I went to Sheffield on a whim. I knew nothing about the city other than it is located in the peak district region and that it wasn’t suppose to rain there (and it didn’t).
I entered Sheffield by exciting its massive train station and stepping into a huge water sculpture. I was shocked by the proportion. I did not think this city was so big. I paused for an instant, taking in the grandeur of the place. It was clearly enhanced by the hills behind the station and the large road in front of it, letting plenty of space for the visitor to be engulfed in the sight. I didn’t linger and soon moved on, eager to find out more about this city.
A minute later, I stumbled upon the university that greeted me with a poem engraved in its façade, glinting in the sun. I had a good feeling about this place that so confidently showcased itself as modern, young and dynamic.
This impression soon faded away as I reached the city centre. It was filled with modern colourful logos of national and international brands, hiding any remnants of past architecture. Sheffield lost its sense of identity in that instant. I could not find a distinguishing feature to give the place any sort of character. It became bland and standardized in my eyes but I didn’t give up on it yet. I have rarely been impressed by large city centres and have often found that the identity of a town could be found more clearly outside of its epicentre.
I walked out of the centre and quickly discovered a new face to Sheffield that contrasted violently with the first impressions I had been given. Litter was left to rot in the open streets adorned with old shattered building that were left to decay. I could not make sense of those new sights. How could a city that appeared so grand and modern could suddenly be so broken and dirty? Sheffield felt like a lie, a city covering something up by an excess of bright, colourful signs. I walked on, eager to understand what had happened in this place.
I was wandering aimlessly in the streets, trying to find clues to the mystery Sheffield had become when I happened upon Kelham Island which gave me the keys to understanding the place. All around me were remains of a glorious industrial past. I could see the shadows of workers long ago creating machines out of steel, the chimneys of the building releasing their intoxicating smoke. It all remained echoed of a past as next to those proud displays of the industrial era, stood the remnants of a factory long since abandoned.
Sheffield made more sense and I was starting to understand its current state. The city was rejected its past and was trying hard to ignore it in hope it would crumble away.
I left Kelham Island for the hills I could see in the distance, wishing that the nature around Sheffield would provide me with a more hopeful face of the city, but I was greeted with the same scenery. Everything felt monochrome, desolate and barren and I hoped it was only a residual sensation left by the city that would soon leave me. It did. I came to enjoy hiking across those hills, the grass left to run wild, the path muddy from rain of previous days. I met dog walkers along the way but mostly I had the hills for myself and was free to explore them as I wished.
I found more traces of Sheffield’s industrial past and once again was amazed at how the city had chosen to ignore them. Frail fences attempted to bar the entrance to crumpling construction but large gaps could be found everywhere and it was easy to sneak in.
I was happily exploring the hills, my liking to Sheffield and its past growing with every new discovery when I fell upon an abandoned graveyard encased between a ghetto of makeshift houses and a disused rail line. Grass was growing wild through the broken stones of the tombs that defiantly tried to stay erect. I stepped hesitantly closer, afraid at what I would learn from the engravings of the stones. All around me lay people who had been dead for less than a century, some as recent as 1944. I felt uneasy. Those people could still have relatives alive that remembered them and yet their graves had been desecrated, their resting peace shattered. I am not a religious person but this felt very wrong.
I looked around frantically for a church or a chapel that would redeem the site in my eyes but could find none. I tried to find an explanation, carefully reading the words of the tombs but I could find no clue to the state of this cemetery. I gave up trying to understand. Instead I started taking plenty of photographs of the tombs in a vain attempt to keep those people’s memory alive. I didn’t know any of them but it somehow felt right that someone should remember them.
I didn’t linger in the hills for much longer. I felt uneasy after the discovery of the cemetery. Sheffield had gone a step too far in brushing off its past. I regained the streets of the city and started to head back for the train station. I was once more surrounded by signs of a radiant industrial past unloved and left to rot.
As I finally reached the station and got into the train that would bring me back home, I felt sorry and sad for Sheffield that had chosen to overlook its past by putting on a mask of modernity and pretending it didn’t exist. The city should be proud of its heritage and display it in all of its past majesty.
The train rolled out of the station and I smiled. In spite of the despairing state of Sheffield’s past, I was glad I had come. I had discovered an unexpected gem that had suddenly made real to me the brilliant industrial past of England. It was no longer a simple fact of history books, words depicting a scenery I had never seen. It was real and tangible, a lot closer in time that what books and modern life would have me believe.