Yesterday, with workmen in the house all day, 4YO and I needed to get out and about. I decided on a proper trip out, so that there would be no temptation to just ‘nip home’ and sit in a dust and paint filled house. So where to go? Well, it may not be on any Mumsnet or Buzzfeed type lists of great activities to keep pre-schoolers entertained on a drizzly day in March, but we decided on a train ride to Sheffield.
Frankly, a train ride to anywhere was always going to be a hit, as we tend to drive everywhere, and can’t actually remember the last time 4YO got on a train. Just buying a ticket and getting on board was exciting enough…
I should declare an interest here; I went to university in Sheffield and although it was probably pretty down-at-heel, the whole intense exhilarating student experience meant that I’ve always looked at the place through the proverbial rose-tinted spectacles. So Sheffield was always beautiful in my biased view, but in the last few years the city centre has undergone a lot of redevelopment. Arriving by train is the best way to appreciate it, as Sheaf Square right outside the station now boasts some pretty cool water features, such as Cutting Edge, a 90 metre long curved wall of steel with water cascading down its entire length.
We spent a long time examining Cutting Edge and running around the open space right outside the station – I can’t think of many other cities in the UK where the station front is so inviting to just hang out in. Because it was a grey and rainy day, the photos don’t really do it justice, but the big smiles tell you how much fun we were having.
Eventually we tore ourselves away, across the road and up Howard Street. Back in my student days, this was just a bleak short cut from Arundel Gate down to the train station, but now it’s been pedestrianised and landscaped, and is a really pleasant walk. And there’s more water features! This one kept us occupied for another half hour:
There’s a very tactile appeal to this redevelopment of Sheffield city centre; you can get close enough to touch all these features (or climb all over them if you’re four years old) and it makes the city feel very human and friendly… unlike, dare I say, the city we live in now which is rather car dominated.
Eventually, about an hour after we got off the train, we crossed over Arundel Gate (Sheffielders will know that this is a ten minute walk at best, so that’s an indication of just how much fun we were having!) and went through the Milennium Galleries, up to what 4YO refers to as “the jungle”, or the Winter Garden to give it the official name. This is another great public space, a huge whale shape filled with towering tropical plants right in the heart of the city centre. It’s a prime location, and while 4YO was bombing around examining the bamboo and the flowers, I couldn’t help but reflect that in many other cities this would be a huge mall consisting of high street chain stores, broken up by a few tame fountains with signs saying “no climbing”. Instead, Sheffield gives us this:
The only nod to retail in here is a Fair Trade cafe and a pop up shop, and yet the place was crowded with people, workers and shoppers having a lunch break, children in uniform on a school trip. We had a sandwich at the café, giving 4YO an Ed Miliband moment …
After lunch we headed out into the rainy Peace Gardens. I remember this as a small grassed area surrounded by buildings on all sides, where office workers sunbathed at lunchtime, next to a row of bus stops, but again as part of the whole redevelopment of the city centre it’s been made into a really attractive open space with, again, great use of water.
My original plan was to get on a bus out to Hunter’s Bar and head out to Endcliffe Park for the afternoon, but the rain swept in at this point and all we could think about was running for cover. So we took a tram to Meadowhall, the out-of-town shopping centre which has, I suspect, had a big influence on why Sheffield’s city centre is better for culture than shopping. The tram ride was another big hit for 4YO, and Meadowhall itself was pleasantly quiet on a mid-week afternoon, so we spent an hour or two checking out the toy shops, before getting a direct train home.
So top marks Sheffield – a fantastic day out, thanks to some imaginative and family-friendly town planning and architecture, and a good public transport system. The redevelopments of recent years have made it a great city to wander round on foot, and it still feels like the cultural, vibrant city I remember from my student days. I’d definitely recommend it as a place to visit with children – if your kids, like mine, are curious about checking out their surroundings and can see the fun in wide open public spaces (And if you need more, there’s always the National Emergency Services Museum!).