Skinheads, slides & ski lifts: The Knave in Sheffield

I trust that you will forgive my friend. The wines were too various. It was neither the quality nor the quantity that was at fault – it was the mixture.

I am feeling very fragile on only the second day of my tour. Overcome by hiccups that started the night before – can one sleep with them, I wonder? – I have at least born my spasming stomach to the bathroom’s threshold. Perhaps I could leave a note, I think to myself, fearing the worst – “I trust that you will forgive your cousin…” – as the still cellophane-covered bathtub of his newly purchased home appears – “The ales were too various…” – IPAs, Ambers, Porters… “It was the mixture!”

Conscience overcomes me and I steel my stomach.

Considering it more appropriate that the new homeowners choose their own way to christen the roomy tub, I run a basin of cold water.

Jamie & Penny's bathroom

The scene of the nearly crime…

I feel the pain coursing down from neck to forehead as I bend over to dunk my head. The hangover speeds through me like a jet ski, my brain the screaming engine; each submerged throb disturbing the sink water, creating a wake that threatens to spill over the naked floorboards.

So, yes, the tour’s first evening was a roaring success, starring a long-lost cousin, his big-smiled wife, the saddest dog in Sheffield and a quite mind-boggling selection of far-too-drinkable ales,

The Greystones

Entertainment courtesy of the Thornbridge Brewery at The Greystones, Sheffield…

…but what of its first daylight hours?


Well, I arrived in good time, although the drive was underwhelming, dominated as it was by the A1, our nation’s longest road. And what a drab drag it is –decrepit bridges; snack shacks; roadside rubbish; American ‘diners’. It’s treacherous, too; famed for the 1920s T-junctions that drop drivers from a standing start into the direct path of speeding traffic. In many instances, there are no slip roads at all which would have been just fine for the sedately trundling vehicles of the inter-war years (all 7,500 of them) but, today, nearly a century and 30 million more car owners later, motorists wishing to join this old road during peak times must simply pull out and hope that the oncoming narcoleptic HGV driver is enjoying one of his more heedful moments.

Take a break

Tiredness kills. Take a break.

Walking out of the driveway that I’ve rented for the day, I suddenly realise I ought to work out how to get to the city centre. I ask a passing octogenarian male for directions.

 “Wher’uh ya meckin’ fuh, exackly?” comes the reply.

“The cathedral”, I explain, handing him a Cathedral Knave calling card by which I expect him to look utterly dumbfounded.

The Knave and steed

But, no! Our man quickly registers the website address on “t’other side of’t card”, promises to “av a looook laytuh” using his “eye speed broadband” before removing his flat cap, placing the card inside it and popping it back on his head. By the time I recover my composure, he has begun to tell me the way “…over’t bridge and up t’hill when yull see it on’t right beside t’ tram stop. Yuh cun wock wi’me if yud like.” I decide I ought to do so (at least until I see a bridge) and so we potter on together.

We walked downhill to the same busy roundabout that I had driven around earlier – more times than I would care to admit to; settling upon different exits of equal incorrectness on each circumnavigation until my process of trial-and-error orientation had won out – then turned a hairpin bend and begun climbing steeply towards a bridge… at which point I thanked Eric for his company, wrestled his stick from him with little difficulty (a nice one decorated with metal badges of all the Anglican cathedrals in England…), propelled myself up the incline with ease, turned right and followed the tram lines all the way to the cathedral stop.

Sheffield Cathedral

Sheffield Cathedral from the Supertram stop (© Samuel Mather Photography)


I needn’t say more about the city, architecturally-speaking, than George Orwell

 Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World

and Nikolaus Pevsner,

 a miserable disappointment

both of whom are authorities currently more highly esteemed than your humble Knave (and with whom he agrees wholeheartedly, anyhow, in this instance). [Goodness, what bold syntax! Did you follow it alright?] But it’s got trams. No! Not the syntax! Sheffield! Oh, no, hang on; I’ve already said that. Anyway, let’s move on.

The exterior of the cathedral is, well, an ugly disappointment as it happens – I suppose I was warned.

The excretion of bricks at the southwest end is the most remarkable part of its outer fabric and looks a little like a lone castle tower designed by the architect of a brutalist multi-storey car park.

It was added in the 1960s. The rest of the exterior dates variously from the 13th to the early 20th centuries, and appears largely uniform in style, thus serving to even better highlight the concrete non sequitur of the main entrance. The large expanse of paving slabs I walk across towards the building make it feel as much like an extension of the tram stop that backs onto it as a cathedral close of any kind.

Sheffield Cathedral concourse

Come on in to Sheffield Cathedral…!

But, in its defence, this urban church has never been nor ever will be a Norwich or a Salisbury, that is to say, a cathedral built as a cathedral. It was first put up by the delightfully named William de Lovetot as an ancillary institution of the richer and older (Norman) priory at Worksop and (just like Manchester, where we’ve been, and Blackburn, a treat yet to come) was only ever made a cathedral due to either the industrial rate at which northerners procreated during the 19th century or a revolution of some kind (or a bit of both).

 Walking in through the tower doors I’m greeted by a guardsman, a skinhead with a pugilist’s jaw.

He makes no effort to stop me so I slide on past, noting the wall-mounted flat screen HDTV as I do so. Pretty flash.


