The rise and fiery fall of Sheffield Ski Village
It was once the city’s most exciting destination. Could it be again?
By David Bocking
A ski village? In Sheffield? Yeah, right. In the 1980s, the city was rightly sceptical of such bold ideas, given the collapse of local industry and generalised melancholy. But then there it was, a white snaking surprise to everyone on the hillside above the old Neepsend gasworks.
Sheffield entrepreneur (and keen skier) John Fleetham launched one of the UK’s first outdoor ski slopes with a £2.5 million investment in 1988. UK athletes began training there, and families from the less posh parts of the city arrived to try out what their contemporaries from S17 did every winter.
The original single slope and portacabin soon metamorphosed into a whole hillside of ski slopes, including bumpy moguls, an impressive half pipe and a slightly less impressive “ski lodge” and bar. At its height, the centre claimed to have 180,000 visitors a year, including many young athletes who went on to become part of the 2014 UK ski team for the Sochi Winter Olympics.
People travelled from across the North to ski at Parkwood Springs, arriving at the site via the grimy industrial estate nearby. Then, after plans for an expansion fell apart, the industry changed, with artificial snow and indoor ski centres gaining ground. The abrasive surface of what was once the country’s longest artificial slope began to look (and feel) like hard work. Visitor numbers dropped, investment slowed, and new owner Kevin Pullan was unable to arrest the decline as people found other things to do.
Then, one spring day in 2012, the city looked up and saw the ski village was on fire. It felt easy to put two and two together. Arson, perhaps by bored teenagers, for a laugh? Personally, I can count the number of times I remember seeing a fire at the ski village on one hand. But late at night, when the topic came up, maybe after everyone’s had a couple of pints, the number seems to multiply. I’ve heard that it’s been set on fire ten times, 20, even 50.
To be honest, it seems unlikely that there’ll ever be a clear conclusion on the provenance of the fires. According to the council officers who regularly work with the fire brigade, the most likely cause is this: kids with cigarette lighters combined with dry summers, heatwaves and bone-dry grass ignited by dropped cigarettes or abandoned barbecues.
But why let the truth get in the way of a good story? Before very long, wags from the western valleys created “the ski village is on fire again” t-shirts, and a “is the ski village on fire? — probably” website. The semi-myth still lingers like a bad smell, and if you asked, a few people — again, only when a few pints deep — would go so far as to suggest Parkwood Springs was permanently smouldering. Some weeks it was almost true, since virtually the whole city can see the massive hillside, one arsonist can easily inspire another. Then, in the damper or colder months, extreme sportsters posted pics and videos of themselves riding and sliding around the jagged embers of the once-proud Olympic training ground.
But older residents of the city point out that there were extreme sports on the hillside at Parkwood Springs years earlier. Local pensioners remember childhoods off road cycling in the quarries of Neepsend brickworks, and jumping in coal buckets to swing on cables high in the air running to the power station near Owlerton.
Now, the hillside itself is aiming to become a visitor attraction, with plans from the council and the local Friends group to turn Parkwood Springs into a “Country Park for the City”. The gasworks and railway sidings are long gone, so it kind of makes sense, as you look out over the Upper Don valley from Walkley and see a huge hillside covered in trees and wild grassland, with at one edge, the faint traces of the old dry ski slope.
The hill was called Shirecliffe in Anglo Saxon times (“scir - clif”, meaning a bright or shining steep slope). Then the Parkwood Springs village was built for steel and railway workers in the 1840s just below Old Park Wood. A brief home to George Orwell in the 1930s, the village was demolished 50 years ago, before giving its name to the hillside above.
The other thing most of us know about the area is that it used to be a rubbish dump. It is, in fact, at least three old rubbish dumps and one current municipal recycling centre. The tips have all been closed, with the older ones overgrown and returned to nature, while the more recent landfill operation is now being capped and landscaped (the decaying rubbish underneath will provide electricity from piped methane for some time to come).
All of which is not exactly what you’d expect of a place which is now attracting a deserved reputation as a local beauty spot. But that’s where you’d be wrong. If you’ve not yet been to Parkwood Springs, you should. It is an absolutely spectacular place, with incredible views across the whole city and countryside beyond.
Louise and Peter Bull are spending their retirement as leading lights of the 400-strong Friends of Parkwood Springs community group, whose members promote and help care for the city’s shining slope, which, at 146 hectares, is three times the size of Meadowhall (including its car parks).
Louise tells me the southern edge of Parkwood Springs is less than a mile from Sheffield Cathedral, and so close to the city centre that volunteers can hear the Town Hall clock chime when they’re working there.
There are rabbits, badgers, kestrels, buzzards and more than 90 other bird species nesting on site or passing through, and you may even find a footprint from the roe deer who live there.
