Sheffield’s Christmas Lights: Behind the scenes of the city centre illuminations

Angela Gower, of Sheffield city centre management team, is in charge of the Christmas lights
Angela Gower, of Sheffield city centre management team, is in charge of the Christmas lights

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…

It may be November but the festivities are well underway in Sheffield city centre ahead of the big lights switch-on this Sunday. And for the first time in years, there will be a brand new set of illuminations.

The Christmas lights on Fargate in 1967

The Christmas lights on Fargate in 1967

The cast of the Lyceum panto and Lord Mayor Magid Magid will push the big red button to illuminate the city centre in front of 25,000 people. And behind the scenes, Angela Gower will breathe a sigh of relief.

Angela is in charge of decorating the city centre each Christmas. Whether it’s a huge tree, thousands of lights or giant illuminations in the Peace Gardens, it will be down to Angela and her colleagues at Sheffield Council’s city centre management team.

Angela, who has been in charge of organising Christmas for the past 13 years, said: “This year the lights are all brand new. We used to keep them in storage in a massive warehouse in Attercliffe but all the old lights have now gone.

“We’re now hiring them instead which saves on storage and maintenance costs and also means we can change them every three years and get a new set.

“This is the first year for a while we have had a completely brand new set of lights across the city centre.”

The team, based at Moor Markets, spend months planning the lights and keep their fingers crossed there won’t be any short circuits on the big day.

The illuminations start at Castle Street and cover Angel Street and the Haymarket then move up Fargate, taking in Barkers Pool, and along Pinstone Street.

There are also lights on Division Street, Devonshire Street and the Peace Gardens but The Moor is decorated by its private land owner.

If you’re wondering why nothing is twinkling on High Street and West Street, it’s because of Supertram – the lights interfere with the overhead cables for the tram network.

“We can only fix decorations and lights to lamp posts or anchor points on buildings,” explained Angela. “I always say we need to get Halloween out of the way before we start on the lights. I don’t mind the brackets and bolts going up in mid October but Halloween needs to be over before we see any colour.”

The budget of £90,000 is much less than in previous years but there would be an outcry if the city centre stayed dark over Christmas. “The budget pays for the tree outside the Town Hall, the lights and the giant present and bauble in the Peace Gardens. This year we also have a snowman and snowflakes on Pinstone Street in conjunction with Sheffield Children’s Hospital.

“There are 15 cross street decorations, 50 lamp columns, 1.5 miles of decorations and 4,000 LED lights on the tree, which is usually around 40 metres tall and from a sustainable forest in Northumberland.”

So how do the lights compare with past years? The budget isn’t as big but they are much safer.

“The old lights from years ago were huge, massive, sweeping, looping, heavy steel decorations but we couldn’t have anything like that nowadays for safety reasons.

“Everything now is light aluminium but also study enough to stay outside in all weather. I remember one year we had some blue baubles and there was a lot of snow that winter, it worried me every time I saw all the snow piled up on top of them.”

The city centre team have spent time studying brochures from different companies and for the next three years, the theme will be red and gold decorations with a childlike rather than sophisticated theme.

“We have vintage baubles, presents and candy sticks rather than contemporary lights, although they are more modern on Division Street,” said Angela.

““It’s a very emotive subject. You can’t please everybody, we all have our own taste with decorations. We try to be a bit different so we have our own ideas and ask companies to show us their designs then we go to tender for a supplier.

“We would like to do more but the budget has been halved in recent years and we have to do the best with what we have and get the best price.”

One memorable year was 2012 when giant illuminations from Blackpool added extra sparkle to the Peace Gardens with pirates, a Tardis and astronaut among others.

Angela laughed: “The adults hated them but the children loved them. They took a huge amount of power though, whereas our lights now are LED and environmentally friendly so the electricity bill has been slashed.”

The annual switch-on is hugely popular with all ages and it’s one of the few events where families will still turn out despite the weather.

“People love to see the lights come on so there’s a lot of pressure to make sure the lights do actually switch on but they never fail.

“It’s stressful because while the Lord Mayor and the cast of the panto are doing the official countdown, I’m doing the real one.”

The whole of Christmas can be a busman’s holiday for Angela as she often appraises illuminations in other towns and cities.

“I do look at their lights. When the new shopping centre opened in Leeds the lights were fabulous but they were indoor so that is much easier to organise because you don’t have to worry about the elements.

“Rotherham Council contacted us and asked if we had any spare lights they could use so I put them in touch with the contractor who has our old lights.”

The Christmas lights switch-on takes place across the city centre on Sunday, November 18 from 2pm to 6.30pm. The illuminations are switched on at 5.30pm from the Peace Gardens stage.

This year there will be a choir, Santa’s grotto, carolling, street entertainment, markets, children’s TV and film characters, craft activities and fairground rides.