Sheffield Cathedral: view to the nave and west-end from the choir

Well it’s a cliché, folks; but clichés are often true: ‘don’t judge a cathedral by its exterior’, as they say. The light, long, clean lines of Sheffield’s interior immediately strike me, as does the stark minimalism of its west end with simply glazed, modern lancet windows. There is a real variety to the architecture. The 14th century east end is the building’s oldest part, with significant additions made in the late 19th century. And, as is often the case these days, in an era where state funding for ancient buildings is dwindling (whilst money is poured all the while into defence – stoke the fear!) the cathedral is in the midst of a campaign – the Gateway Project – to raise funds for 21st century ‘updates’. In the last few years a brand new floor has been laid, complete with state-of-the-art underfloor heating – part nave; part football pitch!

Simple oak pews, graceful and robust, sit atop it, their shadows creating a stark chiaroscuro on the surface, the regularity of which is transfixing.

And so much nicer than the stackable plastic rubbish at Lincoln!

Lincoln Cathedral nave © Samuel Mather Photography

Why those plastic chairs, Lincoln??!? © Samuel Mather Photography

I sit and take it in for a while, enjoying the familiar ambient hum of little pockets of activity nearby. Why don’t more people holiday cathedral-style, I wonder? Because they expect proselytizing volunteers armed with bibles and holy water? That’s never happened to me and I’d give them my own take on holy water if it did. These really are interesting places and, in many cases, functioning works of art, full of history, myths, surprises and charming people. Try them or, then again, don’t, and there’ll be more room for me.

 I feel some activity in my trousers…

A tweet has just come through. It’s from @sheffcath! Their response to an earlier twitpic of my first sight of the cathedral:

The shop was un peu underwhelming to tell the truth so I headed back to the main attraction where I replied to our phantom tweeter and, to my geekish delight, some in-play cathedral tweeting ensued, the entirety of which you can view below.

Sheffield twitter action

Cool Keith tweets in-play

Tweeting with Sheffield

Cool Keith tweets in-play cont’d!

How charming it was to ogle the angels’ wings in Keith’s e-company. How curious, too, to have confirmed that the cathedral has just one transept of significance. This single arm, extending north and about as long as the nave itself, is the vestige of a plan of over a hundred years ago to re-orient the church north-south (cathedral aficionados amongst you will know that the main body – the nave and choir – usually runs east-west). I amuse myself by imagining how this might look from an aerial perspective. Can you see it?

I’m looking down directly on the spire, the core of an upstanding male, the nave and choir arms his hands on hips, the lone, proud transept his perpendicular pecker.

I think this a fine and honest testament to the town’s 19th century population boom and give silent credit to its creator, Charles Nicholson, architect and antic.

Before leaving, I descend to take a quick look at the crypt

Sheffield Cathedral crypt

Sheffield Cathedral crypt (Samuel Mather Photography)

but best not mention it here for, though it looks charming from the door, the state of the vaulting brings another word to mind… Sh…ocking.

Sheffield vaulting

Re. vaulting!

I exit the bowels, ascending the small intestine to the stomach, where the ambient hum of before has become a constant gargle. A gaggle of old ladies has appeared and more are entering the building in a steady stream.

Aged women of white and black mingle into the cathedral together.

One in a pleated skirt and white wool cardigan walks in chatting to another in a bright orange dress adorned with sequins – this cosy colloquy but a snapshot of Sheffield’s considerable ethnic diversity. Seated already in the front row, Karen and Pauline have told me that they are here for a service to commemorate the founder of the Mothers’ Union, whose name they can’t remember off the top of their heads (it’s Mary Sumner). I’m invited to stay but I politely decline, I’ve been here a while now and I’m keen for a pint.

But there’s one more thing I’d like to know before I go: what’s the story behind the stained glass, which seems as various as the architectural make-up? Looking around for a volunteer, I see only the aforementioned guardsman. I approach, cautiously, careful not to make any sudden movements for fear of violent reprisals. Now it might seem very much like I’m making this up, but it’s true.

I asked him my question, he smiled widely, his face softened and his eyes lit up: “Uv got absulloootely no idea”, he confessed, laughing.

But he did pose for a selfie.


The world’s friendliest skinhead

Full of positive energy, I walked too fast down the steep hill to the station. By the time I arrived at The Sheffield Tap – serving great beer alongside appalling wifi and even worse customer service – my thighs were screaming.

How do locals cope with these hills?!

The Tap was full of Sheffield United fans en route to Bramall Lane. Their beery banter made it rather difficult to do writing of any kind so I instead dedicated my thoughts to a cunning little idea, one that might, in the long term, serve the cathedral (and a lot of thighs) rather well.

All the cathedral needed to do, I decided, was propose, fund, build and manage a series of slides and ski-lifts running parallel to one another on each of the city centre’s considerable inclines. It’s a surefire winner; a guaranteed money-spinner! Just think of it! Folk late for trains could just jump in after their suitcases and slide down to the station in 20 seconds, whilst pissed football fans could get carried to their next bar up t’hill with minimal effort and in a straight line (bonus). What is more, kids would love it as much as older folk would grow to!


The cost of a ticket would be low but take-up would be so high that the cathedral would soon be richer than the Catholic Church.

Let’s say that a ticket, valid for a day, was sold for £1. If you could shift, on average, just 5,000 of those per day you’d be making £1.825 million a year! You could be buying missiles in no time!!

No, it’s my pleasure, really. Just accept it as a gift to your ugly cathedral and its beautiful soul.


Thank you for reading!

If you are minded to leave a comment, I would really value your honest feedback. Is this too different from other pieces you’ve read? Has it improved? Has it gone, ahem, downhill? I’d love to know your thoughts. Thanks again.


6 thoughts on “Skinheads, slides & ski lifts: The Knave in Sheffield

  1. Laughed out loud a number of times – especially at ‘the industrial rate at which northerners procreated during the 19th century’
    Good stuff, Sam!

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