Sheffield

autumn sabbath

When the news is unrelentingly horrible, when a friend has suffered a heart-shattering blow, when scary deadlines loom, then sometimes the only way to stay sane is to get outside.

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Sheffield must be one of the most gloriously situated cities in the world.

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All this scenery is just a few miles from the centre.

 

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We walked and walked today. Most of these views are familiar, they are home, and yet they are always new.

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When we got back my legs ached, my eyelids were drooping and none of the hard stuff had gone away but the vastness of the sky, the light on autumn leaves and the rush of swollen streams had cut all the problems back down to size.

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the Magnificat and the shopping centre

To prepare for Advent this year I read the Magnificat, that famous song of Mary that is recorded in Luke’s gospel. Soon after that I went to Broomhill, an area of Sheffield almost halfway between where we live and the city centre. I hadn’t been for a few weeks and I was shocked by the changes I found.

Together, the two experiences combined to convince me (and I know I’ve been slow) that it’s impossible to take Advent seriously and continue to shop like a typical Western consumer.

This is what I found in Broomhill.

on a roll

This used to be an independent sandwich shop.

Blackwells

This was a bookshop.

Williamsons

This is an excellent hardware store which has been trading in Sheffield for fifty years. It’s moving to the bookshop premises because they are smaller. Not because it is short of things to sell but because the landlord refused to renew their lease, preferring to hand it to Sainsbury’s instead. (I do not know why Broomhill needs a Sainsbury’s only a few doors away from Eurospar in one direction and Tesco in the other but that is what it will get.)

Cream

This was a coffee shop.  It had, a seasonal menu that changed regularly and it stocked local food, such as the excellent Our Cow Molly ice cream.

Our Cow Molly is part of a family-run dairy farm that was set up in 1947 and now numbers eighty cows, which graze on top of one of Sheffield’s famous seven hills. When the current owner’s grandfather started the business sixty years ago, a bottle of milk had the same value as a loaf of bread or a bottle of beer. Now the big traders have forced the price of milk so low that hundreds of dairy farmers are going out of business. ‘We didn’t want to be next so Our Cow Molly dairy ice cream was born!’ explains their website.

The owner of Cream has sold the lease to Costa Coffee, a global chain that already has several branches in Sheffield, each serving an identical menu. Just to be sure, I emailed Costa and asked them whether individual branches were allowed to stock locally sourced food. They replied: ‘The store will have to stock the same products as the rest of our stores in line with our company policy.’

This globalised, one-size-fits-all way of doing business is wrecking our world. It’s destroying individuality, creativity and local resilience. It places power in the hands of a few and forces the rest of us to do things their way. The global food industry in particular is one that screams injustice, whether that’s in the treatment of small scale producers, the conditions in which animals are kept to ensure low prices or the terrible havoc wreaked on the land by large scale agricultural practices.*

In the Magnificat, a pregnant teenager sings of themes that recur throughout the Bible: of justice and equality and of God overthrowing the power structures of the world. ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly,’ cries Mary. ‘He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.’ **

When I read the Magnificat this year, I felt more than ever the dissonance between joining in Mary’s celebration and continuing to spend money without thinking about where it is going. I buy more stuff in December than at any other time. I don’t want my money to contribute to wrecking the environment and putting more power in the hands of people who have too much already.

So as a family we have drawn up some criteria for our shopping and present-giving this month. As far as possible, we will try to buy and give things that meet at least one of the following criteria, things that are:

:: locally produced, or
:: recycled, or
:: sold by an independent retailer, or
:: organic, or
:: fairly traded or
:: hand made originals

We won’t be shopping at big retailers that shirk their responsibility to pay corporation tax. In general I won’t be shopping at supermarkets but I’m making an exception for our local Co-op. That’s partly because the Co-op sells more fairly traded goods than any other supermarket, and also because there’s a small branch only five minutes’ walk from our house. I’m absolutely convinced that if it went out of business we’d get Tesco or Sainsbury’s moving in and tightening still further the grip they have on our buying choices.

I know this isn’t perfect. I know to my shame that we’ll probably still consume more in one month that some families in other countries do in a year. I know loads of people of all faiths and none have been doing this kind of thing for ages and we have been slow to get going. But it’s a start. It’s only by beginning that we’ll find out where to go next.

Joanna Blythman’s books are especially helpful for understanding more about the food industry.
** Tom Wright’s Luke for Everyone really helped me understand the revolutionary nature of Mary’s song.

a world on your doorstep

Last week I met a young man who is an expert in South American tree frogs. He used to take tourists around a remote part of the Ecuadorean rainforest, identifying all kinds of wildlife for them, but especially his beloved frogs.

