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Once famed only for the smoky chimneys of its heavy steel industry, Sheffield has forged itself a thoroughly modern identity. Anna Longmore heads north
The regeneration of the big Northern centres – Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham – has not been a quiet process. At the turn of the century, millions of pounds of public and private money poured in to polish the grittier edges off these industrial giants, turning empty warehouses into sleek apartments and disused factories into galleries and cultural centres.
A decade on, it’s boom time again. Newcastle’s creeping transformation continues, while Liverpool has revelled in its European Capital of Culture status. Cross the Pennines, however, and you’ll find a much quieter renaissance going on.
Since the beginning of the millennium, Sheffield’s city centre has blossomed. The drab 70s architecture has been replaced with the fountains and lawns of the Peace Gardens, the exotic indoor Winter Gardens and the progressive Millennium Galleries, which have just finished hosting a collection of Vivienne Westwood couture.
But there’s no triumphant fanfare or collective back-slapping here, just huge investment – £750m on business tourism facilities in the past three years – and plenty of hard work. ‘We’ve seen hotels and modern spaces springing up and millions of pounds of investment being made in our historic properties, as well as new developments and venues,’ says Emma France, business tourism manager for the region. ‘The formation of tourism partnership Yorkshire South, set up in 2006, has enabled us to proactively promote the region. Tourism now equates to a £1bn industry here.’
Indeed, the poor Northern relation of the 1980s has been replaced by a dynamic, cosmopolitan city. And it’s turning heads. In the past year, Red Bull, BT and Homebase have held events at former steelworks Magna, while Ford and Sainsbury’s used the new facilities at Doncaster Racecourse, and Sheffield’s new boutique hotel, the Leopold, hosted HSBC and Capita. In June, national tourism agency VisitBritain held its annual international conference in the city, with delegates arriving from 36 countries.
‘When we first mooted Sheffield as an idea, there was a certain level of concern among our colleagues, because they were stuck with very outdated perceptions,’ explains Joss Croft, head of business and events at VisitBritain. ‘They were expecting an industrial Victorian city, which it is, but they weren’t aware of this renaissance that’s been going on in the public areas, and attractions such as Magna, alongside the more traditional venues like City Hall and Cutlers’ Hall.’
The 21st-century face of the Steel City – the elegant piazzas, gleaming new venues and ranks of stylish bars and restaurants – is what first attracts organisers to Sheffield. However, it’s the warmth of ‘the biggest village in Britain’ that brings them back. ‘One outstanding feature for us was the friendliness of the people, whether it was the lady in the cloakroom at City Hall or a porter at the hotel – they were absolutely charming,’ says Croft. And, of course, the relative cost of an event is another attraction. ‘We’re slightly jaded by London rates, and they were very competitive and affordable up there,’ he adds.
With the M1, M62 and A1(M) nearby, Sheffield has always been easy to get to by car. Now, overseas delegates can fly into Robin Hood Doncaster Sheffield Airport – the UK’s newest international airport – or connect from Eurostar links at the shiny new St Pancras International, a striking starting point for the two-and-a-half-hour journey from London. ‘The fact that it’s just over a couple of hours from St Pancras was great for our European colleagues, with the Brussels and Paris links,’ says Croft. Delegates (especially jaded Londoners) will also appreciate the ease of getting around once you’re in the city – everything is within easy walking distance or a short ride on one of the speedy trams.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
The heyday of Sheffield’s heavy steel production might have ended decades ago, but the industry is still very much alive. In fact, the city produces more steel than ever before, but the smoky old chimneys have been replaced with precision engineering, and hi-tech plants are tucked away in business parks, manufacturing everything from aircraft parts to surgical blades.
While the stylish hotels and sleek new restaurants characterise the modern-day Sheffield, to really get under the skin of the Steel City you’ll need to delve into its past. That doesn’t mean hauling groups round endless museums – events at the contemporary Magna and history-laden Cutlers’ Hall will give guests a real feel for the city’s roots.
It’s very rare to come across a venue that is unique, but in the case of Magna, the absolute surely applies. It’s housed in the former Templeborough Steelworks in Rotherham, and the conversion of this vast steel shed into a science adventure centre won the prestigious Stirling Prize when it opened in 2001. The shed’s cavernous interior has been left as it was, with the modern walkways, pavilions and event spaces installed around the abandoned giant industrial machinery, giving the venue an eerie Gotham City-like feel that’s particularly atmospheric under the spotlights at night.
