There’s that thing Sheffield is really famous for – steel – and the thing that these days it ought to be much more famous for – its greenness. Shepherd Wheel, in the Porter Valley, embraces both.
Sheffield readers should hopefully need little convincing to spend time in the company of the Porter Brook, be it an afternoon in Endcliffe Park, an outing on the Sheffield Round Walk, or a wander here in Whiteley Woods – with sun-dappled inclines on one side of you and the dribbling, giggling brook on the other. By the water, slender trees with ivy-wrapped trunks shade the brook in places, and in others the sun glints and winks off its surface. Little bridges appear as you walk, and dirt paths veer off up into the woods. Wet dog footprints remain after the dogs have run on. It is quiet and still and beautiful, bursting with simple pleasures.
The Porter Brook is a happy sliver of sunny water, and a joy to follow at any time of year. It occurs to me now that it’s just enjoying its retirement; it was once of course a hard-working contributor to the metalwork industry that made the city’s name. Long before Sheffield was known as the Steel City, packhorses carried sandstone and iron ore from our rich hills along the paths where stick-chasing dogs now scamper. The people of Sheffield harnessed the brook’s power, with a dam collecting water to turn the wheels, which in turned powered the grinding wheels within low-built stone workshops. There, the little mesters worked, grinding knives with bare hands, amidst cast iron, oak and flying shards of metal. On cold mornings they would have to break the ice in the dam to get the water flowing and the wheels moving.
Shepherd Wheel was one of more than a hundred water-powered grinding wheels that were once in action in Sheffield. There was a workshop on this site from the 1500s and this wheel functioned right up until the 1930s, when it couldn’t keep up with the new techniques for producing stainless steel. A plaque commemorates its reopening in 2012, thanks to the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Sheffield City Council, Friends of the Porter Valley, Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust (SIMT), plus a host of donors from Forgemasters to Abbeydale Brewery. SIMT and the knowledgeable Friends volunteers help keep the wheel in working order, allowing visitors to experience this part of Sheffield’s history. They even keep a fire going in the hearth, which one volunteer tells me was there to dry the blades to keep them from rusting, not to keep the men warm.
Now, Shepherd Wheel makes a great little stop along a walk down from Endcliffe Park in the direction of Whiteley Woods – especially for kids, who can get happily soaked by the water wheel simulation in the courtyard. Handouts and displays tell macabre tales of ale thieves, people drowned in the Porter, and of the children as young as nine who worked here. You can also hear The Grinders’ Song, which warns that “a broken stone can give a man a wound that will not heal”. It’s a lot less noisy than it once was, of course; the big water wheel in the courtyard splashes gently amidst the sounds of rustling leaves and birdsong – grey wagtails are nesting in the eaves of the workshop. See if you can spot a heron by the dam, too.
After your visit to the past, take a seat at one of the nearby benches. From here, you can watch the world pass quietly – a world of strollers, joggers and long-distance walkers, of delirious dogs, wobbly toddlers and swift cyclists – as the smoke from the chimney of Shepherd Wheel puffs into the sky over the allotments beyond.
Shepherd Wheel will reopen on Saturday 5 June – find out more details.
- Words by
- Nat Loftus
- Images by
- Gemma Thorpe