The valley of the River Porter, north-west of Sheffield city-centre, has a succession of water-powered industrial sites in varying degrees of preservation.
It’s easy to explore, because the valley forms part of the fourteen-mile Sheffield Round Walk, and there are bus routes running parallel from Fulwood to Hunters Bar.
A good place to start is Forge Dam, where on the site of a former forge and rolling mill there is a celebrated café which has changed little since at least the 1950s.
Further downstream is the water-powered Shepherd Wheel, a surviving grinding shop (known in Sheffield as a “hull”) for sharpening knife blades, named after the late-eighteenth century tenant.
Because the Sheffield craft trades were highly fragmented, many craftsmen worked for themselves, and were known as the “little mesters”.
The grinders would hire a grindstone on an hourly or daily basis, rather like hairdressers and tattooists rent their chairs nowadays.
They sat aside a saddle, called a “horsing”, bending over the millstone-grit grindstones that spun fast on the power that came from the water wheel.
When you step into either of the two hulls (set opposite each other to take power from the two sides of the waterwheel), it’s easy to sense the dark, cold, damp atmosphere. Working in such places was not fun.
Indeed, it was frequently lethal. Undetectable imperfections in the grindstones could at any moment cause an explosion throwing the stone and the grinder sitting astride it right across the building, into the roof or on to the unprotected cogwheels.
“Wet grinding”, where the stone sat in a bath of water so that the dust was converted to a viscous mud, called “swarf”, was less profitable than “dry grinding”, which created so much iron and sandstone dust that grinders rarely lived past their mid-thirties if they persisted in the trade, as many did for lack of choice.
The surrounding stretch of the valley became a public park in 1900, and when Shepherd Wheel closed in 1930 it was left almost entirely intact.
It took many years, however, for the place to be restored. It first opened to the public in 1962.
It is now vested in the Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust, which also operates the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet and the Kelham Island Industrial Museum.
It is open at weekends and bank holidays: http://www.simt.co.uk/shepherd-wheel-workshop.
Shepherd Wheel is included in the itinerary of the Sheffield’s Heritage (October 2nd-6th 2017) tour. For details, please click here.