The cathedral-like proportions make Magna’s main spaces perfect for large-scale events – Asda took the whole building for its AGM recently – but there’s plenty of scope for smaller groups too. On-site activities include bungee jumping, zipwires, abseiling and parachute freefall, while circus groups based at the venue can perform aerial silks and acrobatics. For a closer look into the steel shed’s past, a former steelworker can conduct you on a guided tour.
After experiencing the gritty side of the steel industry, a formal drinks reception or dinner in the opulent Cutlers’ Hall uncovers its polished face. Tucked away behind an unremarkable entrance in the city centre, the hall – rebuilt by the Victorians – has housed the prestigious Company of Cutlers since the mid-17th century, and the ancient organisation still uses the building today.
Lofty ceilings, marble columns, chandeliers and ornate plasterwork create a decorative setting that couldn’t be further removed from the edgy industrial backdrop of Magna. The private quarters of the Master Cutler are closed off, but there are a number of very grand spaces for banqueting and conferencing, from the 500-capacity Banqueting Hall down to smaller reception rooms. Sodexo runs the show here, so you’re in experienced hands. Just up the road from Cutlers’ Hall, the more public Sheffield City Hall has been at the heart of city life for 76 years.
Its centrepiece is the magnificent Oval Hall, a 2,271-seater auditorium with an art deco stained-glass ceiling – a huge room with near-perfect acoustics that is configured to suit smaller events too.
Down below is the sweeping Ballroom, home to a weekly 70s extravaganza night and a ballroom dancing club, which can comfortably hold 350 for dinner and dancing. After a £12.5m makeover in 2005, the hall is well-equipped for exclusive hire; equally, several smaller events can be run concurrently without any interference, which is why the venue held a whopping 680 events last year.
Another city centre landmark, the Grade I-listed Sheffield Town Hall (tel: 0114 273 4253) offers the same degree of grandeur – think sweeping staircases, marble columns and oak panelling – as its Victorian contemporaries. It’s the first stop for visiting dignitaries, and does a good line in formal silver service banquets. Boardroom meetings, too, are well catered for in the Committee and Conference rooms.
The current prosperity of Sheffield and surrounds might be rooted in its history of innovation and manufacturing in the steel industry, but the region is now pioneering technology in sectors such as sustainable energy, sports science and high-speed manufacturing. Specialist research and developments are driven partly by the thriving academic institutions: the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam. Of course, the universities have plenty of bright, modern meeting spaces, too. Hallam’s Conference 21, for example, offers four theatres and 80 meeting rooms on its city-centre campus, and can arrange preferential delegate rates with nearby hotels. The in-house catering team are able to accommodate receptions of up to 900, and banquets for 200. The success of research and training centres is opening up some unusual venues to the corporate market. Take Directions Finningley CIC (tel: 01302 623 300), for example. Set in an aircraft hangar, the vast 1,000-capacity exhibition space also houses two aircraft, one of which doubles as a swish meeting room. In the fuselage of a Boeing 727, the Delta Bravo executive meeting room is styled on the interior of a luxury private jet and seats up to 12 for private functions.
If it’s Sheffield’s contemporary culture you’re looking to tap into, 21st-century landmarks include the striking Millennium Galleries (tel: 0114 278 2600). The Westwood installation of 150 couture pieces has just gone, but there are still exhibitions on everything from children’s books to China. With its clean lines and bright white interiors, the venue itself is a suitably progressive setting for its eclectic collections of modern art, craft and design, including a gallery dedicated to the city’s metalwork. The elegant 175-capacity Long Gallery is available for events, and the adjacent indoor Winter Gardens, housed in a handsome glasshouse, is also understandably popular for evening receptions. Hire can be arranged through the Mercure St Paul’s (tel: 0114 278 2000).
For a city of half a million people, Sheffield has produced a significant number of top-class musicians, from electro popsters Human League to heavy metal giants Def Leppard and Cockers Jarvis and Joe. These days, famous sons include the Arctic Monkeys and Reverend and the Makers, part of a wave of musicians that industry mag NME refers to grandly as ‘New Yorkshire’.
