‘It was built by the community for the community’ – How much-loved city farm brings Sheffield neighbourhood together
In two years, Heeley City Farm will be 40 years old.
In that time, the inner-city animal refuge, garden centre, alternative energy pioneer, local hub and much more has become a vital part of the area.
While it may seem now like the farm has always been there, with the streets and houses a later addition, that is not in fact the case.
In 1981, Sheffield Council wanted to build a bypass through the suburb – a road the people of the area didn’t want and saw no need for.
Nevertheless, the council bulldozed the houses that were there, clearing a path for the bypass and setting up a battle over land use that the community eventually won.
After the dust settled, Heeley was left with a four-acre plot that no-one knew what to do with.
It could easily have been turned into a new supermarket or car park, but instead became an organisation so valuable it now has an annual turnover of almost one million pounds.
Heeley City Farm’s origin story feels like it has left an imprint on the area in so many ways.
Walking around the area, which sits just south of the city centre, you are struck by the sheer number of groups and projects, evidence of people coming together for the good of their neighbourhood.
Initiatives like Jon Johnson’s container housing project Reach Homes sit on Heeley City Farm land, as does the South Yorkshire Energy Centre where kids learn about sustainable electricity in fun and interactive ways.
The farm has around 45 paid members of staff and hundreds of volunteers, working across multiple sites and on projects as disparate as dementia gardens, outdoor classrooms, providing work for people with learning disabilities and organising day trips for the elderly.
Finance, HR and admin manager Gloria Ward said the farm just ‘brings people together’.
“It was built by the community for the community,” she says.
“We do groups for carers, we work with children and young people, we provide breakfasts in the school holidays - and we make the best hanging baskets in the world!
“With all the different things we are involved in we end up being all things to all people - and that is sometimes quite hard.
“And there are lots of challenges like vandalism and we recently had all our collection boxes stolen - but that comes from being open to the public 24 hours a day.”
The farm was funded from 74 different sources last year and supplement this income by running events like last weekend’s spring fair and an annual beer festival.
But just as important as the financial support they receive is the phenomenal help they get from volunteers.
“Without volunteers we wouldn’t be able to exist - we get so much from them,” says Gloria.
Of course, areas cannot survive on altruism alone, and business owners in Heeley must still earn a crust if they are to survive.
But here, Heeley feels different again, with lots of firms doing interesting, innovative community work that you don’t find in other areas of the city.
The Brothers Arms on Well Road is a case in point.
Formerly the Ye Olde Shakespeare Inn, the pub was taken over five years ago by legendary Sheffield ukulele band the Everly Pregnant Brothers.
On Good Friday, the pub having just been vacated by the hundreds of Sheffield United fans who cram into it on matchdays, manager Rick Larbey said the pub was as much a community hub as a boozer.
“You will find that in a lot of the businesses around here,” says Rick.
“I can't quite tell you why Heeley is so good for things like that but we must be doing something right.
“Our building itself is owned by the brewery but they have no say in the pub and that is really important in allowing us to do things differently.”
Rick says because of the Brothers and several others pubs in the area, Heeley has garnered a reputation as a destination for real ale fans, with The Sheaf View, The White and Red Lions and the Crown all catering for the more discerning beer drinker.
“The businesses of the area really make it,” says Rick.
“We all try to help each other however we can, everyone knows each other and pulls together for the good of the community.
“It feels like more of a little village than anything else - just attached to a big city.”
Further down the hill on Chesterfield Road, independent businesses proliferate, and the area has gained a reputation as a Mecca for vegan food.
Meat-free restaurant Make No Bones drew people to the area from miles around before it moved to new city centre premises, but Just Falafs and Pour have taken up the baton where they left off.
And the stretch even has its own vegan ‘supermarket’ in the small but perfectly formed shape of The Incredible Nutshell.
Staff member Jez Dean - who also helps run the hugely popular Sheffield Vegans and Vegetarians Group on Facebook - says the ventures have all fed off each other.
“I suppose Heeley is now the kind of place where vegan businesses know they are going to get a certain amount of custom,” he says.
“People came to the Incredible Nutshell because of word of mouth and there are other businesses here now that are capitalising on that.”
Further up the road, independent record shop Spinning Discs, fresh from the success of Record Store Day, is another local firm doing well.
During the annual celebration of all things vinyl, they teamed up with neighbouring businesses Create Coffee and Tramshed to allow customers to hear the rare and limited edition records they had just purchased.
Staff member Paul said the independent shops are what makes the area different.
“Most of these businesses are owned by people who live quite near here - it is much nicer,” he said.
“Heeley has got a real community feel to it and people set up businesses in the area that they would want to go to.”
Back up the steep terraced streets, every road in the suburb seems to have a community garden or people-centred project on it.
At Heeley Parish Church on Gleadless Road, perched high above the city, they were preparing for Easter.
The church is fundraising for a refurbishment that will allow it to hold more events at the beautiful mid-18th century building.
But even without their renovation, they already do an amazing amount in the community, from mums and toddlers groups to art classes and their latest initiative, ‘Cafe Care’, a not-for-profit community cafe for anyone who needs help, support or simply someone to talk to.
And back at Heeley City Farm, Celia Mather from ‘co-housing’ project Five Rivers was meeting with Reach Homes’ Jon Johnson to talk housing regulations and ownership models.
She moved to the area in 1987 when the farm was still relatively young and says Heeley already had a reputation for attracting people who wanted to do different and interesting things.
“It just takes the initiative of a few individual people to come together and you can get things done,” she says. “Heeley just has lots of like-minded people who look after each other.”