On the wall of the Curator’s House, at the entrance to the Botanical Gardens, the start of a riddle coaxes visitors to "step into the garden of surprise".
The riddle was written by Berlie Doherty and set into a trail of artworks created by several sculptors, woodcarvers, and artists. (You'll find another public piece of poetry by Berlie in our Poetic Tour of Sheffield.) Follow the trail throughout the Gardens and their Pavilions and it quickly becomes clear: they really are full of surprises.
A pair of dinosaur footprints, forged in bronze, lead to a fossilised tree stump around 300 million years old. A statue of Pan plays its pipe to an audience of roses. A bronze bear awaits hugs in a pit where once two – somewhat less approachable – bears lived in captivity. According to the Botanical Gardens' curator Ian Turner, they were once home to monkeys too.
First opened on 29th June 1836, Sheffield Botanical Gardens were laid out by the illustrious horticulturalist and landscape designer Robert Marnock, in the Gardenesque style that was all the rage in Victorian Britain. At a time when the chimneys of industry that towered above Sheffield were choking the atmosphere with their streams of smoke, the gardens were a well-needed space to breathe – even if public access was at first limited, before free admission for all was introduced in 1898. Green expanses like the Botanical Gardens were then praised as the lungs of the city.
Following large-scale restorations, the Gardens were reopened on 20th June 2008, with a tree planted by Michael Palin to mark the occasion.
Dotted amongst the gardens' nineteen acres today are three ponds, a fountain, and around 4,000 types of plants from all over the world, including 210 varieties of roses and three National Collections (Weigela, Diervilla, and Sarcococca). Meanwhile 18,060 panels of glass shape the beautiful, 90-metre-long pavilions (open 11am-3:30pm) – home to plants from the temperate regions of Asia, Japan, the Himalayas, the Mediterranean, Australia, New Zealand, and Southern Africa.
The Victorian smog may have lifted, but Sheffield Botanical Gardens continue to attract as many as 300,000 visitors a year. Cool off with an ice-cream or warm up with a cuppa in the tearoom. Take a breather on one of the many benches (137 at last count). Lean against a tree trunk, book in hand. Make friends with the bear statue and the real squirrels.
You'll soon see, there’s still something quite restorative to be said for a few hours spent here.
You'll find a lovely illustrated postcard of the Botanical Gardens in our 35 Postcards of Sheffield pack.
- Words by
- Kathryn Hall
- Images by
- Will Roberts