I was a bit in awe of this guy, of his knowledge and of his experience of the world. He lived for six months in that isolated spot in Ecuador, an hour’s plane ride away from what you might call civilisation. He worked with tribal elders, helping them to work out how to make a living without damaging the forest.

But then he said something that changed everything for me. ‘I used to think that nature was far away and out there,’ he said. ‘I thought you had to travel for miles and get away from everything to find it. But then I realised it is on your doorstep.’

We were talking at his home in west Yorkshire, an apparently ordinary house in a seemingly average street. But when you look more closely you see that Mike’s home is anything but run of the mill. Instead of a hedge in the front garden, there’s a rustic fence made of the trunks and branches from the Leylandii he chopped down when he moved in. The rest of his plot is being slowly developed as a forest garden, a way of growing edible plants that imitates the ecosystems found in woodland. There’s a ground covering of strawberries, then a layer of bushes – in this case currants and gooseberries – then a planting of nut trees. This is just the beginning: eventually the whole plot will be a low maintenance, sustainable source of food for Mike’s family.

I was struck by the whole concept of gardening in this way, but even more by the richness that Mike was discovering simply by being attentive to the nature on his doorstep. When I got back to Sheffield it made me look at our lovely valley in a new way. As luck would have it, when I took one of my regular walks up to the top of the stream, it was just after one of the heaviest rainfalls of this incredibly wet summer.

Often in summer the water just trickles through this valley but on this day it was in full spate, fiercer and stronger than I have ever seen it. It was surging down towards the parks at the bottom, pleating and plaiting as it dropped more than three hundred metres through a series of weirs and millponds, relics of the days when it drove more than 20 mills used in the manufacture of cutlery and hand tools.

After rainfall like last week the iron deposits that have shaped this valley’s history churn up to the surface, shading the water through ochre and dark ginger to a kind of luminous rust colour. From a distance you could think it was flowing over a succession of underwater lights. As I made my way along a path made sticky with mud and sodden leaves I was thinking of our daughter currently hundreds of miles away, planting trees in a remote corner of Madagascar. I’d been a little envious of this trip of a lifetime, but today the unfamiliar roar of a stream in spate and the memory of Mike’s fascination with his garden were giving me a new perspective.

Here I was, a few hundred metres from our front door, surrounded by ancient woodland, torrential water and a long, rich history that I knew disgracefully little about. I know even less of the wildlife that inhabits this wonderful spot. Thanks to my parents’ fascination with ornithology I’m not too bad at identifying the birds – I’ve seen nuthatches, woodpeckers, dippers and even a kingfisher on my walks but I know almost nothing of the mammals that live round here and still less about the insects and reptiles, not to mention the fungi, the trees, the plants and what you can do with them.

The truth of what Mike said about nature being on our doorstep came home to me on this walk. I realised too that I didn’t even need to come this short way to find it. It’s in my tiny garden, too, a whole ecosystem that I am barely aware of.

The pond in our garden at frog-mating time

Back in the eighties, when AIDS was first identified, there was a health campaign with the slogan ‘don’t die of ignorance’. With the world now facing unprecedented food shortages, spiralling transport costs and weather patterns that are both unpredictable and potentially devastating, it seems our ignorance about the world in front of our noses may be at least as big a threat.

Mike is a walking encyclopaedia when it comes to the natural world. He knows what weeds you can eat, what to plant to fix nitrogen in your soil, how to manage ponds so that they sustain the widest possible range of beneficial wildlife. It’s a knowledge acquired over years and it flourishes within a deep appreciation and respect for the world on the doorstep.

I think it’s time to do something about my ignorance.

Lent pictures 1

I resolved to take a picture every day in Lent as a way of making myself slow down and notice some of the important things that are so easily missed when our days are full. I’ll be posting some of my favourites in this space throughout the season.

Snowdrops in the front garden.

Early spring sunshine in the Porter Valley

First pulmonarias in the back garden

 

best of Yorkshire

After nearly ten years in Sheffield, I still get excited about the first Yorkshire rhubarb. Forced in dark sheds on farms in the famous Rhubarb Triangle (roughly between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield), it comes out the most glorious shade of pink.

I love the contrast with the yellowy, crumpled leaves.

This delicate, early crop is quite different from the coarse stuff that comes along later. The challenge is always to find a recipe that does it justice. It’s pretty much perfect when simply roasted with sugar and a vanilla pod; however this year I experimented a bit and came up with something I think is just as good.

