Nineteenth-century Sheffield was a town that thought it was a village.
After Sheffield became a city in 1897 it was a city that thought it was a town.
Sheffield folk don’t take easily to the idea of grandeur. They make things. Predominantly Nonconformist, truculent and quietly proud of their skills and products, they look upon other Yorkshire cities as brash.
The Blitz of December 1940 flattened much of the city centre and the city planners took advice from (among others) Birmingham City Council’s City Engineer, Herbert Manzoni, himself notorious for rendering his own city unrecognisable.
Their plans saddled Sheffield with a plan for a “Civic Circle” road centred on the Town Hall, together with an Inner Ring Road and an Outer Ring Road.
One aspect of this scheme, to be picked up by Sheffield’s City Architect, Lewis Womersley, on his appointment in 1953, was that as far as possible pedestrians and motorists should move around the city centre at different levels.
Womersley’s Castle Market (1960-65) happily achieved this, taking advantage of its sloping site to provide access on three levels to shops, clear of motor vehicles at ground level.
At the traditional Market Place, however, the idea didn’t work out.
A dual carriageway, Arundel Gate, swept across the Duke of Norfolk’s grid of Georgian streets, and came to an abrupt halt at the top of Angel Street, where a roundabout directed traffic downhill along Commercial Street towards the Parkway.
Against Womersley’s wishes, motor vehicles negotiated this tight turn at ground level, and pedestrians were pushed below ground into a dramatic space with a circular oculus open to the sky, opened in 1967.
Though the planners called this circle Castle Square, Sheffield folk obstinately labelled it the Hole in the Road.
The only decorative feature was a 2,000-gallon fish-tank which became a popular meeting place, replacing Coles Corner which had lost its raison d’être after the Cole Brothers’ department store moved to Barker’s Pool in 1963.
Despite the subway-level entrances to adjacent shops and a couple of sad little stalls for buying newspapers and cigarettes, this memorable piece of townscape proved to be dead space and as the years passed it became more and more grubby and threatening.
Promotional literature for the proposed Sheffield Minitram, a driverless elevated people-mover, showed its track supported by a single pillar in the centre of the Hole in the Road as it climbed High Street. The project was quietly dropped in 1975.
When the full-size, standard-gauge Supertram was planned, it was quickly obvious that the Hole in the Road would have to go.
It was closed and filled in, possibly with rubble from the demolition of Hyde Park Flats, in 1994.
There’s a story that when the fish tank was emptied the only remaining fish was a piranha. I can’t vouch for it.
The generation of locals who met their date by the fish tank may regret its demise but even Lewis Womersley would probably agree that Castle Square was a dubious idea in the first place.
The story of Castle Square – the “Hole in the Road” – is featured in Demolished Sheffield, a 112-page full colour A4 publication by Mike Higginbottom. For details please click here.