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Sheaf and Porter River Trust: Uncovering Sheffield's lost waterways

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The Pocket Park on Matilda Street. Photo by the Sheaf and Porter River Trust.

The Sheaf and Porter River Trust is a new organisation that wants to uncover and celebrate the city's hidden rivers.

We spoke to Simon Ogden from the Trust to find out more about their plans.

Tell us a bit about the Trust.

There's a tradition of voluntary activism in the environment in Sheffield, that goes right back to the trespasses and the creation of the national parks. Certainly in the eighties and nineties, when the River Don started to come back to life after the Industrial Revolution, there was the Five Weirs Trust that championed the opening up of the river to the public.

They're a motorway for all sorts of wildlife, plants and fish

If you look at the west side of Sheffield, one of its most striking characteristics are these long river parks. They were industrial rivers that were recovered in the early twentieth century and turned into parks - Endcliffe Park, Bingham Park. They're one of the things that makes living in those suburbs healthy and pleasant. But that didn't happen in the city centre and in the east, where the rivers were still industrial. Just as in the eighties there was an opportunity to do something about the Don, in the 2010s there's a similar opportunity on the Sheaf and the Porter where they come into the inner city.

What gives it urgency is climate change. Having rivers running in tunnels through the city is a very bad design in conditions where rainfall is going to get heavier and heavier, and where we're going to get droughts as well. So liberating the rivers to give them more space is something we urgently need to do in most cities. We've also got a global decline in biodiversity, and rivers are one of the quickest ways in which you can increase biodiversity. They're a motorway for all sorts of wildlife, plants and fish.

Sheffield, like most big cities, is re-densifying - people are moving back into the inner city. As more people live in the city centre, we need more green space and blue space to keep their mental health in order, as well as to make great ways of walking and running out into the countryside or to get to work.

What are the priority projects?

There are three at least. On the Porter, there's a whole string of active development sites, where little metalworking factories are being demolished or converted into residential. All along that section of the Porter there are opportunities to remove culverts and open up public access. A classic example being the Decathlon site. Part of the culvert there collapsed of its own accord and Decathlon have been persuaded not to replace that but to keep at least half of the river exposed in their car park. The Trust is working with the Environment Agency to get a grant to re-naturalise that part of the riverbed.


Another example would be where the river runs underneath the BBC Sheffield car park. Part of it is just covered in a huge mass of buddleia. It's not even a physical structure, it's just overgrown to the point where they didn't realise they had a river in their car park. So we're talking to them about cutting back all the buddleia and letting some light into the river. The big target though is what we call the Sheaf Field, the culvert where the Sheaf and the Don meet.

At the Castle Market site?

Exactly. That's a culvert that's come to the end of its life. It's already considered to be unsafe. It's either got to be repaired or removed. The Trust is putting its weight behind removing it and creating a larger pocket park. But it's going to take quite a bit of funding to do that, so rather than just leaving it to the Council, the Trust is going to help raise funds to make that happen sooner rather than later.

The aim is to get an almost continuous walk along the Porter

There are other opportunities. We know we're not going to be able to move the station in the foreseeable future, but HS2 is going to require the station to be significantly re-engineered. So what the Trust is looking for is opportunities to put light-wells down into the river, so at least fish can follow the light and make passage up through the station. There actually aren't many big weirs on that section of the river, so it's the darkness that's the barrier.

The fish won't just go up from the Don?

They won't go into a dark tunnel, basically. Even if we can't get rid of the whole culvert, if we can get a chain of light-wells it's possible to get fish passage through that area.

An early project we're going to work on is talking to them about the access shaft on platform five, which in theory could be replaced by glass so you can look down on the river when you're waiting for your train. There are lots of opportunities further upstream for improving access. Broadfield Road Park, for instance the river runs through there but you wouldn't know it because it's so heavily overgrown and surrounded by fences. Whereas in Endcliffe Park kids play in the river, at the Broadfield the river plays no part at all in the park. We want to look at bringing the river into the public space.

Who's paying for it?

By and large, along Sylvester Street and Decathlon, it's likely to be the private sector. They're redeveloping those sites, and most sensible developers realise that the river is an asset. It's actually a selling point. Where things do get tricky is getting all the developers to cooperate, so you get a continuous and consistent public right of way all the way through. The Trust can play a role in extra public pressure and encouragement to get it right.

There have been a few examples on the Porter, where you've got isolated bits of walkway that don't go anywhere. We're keen to avoid that, and make sure everything connects up on the same side of the river. The aim is to get an almost continuous walk along the Porter.

Sam Gregory

Visit the Trust's website to find out more about their projects and upcoming events.

The Porter and Sheaf River Trust would like to thank Edale YHA for their expertise in the recent tours of the Sheaf culverts.

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