Getting streets ahead in preserving Sheffield's history

Exchange Gateway, Black Swan Walk and Aldine Court are not names that trip off the tongue when thinking of streets in the middle of Sheffield.

Monday, 8th January 2018, 5:27 pm
Updated Thursday, 11th January 2018, 1:45 pm
Dan Kahn at Black Swan Walk

But each is an official, recorded route in the city centre - and, according to qualified archaeologist Dan Kahn, they are among many at risk of being forgotten or built over as time moves on and Sheffield's regeneration gathers pace.

Dan says such back streets and alleyways are a significant and irreplaceable part of the city's heritage, and that more should be done to protect them through thoughtful planning and development.

Aldine Court

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"They're of historic importance - you can tell from their names," says Dan, who has a master's degree in archaeology from Sheffield University and has worked on projects in the UK and abroad. "They are part of the historic fabric of the city and over the years they seem to have become neglected and forgotten."

Exchange Gateway and Black Swan Walk are at opposite ends of Fargate. The former runs behind Orchard Square and the latter parallels Chapel Walk.

"Both of these have been reduced to mere escape routes from fire exits in surrounding properties, whereas many years ago they must have boasted shops, houses and even the odd pub," says Dan.

Other 'forgotten' streets are close by, such as Jew Lane, off Fitzalan Square, or the apparently unnamed route that runs from Pinstone Street to Burgess Street behind the Area nightclub.

Jew Lane

"All or most of these streets, even the cul-de-sacs, are public rights of way, and in many other towns and cities you will see that these back lanes have been revived and even totally rebuilt in conservation programmes and modern developments."

He adds: "I remember there was a sign saying Jew Lane at the Fitzalan Square end of it, but then about 10 years ago it vanished. Maybe somebody stole it or the council took it down. With some of these back alleys, if you lose the sign, they can be completely forgotten about."

Dan thinks the small lanes hark back to the medieval street pattern that used to exist around the former Sheffield Castle.

"Obviously you had a town growing up," says Dan. "Some of them might have been major thoroughfares. Some of them are very much in use like, say, Mulberry Street or Chapel Walk."

Exchange Gateway

Pictures from the Sheffield Archives shed light on how some of the streets once looked and how they were used - in the 1890s the entrance to Exchange Gateway stood between Hartley Brothers, a tailor's shop, and J Preston, a chemist's, while Aldine Court was home to the JJ Greaves Auction Mart in the 1940s and 50s.

The court runs from High Street to Hartshead and marks the location where some of Sheffield's earliest newspapers were printed. The Star has now moved to offices on Pinfold Street, with the publication's old headquarters planned to become flats.

"People do use Aldine Court to go down towards Paradise Square or wherever," says Dan. "Whoever takes over the old premises may carry out redevelopment and they will have to make sure they maintain the right of way."

Orchard Square - while a modern development 'made to look traditional' - is suggestive of a far older route.

Aldine Court

"I think, again, the thoroughfare in Orchard Square follows one of these old plans. A lot of people go through TK Maxx to get access to Church Street but that's not an actual public right of way, it's only open during shopping hours. That must have been, originally, one of those alleyways going right through."

The shop units earmarked for demolition on Devonshire Street where bookshop Rare & Racy used to be, and the site of the new HSBC offices at Charter Square, are all sites worth monitoring closely, Dan believes.

"With some of these modern developments there's really a danger of totally obliterating a lot of of the original fabric of the city. That's very serious. These thoroughfares should be incorporated into new developments, even if they're not all public rights of way - say, if they build a new atrium and have the street marked out, or if a mall is named after the street it once was."

Dan says back streets 'have a legal, as well as a community, importance'. "That's another reason why people need to be made aware of them."

'Hidden history' tours could be organised, he suggests.

"Between the back of the former Boardwalk and the houses further up the hill it's also possible to see some very old stone wall - remnants of the old city wall, or maybe the castle wall.

Jew Lane

"There's also been quite a bit from time to time about stories and legends of secret passageways under Sheffield, like between the castle and the cathedral. There's supposed to be one that starts under the Dove and Rainbow pub; I'd love to see it.

"There's quite a bit of history if you start to poke around these back streets. Many people in Sheffield never see this rather unusual side of town."

Planners, property owners and developers should 'become more aware and find ways of opening up some of these streets', says Dan.

"Maybe something imaginative could be done with Black Swan Walk by creating additional entrances from the shops, and expanding the whole Chapel Walk vibe to really enhance it. Similarly, with Exchange Gateway there must be some way of coming into Orchard Square and opening up additional shop units."

Dan, of Park Hill, has entertained Sheffield for years as his drag queen alter ego Tia Anna, and once appeared on Britain's Got Talent. He says his interest in urban heritage deepened after he completed a certification scheme to work on construction sites.

"I became more aware of the built environment. I've been to lots of cities, here and abroad. Cork in Ireland has got marvellous back alleyways. Nearer to home, Chesterfield has a lovely little area of small alleyways and shops near to the market square. Sheffield doesn't have anything quite like that, but I think there are some areas with similar potential."

Exchange Gateway