I got the idea from Liz, who had in turn adapted it from Smitten Kitchen.

Behold: Rhubarb Sharlotka.

This is a winner on all counts. It tastes fabulous and really lets the rhubarb flavour sing. It is quick and easy to make. Also, unbelievably, it is cake without the calories. Or with fewer calories, anyway. No fat, apart from what is in the eggs, and only a small amount of flour. I had to bulk out the rhubarb with a cooking apple. Rhubarb and apple are great together, but purists could always replace the apple with a couple more sticks of rhubarb.

Rhubarb sharlotka

7 sticks Yorkshire rhubarb

I medium cooking apple

4 medium eggs

200 grams caster sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

125 grams plain flour

I cooked it in a deep, non-stick cake tin with a 20cm removable base.

:: Preheat the oven to 180 degrees

:: Line the base of the tin and butter the sides.

:: Chop the rhubarb and apple into robust chunks and pile them into the tin.

:: Beat the eggs with the sugar until thick. The whisk should leave trails in the egg mixture.

:: Beat in the vanilla extract.

:: Lightly stir in the flour.

:: Tip the batter over the rhubarb and apple and smooth the surface. You need to press down a bit too, to encourage it to penetrate the gaps between the chunks of fruit.

:: Bake for 55 minutes. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack. Serve warm or cold, dusted with icing sugar, on its own or with cream or crème fraîche. A mug of Yorkshire tea would be a fine accompaniment.

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After one of the warmest and driest Novembers on record, December in Sheffield has been the kind of month that makes you wonder how come we haven’t evolved into a species that hibernates. But on Sunday the sun broke through and as I walked up my beloved Porter Valley I realised that the weeks of sleet and freezing rain had been worth it.

This waterfall, one of my favourite stopping places, has been a trickle since the spring

Similarly, higher up the valley the stream that feeds it has been almost dry. No more!

The sun shone, there was a sprinkling of snow and for a few glorious hours the gloom of winter seemed to have passed. As the shortest day approaches, it was a good reminder that though winter comes, spring is not far behind.

fourteen

A ring of bells is a good thing to have on an Advent calendar. These ones, which now hang in the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield, have an interesting history, albeit one with a rather un-Christmassy ending.

As most people know, Sheffield has long and proud associations with metal work, especially steel. These bells – made in 1886 for Bassaleg Parish Church in south Wales – are among more than 7,000 that were produced out of cast steel by the Sheffield-based company Naylor Vickers between 1855 and 1890. They were popular as a stopgap for parishes who were saving up until they could splash out on bronze, which was considered superior. Today only 15 sets of cast steel bells survive.

The technique Naylor Vickers used depends on moulds that withstand very high temperatures of production. After bell making ceased, this method of producing a smooth and finely finished casting was adapted by Vickers for making bombs.

 

twelve

When life has been grey for a while, you can forget that eventually the sun will come out. So it was this morning, a blessed relief from all the rain and hail we have been having. I took an impromptu walk to my son’s school, which is currently having so much building work done that you have to go in by a very roundabout way. It turns out the sunshine was not the only surprise.

First I found this allotment. You have to love a school that has an allotment.

And here’s a better view of that splendid scarecrow.

Opposite the allotment is an area that is labelled ‘The Potager’. Who knew a school could have a potager?

This daisy seems to be coping well with the harsh weather.

Although I am learning to like grey, for a couple of brief hours this morning I was very, very grateful for the contrasts of light and shadow …

… and even a glimpse of blue sky.

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After the soothing train journey I wrote about yesterday, I met up with an amazing couple who spent a whole year working with abandoned children in Bulgaria, children who were living in even worse conditions than the ones I blogged about here and here. Alan and Jenni were inspiring and challenging and gave me lots of food and wine. What more could you ask for?

Well, no matter how good a trip away, it is always great to return home so when I arrived back I took some photos of one of my favourite places in Sheffield. This is Sheaf Square,  just outside the station.

On the right as you walk up to town is the Cutting Edge sculpture, an installation that celebrates steel, which has played such a crucial role in Sheffield’s history. I love the contrast between the rigidity of the structure and the constant, shimmering play of light and reflection.

On the other side of the path is a lavish water feature which similarly juxtaposes clear lines and strong patterns with endless fluidity.

The path continues up to Sheffield Hallam University and then into the Millennium Gallery and the glorious Winter Garden. It’s a rare example of truly successful regeneration and one of the many things that make me proud to live in Sheffield.