"There's so much more there than we thought, there's a lot of stone and outlines of the paths," says Jill, explaining how the garden became something of an overgrown wilderness in the 1980s and 90s.

"The council had no money for parks or green spaces at all. Sheffield parks generally, at that time, were in a terrible state. The Botanical Gardens was the same way, and if that hadn't got any funding a green space behind a library would have been suffering dreadfully.

"It was a complete jungle with brambles, ivy, and self-sown trees everywhere."

The garden's Yorkstone paving was stolen in 2003, and in response the council 'probably just gave up'.

"There really wasn't much to maintain any more."

The scheme has garnered 'a great deal' of support and enthusiasm, adds Jill, a garden historian.

"We've been talking to lots of people, including descendants of the family who lived at the building before it was a library. Recently I was speaking to a woman who used to go there as a child in the 1960s and she was almost in tears at the thought we might be able to restore it to what she remembered."

The initial stage of restoration planning will cost up to £3,000, but the full bill is likely to be far higher.

"It's really difficult to say. People are talking about various figures, more in the hundreds of thousands than the tens of thousands. Restoration's more expensive than putting it in new - you have to remove what's there, and document it. It feels to me like a fairly substantial heritage lottery bid."

Cane, who worked in the traditional Arts and Crafts style, was commissioned to design ballerina Anna Pavlova's garden in Hampstead, London, and the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie flew him out to Africa to call on his expertise.

"If you had a big estate and wanted to get somebody in, Percy Cane was the name that came to mind."

Broomhill, therefore, is much smaller then some of his larger assignments - however, this could count in its favour. "It's like a little jewel and a microcosm of his style."

Artist's impressions for Oriel House were sketched out by university students in 2015, demonstrating how the revamped spaces, both indoors and outside, could be used.

"It was big picture stuff," says Jill. "Architects are going to come in and see if there's any way to make some of those a reality."

Earlier this month the library hosted a raft of events to mark the 60th anniversary and state the importance of books and reading, such as an evening with author Jan Ellen, a talk by archivist Ruth Harman and a prize raffle. Jill led tours of the garden, where attendees were introduced to the joys of 'Shmapped' - a smartphone app, short for 'Sheffield mapped', that gives an insight into how urban and green spaces affect people's wellbeing.

The benefits of tapping into a network of volunteers are clear at Taptonville Road, Jill thinks.

"It's allowed people from the community to explore their interest and involvement in all sorts of ways. And the fact it's our diamond jubilee this year has generated all sorts of activities."

Visit www.broomhill-library.org.uk for details.