Why Sheffield is leading the way by celebrating its history – with only one other city holding more events for Heritage Open Days

Sheffield has become one of the British cities that best celebrates its diverse history as an annual festival returns for a record year.

Friday, 13th September 2019, 15:00 pm
Updated Friday, 13th September 2019, 16:49 pm
Mike Atkinson is leading a tour of the Morehall and Broomhead reservoirs for Sheffield's Heritage Open Days. Picture: Scott Merrylees

Heritage Open Days are back, and for 2019 there are 150 separate events - the largest number ever - taking place in Sheffield from this weekend until next Sunday, from tours of remarkable buildings and glimpses of the industrial past to countryside walks and even a mock medieval battle on Dore village green.

The scheme has been running for 25 years nationally, and according to figures from HODS only Norwich has a bigger programme this month.

But organisers say Sheffield has the edge, because its activities are closely overseen by volunteers from the Civic Trust which produces a special booklet that includes as many of the listings as possible.

Dr Alison Twells on Fargate, Sheffield. She is leading a walk of sites connected to Edward Carpenter. Picture: Dean Atkins

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All 4,000 copies of the complimentary brochure have already been snapped up this year and for the first time the city council has paid for the printing costs with a grant, a sign of the festival's growing importance.

"I do think in Sheffield we really try and make it a citywide, proper, unified, co-ordinated event rather than just a lot of things happening at the same time," said Janet Ridler of the Civic Trust.

"We pull it all together and make a really good festival that everybody gets involved in. And it's free of course - it's one of the most important things with Heritage Open Days which makes it so accessible to everybody. Everything has to be free to enter. It means nobody is put off, and if it's a place that normally charges then they have to do it for free, or places put on things they don't normally do."

Sites that have traditionally featured are all present and correct, such as Beauchief Abbey, Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, Bishops' House, the Cutlers' Hall, and many old churches.

Researcher Val Hewson at Sheffield Central Library, part of the Heritage Open Days programme. Picture: Steve Ellis

But there are also events that put a novel spin on heritage's meaning, from a walk around the Broomhead and Morehall Reservoirs in the Ewden Valley - where workers fought a landslide to make sure construction was finished - to a tour of the Flower Estate in Wincobank, the first urban social housing development outside London.

Across the country, towns and cities are following a particular theme of People Power to commemorate the 1819 Peterloo massacre in Manchester.

In Sheffield a walk will explore sites connected to the LGBT activist and socialist poet Edward Carpenter, the history of access to the countryside is on the agenda at the Longshaw Estate and the City Trust itself is putting on From Peterloo to Orgreave, an evening at the City Hall on Wednesday, September 18 linking the massacre to the miners' strike. There will be speeches, music, poetry and discussions with guests including Mark George QC, the barrister who represented families at the Hillsborough Inquests, and actor Kate Rutter from the cast of Mike Leigh's 2018 film about Peterloo.

Liz Godfrey, who has co-ordinated Sheffield's Heritage Open Days group since the Civic Trust took over in 2013, said it was 'interesting' that only Norwich was more enthusiastic about the festival.

"It's a big medieval town, they've got more stuff to show. Norwich has got a long history of it and had huge funding in previous years from HEART, which promoted heritage generally in Norfolk - a lot of their venues are not in Norwich necessarily. We're very proud to be second."

The national Open Days team use Sheffield as a case study, Liz added.

"They love us as well because we're so quirky. They organised a regional feedback event in Sheffield last October, we're very much on their books."

She said the Civic Trust has 'fingers in lots of pies' and that co-operating with the Sheffield Walking Festival has reaped benefits.

"Over the years we kept up lots of contacts. I think one of the beauties of our Heritage Open Days is we haven't got the same take every year. Some people drop out and come back a couple of years later, because every year we write to everybody who's ever done Heritage Open Days. Maybe the vicar's changed at a church and they don't know what it's all about."

The council's grant of £2,000 was 'brilliant', she said. "For the first time we've had an acknowledgement that we exist. It's only one year so we don't know if we're going to get any more. We're always touting round for grants from trusts and things. It would help if there was more recognition of what we do. Heritage isn't about buildings, it's cherishing a place and how you feel about a city."

Liz said organisers' main ambitions are to have 'secure backing’, and to launch a comprehensive festival covering South Yorkshire and North East Derbyshire.

"Doncaster have their own heritage festival in May but it's possible, I suppose, that they could shift it. There are people who are Heritage Open Days tourists. I once met somebody who came down from Liverpool who was interested in 18th-century chapels."

See www.sheffieldhods.com for further information.