Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield
Radical Tourist

Part 1: Conservation as a Radical Act

Steve arrives on a well-used, well-oiled bicycle. He recently quit smoking roll-ups and, buzzing from a long climb up to Crookes, he chains his bike to the cemetery railings and goes for a wander through the gravestones, chewing on his electronic cigarette like his Grandad used to do on his pipe. He calls himself the Radical Tourist: left-wing, egalitarian, enlightened. Steve has heard good things about Sheffield, about how you can be so close to the action and yet so close to open country. Steve likes to take signposts and guidebooks with a pinch of salt, to follow a hunch, a myth or a character, and he knows that Sheffield is full of those. He chances upon the grave of Thomas W Ward, Ethel Haythornthwaite (nee Ward) and Gerald Haythornthwaite. Those names ring a distant bell in his memory, and he decides to find out more. I bump into Steve while I’m taking a break from the huge pile of reclaimed pine floorboards stacked up in my hallway. They’re taunting me. I know I have to do justice to the quality of the material. I feel a heavy responsibility for reincarnating a floor that used to be in another building, somewhere else. I think of the craftspeople who first made it, and all the people who walked across it since. I look at how carefully the boards have been coaxed from their joists, with hardly a split tongue or a torn nail hole in sight. Then they’ve been planed and cleaned and transported to my house, and if I make a good job of fitting them then all but the most trained eye will assume they’ve been here all along, their past life a fading secret. “I have a gateleg table at home that once belonged to Ethel Haythornthwaite,” I tell Steve. “My wife rescued it from a skip. We altered it a bit and spruced it up, and it’s one of our favourite things now.” Steve asks me what I know about Ethel, and the story starts with Tommy Ward. He was a prolific industrialist, and a Master Cutler, turning his skills to whatever venture was in demand, but where he excelled was dismantling ships and finding imaginative, lucrative uses for every last piece. The headquarters of Thos. W. Ward Ltd at Albion Works on Savile Street are still an imposing presence nearly 90 years after his death. The giant Tesco opposite looks like a fleeting joke by comparison. The circus elephant he employed to transport his materials across the city is such a feature of local folklore that there is a children’s story about it, An Elephant on the Wicker. Tommy’s daughter Ethel pretty much invented Sheffield’s relationship with its countryside that everyone loves today. She founded the local branch of what’s now the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and, with the help of her second husband Gerald, secured the Peak District as the UK’s first National Park. She saved Edale, Mam Tor, Blacka Moor, Mayfield Valley and the Longshaw Estate from the sins of suburbanisation. Astonishingly, Ethel achieved all this in the Ward family name, by persuading other wealthy industrialists to donate chunks of money and tracts of their own land. Philanthropy might be elitist in a way, but it’s also radical, and it gets things done. Steve and I explore Sheffield together for the rest of the day, from the surprise tranquillity of the Rivelin Valley to the salvage chic of Abbeydale Road. We talk about how all the objects and buildings we make are unstable and temporary, and the instant we lose our grip on them they are eagerly seized upon, by other people for a new purpose or by nature to reclaim for herself. Tommy and Ethel: industry and nature are not opposites, they’re interrelated. Sheffield is built of this precarious stuff, perched on mad slopes and oozing springs, a city in which one family produces a recycling magnate and a visionary conservationist. The Radical Tourist throws himself and his bike into this fluid landscape, instead of looking at heritage as if it were permanent. He suggests that my reclaimed floor will be up and off again in another 40 or 50 years, to some other place, to start another new life. He’s probably right. “I like it here,” says Steve, pulling again on his e-cig. “I think I’ll be coming back pretty soon. Shall we meet up?” @andrewthewood Photo by Chard Remains Photographical )

Next from Radical Tourist

Part 2: The Outer Reaches of Pop

I take my four-year-old daughter to meet Steve in the Hillsborough Hotel and she takes to my shoulders for the long ascent of Upperthorpe.…

More Radical Tourist

Next article in issue 79

More News & Views

Can Sheffield end new HIV transmissions by 2030?

In anticipation of next week’s Festival of Debate panel, Rei Takver speaks with Sheffield doctor and HIV specialist Dr Claire Dewsnap about what the city still needs to do to tackle the virus.

More News & Views