“When we meet people who’ve never been here before they say gosh, it’s a bit amazing. You could get lost here, and some places are still a bit edgy,” Louise says, referring to the area’s not-entirely-unfounded reputation for low-level crime and anti-social behaviour.
“One of our members is a former hospital consultant, and he said he drove past for 20 years to the Northern General and didn’t even know Parkwood Springs existed,” says Peter.
Nowadays, the Parkwood Springs fires continue, more often due to the extreme hot weather. Last month, a belt of trees and bushes went up in flames, possibly due to a discarded cigarette or a glass bottle magnifying the sun’s rays onto tinder dry grass and heather. City ecologists say many of the burned bushes will regenerate, but do advise Sheffielders to be careful with cigarette ends, take glass bottles away and don’t light barbecues in green spaces.
The council’s parks and woodlands team are now closing on the details of the most recent £1.4 million funding package for the country park, from public health agencies, British Cycling and Sport England. If all goes as planned, by next summer new improved trails and signs and way-marked paths will begin to appear across the site, including a trail for cyclists, runners and walkers running across the ridge from Rutland Road to Herries Road. There’ll also finally be toilets and a cafe kiosk, to be built near Cooks Wood Road next to the remnants of the rockery garden of Shirecliffe Hall.
The country’s first ever urban mountain bike trail is on Parkwood, and mountain bike facilities will also be increased with the new funding. There are even plans for a new city park run.
Council woodlands officer Jon Dallow has been helping pull all this together for more than ten years. Back in 2010, when the UK was still part of Europe (as he puts it) a variety of local wildlife and conservation agencies accessed various small funds to start work on Parkwood, guided by the desire from local people to see the huge green space on their doorstep improved so more people could enjoy it.
“When I first got involved, there were burned out cars, needles in hedges and anti-social behaviour up here,” Jon says. “Now there are families coming here for a picnic, people on bikes, conservation sessions and Aden Steelers FC are based here with boys and girls from all communities coming up to play football.”
“Once there are lots of ordinary people walking about, people who want to cause mischief just go somewhere else,” says Louise Bull.
She adds there are still plenty of edgy places on Parkwood Springs, and if you stray off the main paths it’s very easy to find yourself lost in a trail of thorn bushes. But some people like that sort of thing, she adds.
Walking north through those thorn and gorse bushes eventually brings you to the Wardsend Cemetery Heritage Park, looked after by the cemetery’s own Friends group to house arts events as well as protect the cemetery of over 30,000 less wealthy Sheffielders, including former soldiers from the old Hillsborough barracks. The cemetery has just received a prized entry on the South Yorkshire Heritage List.
Then turning onto the Club Mill Road track back to Neepsend you pass a section of the River Don that feels like you’re in the Derbyshire dales. The track should soon become part of the Upper Don walking and cycling trail from Sheffield to Langsett. But there’s currently a large traveller community living there, and although Howard Bayley from the Friends of Wardsend Cemetery says he has a good relationship with the travellers, the aim is to find an alternative and more suitable site for them (not least due to the increasing flood risk, adds Jon Dallow).
And one day soon, there’ll be a return of families shrieking down the slopes on what the council now call the Parkwood ‘Opportunity Site’ rather than the old ski village.
New Zealand based multinational Skyline Luge are keen to build British “gravity parks” and the whole board came along recently to consider the slope-based opportunities for concrete luge chutes, zip wires and maybe even skiing.
The company is currently travelling the world to add to their existing facilities in Singapore, South Korea, Canada and New Zealand, with their eyes on at least two sites in the UK, including Sheffield.
According to what was said in a meeting with the Friends and councillors, Skyline Luge said they were impressed with the city’s cliff-like topography (perhaps unsurprisingly, essential for a facility where fun is all about gravity) and by the view — looking down the shining hill to thousands of potential customers minutes away. Transport to the site is being carefully assessed to make sure the new attraction doesn’t detract from the country park idea, and Skyline appear keen to work with local residents, say the Friends, cautiously.
The Parkwood Springs masterplan is out there and guiding all the development into what locals and the council want to be an attraction for tourists and locals alike. Whether a fun-filled gravity park eventually materialises is another matter, but over the next year, Parkwood Springs will become a little more welcoming and a little less “edgy” for those who make the effort to get up there.
“I’d say go for a walk there on a sunny evening, climb to the ridge and watch the sun set,” says Jon Dallow. “The landscape speaks for itself.”
For Peter Bull, Parkwood Springs should have the status of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh — a shared place where people come to take in the majesty of the city and its beautiful surroundings. That sounds quite nice, doesn’t it? And a bit less flammable than an old ski village…