The Castlegate Revolution
Sheffield’s birthplace has fallen into disrepair. Fortunately, times are finally changing down on Castlegate.
Once a thriving market hub, Sheffield’s historic centre has lost its way in recent times. The formerly bustling hub of storefronts and department stores has slowly been replaced by empty buildings and outdated architecture. This didn’t happen overnight, however – many factors have contributed to the area’s decades-long dilapidation.
In the 20th century, improved public transport and the expansion of the traditional city centre shifted the focus away from Castlegate. This led to two competing town centres throughout the 60s and 70s, from The Moor to the Wicker, each with their own branch of popular high-street chains such as Woolworths and Dixons. Unsurprisingly, it was Meadowhall that broke the fragile balance, not only devastating the inner-city economy for over a decade but forcing one end of this teetering ecosystem to collapse. Trams have since connected the centre to the popular shopping destination, further reducing the need to renovate more disadvantaged areas.
Nowadays, the proud Castle House, once home to the Co-operative department store, has gone unused for a decade. Exchange Street’s ‘street in the sky’ stands empty, old shop names on the floor above still visible from the ground. Market stalls dot side streets forgotten by the rest of the city. The markets themselves now reside on The Moor, drawn to the south of the centre along with the City Council buildings. “That was a tipping point. Castlegate had to find a new role,” says Simon Ogden, Castlegate project director and former head of city regeneration for Sheffield City Council. “It’s still one of the main gateways to the city. If you’re staying at any of the hotels, Castlegate is what you see. That’s your first impression. No one wants that to be the first impression of Sheffield!”
Many might not realise Castlegate’s historical significance, something the council hopes to change. Under the mid-90s facade lies the confluence of the River Sheaf and the River Don, an unassuming geographical detail that spawned the North’s greatest city (objectively speaking). “It’s where Sheffield’s history began,” says Ogden. “Even people brought up here think Sheffield started around the Industrial Revolution, but it was a significant medieval town with a castle housing one of the wealthiest families in the north of England.”
Sheffield Castle is currently undergoing an extensive archaeological investigation. Since its destruction during the English Civil War, the structure is now nothing more than an artist’s interpretation. The foundations remain though, waiting beneath centuries of constant building and demolition. Castlegate was bombed during World War II, and has seen slaughterhouses, hotels, pubs and steelworks all come and go. There was even a bowling green that once sat atop the castle site.
Archaeologists are currently ‘trial trenching’ the area: a fast and inexpensive method of determining a site’s state of preservation and historical promise. The work will finish in mid-October, followed by a longer period analysing any findings offsite. Though this could theoretically lead to incredible discoveries, Ogden and his team are thinking realistically. “Nobody’s expecting us to find Camelot down there! We’re expecting minimal remains. Whether or not that becomes important to people is how we tell the story.”
The team have also received support from the University of Sheffield. This collaboration has led to the creation of an augmented reality castle model (premiered at this year’s Festival of the Mind’s Futurcade exhibit in Millenium Gallery), as well as suggestions for trialling the site’s possible developments cheaply and effectively. At one point, plans proposed by the Department of Architecture were in place to build a ‘people’s pier’ to allow the community to interact with the excavation, though at the time of writing this has not obtained funding.
The city’s regeneration has seen industrial space repurposed en masse in recent years, in areas like Kelham Island and the Creative Industry Quarter. For creatives, this has presented a different problem altogether. “We’re running out of places where bands can rehearse, record and perform because the old industrial places people used to play in are being redeveloped,” he says. “Plus, the tech sector is in dire need of inner city space. They don’t want to go to some business park in the suburbs, they want to be in an area where there are places to eat and it’s a stimulating environment.”