New Heritage Champion wants to bring history to life

Sheffield’s new Heritage Champion is standing outside a butcher’s shop and a pub in Gleadless Townend. With a swathe of listed buildings and stunning architecture in the city centre, it’s puzzling why he’s chosen to meet here.

By Lucy Ashton
Friday, 02 August, 2019, 09:12
Councillor Mike Drabble, Heritage Champion, pictured. Picture: Marie Caley NSST-01-08-19-Drabble-7

Coun Mike Drabble is bringing a new slant to the role as he’s keen to preserve more than just bricks and mortar.

“Heritage is about much more than historic buildings,” he says passionately, gesturing to the Red Lion pub. “It has to be about people and their lives.

“There’s a common misconception that it’s about historic buildings and the battle to preserve them, and that is very important, but without the memories attached to them they lose their identity and their meaning.

Councillor Mike Drabble, Heritage Champion, pictured. Picture: Marie Caley NSST-01-08-19-Drabble-5

“We have to reclaim heritage and make sure it’s about who we are and the meaning of our lives. We live in a society that is increasingly atomised and we can feel apart from the people who live next door to use and even our own family.

“Everybody used to watch the same three TV channels and I understand there are many benefits to dozens of channels and the internet but we have to be careful to ensure that we are not living apart as modern life and social media has a hard edge.

“Heritage can actually reinforce our shared identity so we realise the person we have never met before, or who we are disagreeing with on politics, does actually have something in common with us. It binds us.”

The reason we’re stood outside the Red Lion is because the Shire Brook, a small stream rising in Gleadless Townend and flowing to Beighton and Woodhouse Mill, trickles under its cellar.

In the past the brook was both the border of Yorkshire and Derbyshire and Mike believes it’s a hidden gem.

“Heritage may be where you least expect it. Shire Brook pre-dates Sheffield as an industrial city, this gives us a really deep connection to our heritage.

“Some of the many roads in Sheffield are from a thousand years ago, when they were grass tracks. Heritage gives us a sense we are part of something longer and greater than ourselves. It’s something we can interact with, it’s not a dead thing.”

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He concedes there have been recent battles between campaigners and the council, most notably over the Old Coroner’s Court and Birley Spa Bath House.

“I’ve met with groups such as Joined Up Heritage and they are positive and working hard because they want to make a contribution. I’m very impressed by the groups and their passion,” he said.

“There is tension between progress and heritage but actually we can work through it and I hope as a local authority we are starting to do some good work, for example with Leah’s Yard and Heart of the City II.

“These will give us a vibrant city centre, not monolithic blocks. It acknowledges our heritage and also looks to the future while staying connected to our past.”

From the pub, we stroll across the road to W. H Webster. This has been a family butchers for almost 200 years, selling meat when William IV was on the throne.

Richard Webster is the fourth generation to run the shop and as Coun Drabble stands outside he says: “For me, this is a classic example that heritage is more than buildings. Richard’s great-grandfather started this butcher’s and I’ve been coming here for 30 years so it’s part of my personal history too.”

William Henry Webster opened his first shops at Walkley and Broomhill around 1835 and his son, also William Henry, moved to Gleadless Townend.

Third-in-line Dennis took over the family business then it passed to Richard and his son Brandon.

“Richard provides a service for the local community and the premises have moved but his reputation hasn’t,” says Coun Drabble.

“Again it’s about the people. This family has moved on from buildings, but they are more lasting. This is the type of heritage we should be protecting.

“What are we doing to protect our local heritage in this context? I understand people are passionate about buildings but heritage has to be about the living. It’s about identity and the meaning it lends to our lives.”