This varied musical pedigree is reflected in Sheffield’s range of live music venues. Rock and roll’s finest – The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, U2 – have all graced the stage at the city’s original concert hall, Sheffield City Hall. With its elegant art deco interior and perfectly pitched acoustics, the venue still hosts a wide spectrum of acts, from classical to rock (albeit the foot-tapping rather than head-banging variety as it’s all seated) and an extensive renovation in 2005 has upped the standard of in-house hospitality. Forthcoming performances include the Moscow and BBC Philharmonic Orchestras.
To get the most out of high-brow classical concerts, the venue offers dinner talks by a musician or conductor (especially useful for the uninitiated), as well as best-available seats. The walnut-panelled City Bar is a suitably clubby setting for after-show parties.
For large-scale rock concerts, Sheffield Arena, the city’s 12,500-capacity stadium, will see performances from the likes of Coldplay, Kings of Leon, Status Quo and Counting Crows this year. There’s plenty of scope for entertaining in one of the 12-person Executive Suites – all with perfect views of the stage – or pre-show dining in the Arena Club, a marquee for up to 100 guests.
Hot on its heels, Doncaster’s recent opening, the £32m multi-purpose Keepmoat Stadium (tel: 01302 762590) might be primarily a sports venue, but it has already hosted Elton John, Bryan Adams and McFly (mercifully in a non-sporting capacity). Silver, gold and platinum hospitality packages, including a three-course dinner and drinks, are available for concerts, making use of the shiny new club lounges.
For no-frills gigging, and lesser-known artists with a few big names thrown in, hit The Leadmill (tel: 0114 221 2828), a nightclub in a former flour factory where you can catch the likes of CSS, Travis and The Kills in gloriously boisterous surrounds. If you know the right people, you might even catch one of the Arctic Monkeys’ secret homecoming gigs there. In a similar vein, the recently opened Carling Academy Sheffield (tel: 0114 253 7777) serves up yoof-rock with lashings of cold beer, and it’s centrally located for bars and restaurants. It’s also worth checking out the line-up at The Dome (tel: 01302 370777) in Doncaster, where The Feeling, The Kooks and Scouting for Girls are scheduled to play later this year.
TIME TO PARTY
The people of Sheffield love to party, and weekend nights are buzzing with smartly dressed locals (a lot of the bars have dress codes, and doormen who are too large to argue with). For city centre drinking and dancing, they head to the parallel drags of West Street and Division Street, where the ranks of watering holes range from loud, throbbing chains to more sedate wine and Champagne bars. It’s easy enough to find the former – just follow the big basslines and tiny skirts – but the latter are more tucked away.
Just off West Street, the smart crowd (plus a few famous faces) settle in at Ivory (tel: 0114 276 0888) for live music, staunchly local food and a pretty little courtyard. In a similar vein, the recently re-opened Trippets (tel: 0114 272 7928), a characterful Champagne bar in the Cathedral Quarter, serves reasonably priced wine and bubbly by the glass as well as oysters and ‘Yorkshire tapas’. Nearby in Leopold Square, new arrival Sylvester’s (tel: 0114 270 9509) serves its Champagne to a live piano soundtrack, but it’s really just a decent bar with high-end aspirations.
For upmarket imbibing, the ‘golden mile’ of Ecclesall Road has been colonised by designer boutiques, coffee shops and smart bars and restaurants, which open out on to the street. Expect to find a well-heeled crowd at the likes of the sleek Manhattan-style Walnut Club (tel: 0114 267 6566), Italian-inspired bar-restaurant Felicini’s (tel: 0114 263 1617) and the Aperitivi bar at Nonna’s (tel: 0114 268 6166).
The venue du jour for drinking and posing, Crystal (tel: 0114 272 5926), a cosy but stylish bar with private lounges for hire, is set in a former scissor factory. Canapés are provided by the excellent Nonna’s. If you like your boogie nights with more than a whiff of cheese, City Hall hosts the legendary 70s disco Hotpants (tel: 0114 221 2828) every Saturday. The art deco ballroom is a stunning setting, though chances are you won’t be taking in the decor. It’s also the venue for the long-running Last Laugh Comedy Club (tel: 0114 267 9787) on Friday and Saturday nights, compered by Toby Foster of Phoenix Nights fame.
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Autumn 2008.