The cosmeticians have changed the Don Valley's face but not the guts and enterprise. By Martin Wainwright.
When Dave Grey sent his team of roofers up to clear debris from the skylights of a factory he was modernising in Sheffield, they came back down with a surprise. The muck wasn't simply the soot of detritus of years of steelmaking in the Lower Don Valley (notorious, in the heyday of the forges, for its black snow in winter). It was wartime blackout paint, which no one had ever bothered to scrape off. Such lethargy was typical of the malaise which overtook the old industrial heart of Sheffield between the 1950s and '70s, all too visibly for travellers swooping across the valley on the M1's Tinsley viaduct.
By the early' 80s, wrecked factories and blast furnaces stretched away towards Sheffield city centre, a landscape of desolation and tat. Today, the bluey-green domes of the Meadowhall shopping centre, a commercial Xanadu, rise behind a screen of trees along the motorway. Nearby, a re-creation of Copenhagen's Tivoli gardens will soon be built. A tourist path meanders past both schemes, linking the five weirs of the River Don and returning to the city centre along the Sheffield and Tinsley canal. The foreground is still dominated, dumpily, by the twin, concrete towers of a disused power station; but there are even plans to paint these flowerpot red and plant huge artificial daffodils in their tops.
The generating authorities want to keep the towers for possible re-use and are holding up this striking symbol of a fresh start; but the Sheffield Development Corporation (SDC) has grown skilful at pushing at such obstinately closed doors.
Launched in 1988 with an initial £50 million by this year, the SDC is in charge of the valley's revival, working closely with Sheffield city council. It is an unusual marriage: the council is eternally Labour; Hugh Sykes, businessman, developer and - it's a likely bet - Conservative voter, chairs the corporation. Things got off, as he recalls, to a bit of a stormy start.
"We had the occasional plume of smoke and flash of gunfire," he says. "But now we're really blessed with a very good relationship." The council reciprocates, and its members are particularly grateful for the SDC's consistent support of the World Student Games which were held in Sheffield last summer. Although these lost the city approaching £10 million largely because of a complete absence of government support, they lifted Sheffield's spirits, promoted its name in foreign markets - and gave the Don Valley a new, Olympic-standard sports centre. Just down the road from the stadium, graceful new hi-tech offices mark the most recent of the SDC's coups: the tempting-in of Abbey National. The society's shareholder services department is fleeing costly London and has settled on the Don Valley after a comprehensive search of the Midlands and North. "The department doesn't need to be in the capital, where everything's expensive," says Mike Brearley, Abbey National personnel manager, who is supervising the relocation. "The communications here are tremendous and there's a highly qualified and motivated pool of labour."
His advertisements for the first five managerial posts, with salaries from £17,000 to £22,900, drew 900 requests for application forms, 70% of which were filled in and returned. Meanwhile, the 200 staff relocating from London have been learning that Sheffield means the Derbyshire Peak and Pennine moors as much as heavy industry. Coach tours have taken them to Chatsworth, romantic Peveril Castle and the delicate, turreted remains of Sheffield Manor, where Mary Queen of Scots spent one of her own, less happy relocations.
Bringing new work has naturally been one of the SDC's main priorities, attempting to compensate for the spectacular attrition of steel, which leeched up to 23,000 jobs in a single year after the 1970s oil crisis and recession. But it would be misleading to suggest that the valley's enterprise, the guts of Sheffield's manufacturing, was ever wiped out. There have never been fewer than 850 companies between the city centre and the M1, and they currently employ some 18,000 people.
The SDC is anxious to nurture and protect them all, says chief executive Graham Kendall. A "One Stop Shop" advises on the frequent problem of cleaning up or moving from messy, outdated buildings into something more suitable. Dave Grey, who started his company, Oil Seal Services, with £1,000 capital, matched by a colleague and then doubled by the bank, is an example. He was helped, crucially, with his blacked -out "Black Hole of Calcutta" by the SDC. "We've always been in the valley and didn't want to leave it when we outgrew our premises," he says. "The SDC came up with a 50% grant to help us relocate and that was great. We're well-placed for one of our main clients, British Coal, and we should find more room when we need to expand again." Making room, out of the dereliction of the shutdown forges, is a third, and expensive, task for the corporation. Tiptoeing up to look over a handsome, restored Victorian wall (the valley, like London's Wapping, is rich in these), Martin Liddament, the SDC information office, points out lorries and bulldozers slowly clearing the abandoned Atlas North works.
