Monthly Archives: May 2022

Streets in the sky 1


Park Hill Flats, Sheffield (1982)

Few decisions about listing buildings have caused so much controversy as the Grade II* award to Sheffield’s Park Hill Flats in 1998.  Opinion remains divided about whether the late-1950s “streets in the sky” are emblematic of post-war optimism, or an abomination that should have been torn down long ago.

J L Womersley was appointed City Architect for Sheffield in 1953 with the responsibility for redeveloping the bomb-damaged city centre and coping with a massive housing problem. 

Neighbouring authorities, particularly Derbyshire, opposed Sheffield’s threats to invade their territory with boundary extensions, yet overspill populations from densely-packed inner-city areas couldn’t be decanted away into the city’s Green Belt. 

After the mid-1950s development of the attractive low-density Gleadless Valley and Low Edges estates there was nowhere else to build.

As well as the tower-block developments common to many British cities, Lewis Womersley experimented with two deck-access developments, Park Hill (1958-60) and Hyde Park (1962-6), followed after his departure to Manchester by Kelvin (W L Clunie, 1966-9), each a development of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation street-deck concept. 

In execution Park Hill was easily the most successful, partly because of its relative proximity to the city-centre, but mostly because the steeply-sloping site permitted ground-level access at one end to each floor except the topmost. 

The development offered a range of accommodation – one- and two-bedroom flats, interspersed with two- and three-bedroom maisonettes.  Among the up-to-the-minute conveniences, the Garchey waste-disposal system, flushing kitchen waste to ground level, reduced the need for dustbins.

Pubs, shops and a newly-built primary school provided local amenities, and the site is a short bus-ride from the city centre.

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, in the second edition of The Buildings of England: Yorkshire West Riding (revised by Enid Radcliffe, Penguin 1967), made a complacent but prescient comment about Park Hill, that they would be slums within half a century, and he hoped, with breathtaking arrogance, that they would at least prove to be a cosy slum “which people will feel to be their home”.

When Park Hill was listed Grade II* in 1998, the Head of Listing at English Heritage, Dr Martin Cherry, described it as “likened to a medieval fortress, a glittering cliff-face of windows….a magnificent structure of which many of its residents and Sheffield Council are rightly proud”. 

A comprehensive refurbishment by the developer Urban Splash, started in 2009 but stalled in the face of adverse economic downturn, is still not concluded.

When it’s finished, Park Hill will be cosy, and it certainly won’t be a slum.

Gladstone’s Library

Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, Flintshire

It’s not everyone’s choice of holiday, but a couple of times a year I like to book myself into comfortable accommodation some distance from home, take my laptop and a couple of paperbacks and spend the better part of a week writing.

It’s my opportunity to write up Sheffield local-history material that will never justify the expense of publishing, but can rest in the Archives as a legacy for future researchers.

Before the pandemic I spent an enjoyable, crisp winter week at the Raven Hall Hotel at Ravenscar in North Yorkshire, followed the same summer by a heatwave on the North Norfolk coast at Sea Marge Hotel in Overstrand where I found a cool, shady corner of the north-facing patio.  At both locations I hardly left the premises all week.

The pandemic prevented me taking up my booking at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, Flintshire, until March 2022, and it was worth waiting for.

The library was founded in 1894 by the Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) to “bring together books who had no readers with readers who had no books”.

He endowed it with £40,000 start-up capital and twenty thousand of his own books, which he transported in a wheelbarrow from his home, Hawarden Castle, to a temporary building, assisted only by his valet and one of his daughters.

After his death £9,000 was raised to build the present building, designed by the distinguished Chester architect John Douglas (1830-1911), and the Gladstone family provided a residential wing which opened in 1906.

No other British prime minister has a memorial library, though the USA has a tradition of presidential libraries back to George Washington.

John Douglas provided a galleried library which, apart from its visual appeal and vast collection of books, has two welcome attributes – a strict silence rule and the facility to reserve a work-place throughout the day and keep it overnight.

The residential rooms are small but comfortable, and during the pandemic all have been fitted with en-suite bathrooms.

The restaurant, Food for Thought, provides breakfast, lunch and dinner, and refreshments throughout the day, 8.00am-8.00pm.

In four days, I produced seventeen thousand words about the parish of St Cecilia, Parson Cross, Sheffield and its remarkable first vicar, Richard Roseveare.

I wouldn’t have accomplished that at home, having to cook my own meals and load my own dishwasher.

Booking details and other information can be found at Gladstone’s Library | the UK’s finest residential library (gladstoneslibrary.org).

What’s not to like?