"Just these 30 acres are costing us £3 million to clear for fresh development," he says. "The concrete goes down 20 feet in places and there are often shell cases and parts of Spitfires buried in the rubble. You have to take care." The SDC's most spectacular piece of clearing, and redevelopment is hidden, not by Victorian walls, but by hilly grass banks, bulldozed into place by British Coal Opencast (BCO). Sheffield new city airport, due to take Dash aircraft and BAe 146 "whispering giant" by the end of next summer, is being built on a British Coal Opencast site at the Tinsley end of the valley.
Skeetering in a jeep between grinding, £2 million earth-moving trucks, BCO's regional operations manager, David Hunter, explains the titanic scale of this operation. "You can watch the landscape change daily," he says, "as the coal comes out and the covering earth is moved around." The whole operation is being financed by BCO sale of 1,500,000 tonnes of coal from the site; the black seam glints in the sun at the bottom of the great bowl scooped out by the excavators. The excavation has lifted the lid off a tracery of tunnels cut by earlier miners, still separated by the thick columns of valuable coal which could not be dug out at the time because they prevented roof-falls. School parties constantly visit this spectacular site and the regular open days are packed. The airport will lop off a small part of the neighbouring golf course but Hunter and the SDC are convinced that the landscape will gain enormously overall. "We may be a bit messy, but when we finish, we can give you whatever you want," says Hunter. So far, the Don Valley has got a small range of hills (to screen the runway), a network of fish lakes and a complete sphagnum moss bog, lifted by BCO and replanted in a more accessible site.
Cleaning up has been another, energetic side of the development corporation's work. Mobile trees - mature specimens in jumbo planters - line the road outside the SDC offices and can be moved to provide sudden greenery in summer. Big firms like Forgemasters, whose furnace buildings and forging sheds could ever be called beautiful, although they have an impressive sense of poser, have co-operated by painting ducts, pipes and corrugated iron in pastels and blue. The corporation is also spending money on restoring the major industrial features of the valley (important to Sheffield national name as a centre for industrial archaeology). The site of the invention of stainless steel will be marked, the first Bessemer forge preserved and the marvellous former Vickers HQ, facing a towering, listed forge wall across a narrow part of the secondary Sheffield-Rotherham road known as "the canyon", may become a visitor centre.
It's "where foreign naval attaches used to arrive to order a complete dreadnought battleship," says SDC Liddament. "They came up by train from London, were collected by Rolls-Royce and then taken back to the station, in time for dinner and the late sleeper back to Euston. "He then leads the way down to Sanderson Weir, one of the five on the Don and a resting point on the history and nature trail which weaves along the river and canal. "There are dace and roach in there," he says, gesturing over a grove of Balsam to the quiet reach of water before the tumbling water of the weir. A notice board draws attention to the existence of a gastropodic rarity, the Wandering Snail, by the weir; and behind a smartly-painted pastiche Victorian fence, neat pyramids of ball-bearings in a steel stockholders yard remind visitors that the industry which moulded this landscape is not dead.
A short way down river, the first of the Don's famous fig trees overhangs the water. Others stand on the bank beyond. Their seeds were spread down river in Victorian sewage and then germinated in the warm water, heated by polluting outflows from the forges. Acclimatised to their Northern home, the plants have one disadvantage; they have yet to bear fruit. "Apparently they need the Mediterranean fig wasp to pollinate them," said Liddament, whose joy would be complete if someone could introduce that insect. "It would be marvellous to have figs which you could pluck along the walk, wouldn't it?" he said. "I wonder, do you know any entomologists?"