Personal Reflections from my own South Yorkshire Story

Over the past week I’ve been sharing stories from South Yorkshire. It’s been an opportunity to explore a region which really isn’t that far from where I grew up. Inspired by public art, there are murals, sculptures, installations and galleries to visit all across South Yorkshire. Despite this I’ve never spent much time there. Always gravitating towards the likes of Leeds, and York.

So getting the opportunity to explore South Yorkshire was something to cherish. A full week in total just exploring and learning about an area which to be honest I thought I knew. It was also a chance to spend some time with my dad. Driving down and round together we’d go from one art related location to another. Spending time wandering around the towns and finding out about them. Wondering about their history, looking for signs as to their ambitions and just being able to enjoy their energy.

Hands up who loves Doncaster. My dad and I by Natasha Clark’s ‘Doncaster’ mural

Exploring South Yorkshire

There are four main centres of population in South Yorkshire. Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster. In between there are the suburbs and a host of villages. Dotted between these there are country houses and parks, canals, museums and rivers. Art wise there are things to see everywhere you go.

Most densely populated is Sheffield. It’s a city remarkable in that half of it’s land space is actually national park. Sitting just on the edge of the famous Peak District it has long been known as the Steel city. Famous because of it’s association with that and other industries. In the past the city was known for it’s castle which was built on the confluence of the rivers Don and Sheaf. Nowadays the castle is long gone but previous excavations have revealed it’s whereabouts. Today, the city is a modern thriving place with plenty of ambition.

A stained glass window in Rotherham. it shows the towns impressive minster and it’s rare bridge chapel

Elsewhere towns such as Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley could find themselves overshadowed by their larger cousin. Yet this would be to do them a disservice. Each have their own unique centres and in the case of Rotherham and Doncaster their histories go well back with links to Roman times. Growing as centres of population and trade throughout the period of the industrial revolution. Today clues as to their prosperity can easily be seen in the fabric of their civic buildings which grace their town centres.

A giant steam pump at the Kelham Island Museum harks back to a growing age of steam power on the Don

Rivers of South Yorkshire

South Yorkshire wouldn’t be the place it is today without its rivers. In particular this is true of the River Don. A watercourse which has South Yorkshire at its core! Rising in the Peak District in the hills above Sheffield it flows into that great city. The Don then connects with Rotherham and Doncaster before flowing into the Ouse via a manipulated channel at Goole. It’s a river that has in many ways shaped the region. Quite possibly it’s one of the most manipulated, at times polluted, and worked rivers that England has ever seen. The waters of the Don played a major role in powering the industry along it’s route and influencing the location of it’s major centres. Doncaster is even named after it.

Sculptures in the River Don

Historically the rivers have been the life blood of the region though as industry changes so the relationship with them has changed. It’s noticeable that across the metropolitan boroughs they are being brought back to life as public spaces. Country walks and riverside developments are revealing the impact that the water can have in the re-invigoration of a place. It’s something that was particularly obvious in Rotherham and Sheffield. The re-imagining of Castlegate in particular. An area of the city that was a previously grey urban space which has been given over to wildflowers and bug hotels.

The transformation of Kelham Island in Sheffield

What’s in a Name?

Other rivers give their names to these great metropolises of the south. Rotherham is the homestead on the Rother whilst Sheffield takes it name from the field by the River Sheaf. Barnsley’s etymology is likely to have a different origin. Thought to be taken from the saxon word ‘Berne’ for barn and ‘lay’ for field. In the case of Rotherham and Doncaster, the rivers were key factors in the Romans choosing to establish some form of settlement there. The fort at Templeborough in particular having revealed some remarkable finds. That location would eventually become a steelworks. Many of the remains would then be relocated to Clifton Park House and Museum in Rotherham.

Steel Henge made of found iron ingots is on the site of the old Templeborough Steelworks

It’s also remarkable to think that it was at the confluence of the Rivers Don and Sheaf where Sheffield grew up. This was where Sheffield Castle was built though its remnants are now hidden away under debris from a demolished market hall. The Sheaf too is hidden. Long since culverted it runs in tunnels underground to outflow into the Don. Ambitious plans exist to uncover the lost river and reveal the remains of the castle. How exciting it would be if they were to both rise again.

Looking gorgeous in Sheffield

Arty Wandering

Wandering around has always been my preferred way to explore. To walk and to just see what emerges. This is particularly true with the urban centres. Using art as a guide, you can learn a lot about the space into which it has been placed. Street art is great for this. Attractive because of it’s visibility and accessibility. Well curated street art can play a real role in enhancing an urban environment. It’s something that I probably best saw experimented with in Doncaster. There a colourful mural from the London based duo Static has transformed an unloved play space. Set within streets away from the centre, the mural has become a centrepiece and it gives some wow factor. Something that can’t be underestimated when residents previous experience of the area might have been a negative one.

This mural from Static can be found in Baxter Park

Sculpture Spotting

An area I tend to also write a lot about is sculpture. In many ways I see it in a similar light to the more obvious street art and muralism. For me it’s all public art and it allows people to engage with art as part of their day to day lives. Not hidden away in museums it can be interacted with and explored. It becomes part of life, centrepieces of the community. The giant ‘Vertical‘ which towers over Barnsley and the ‘Steel Heart‘ of Rotherham in front of its impressive minster. These are examples of where sculpture sits at the heart of public space. Other pieces tell the story of an area. In Barnsley works from Graham Ibbeson reveal important stories about the areas social history. This is the case across the region with South Yorkshire’s industrial past actively remembered.

A hidden Rhino in the grounds of Cannon Hall near Barnsley

Hidden Wonders

Discovering things you might not expect is perhaps one of the most satisfying things about spending time in an area. For me in exploring South Yorkshire, there were a few stand outs. First the mysterious stone faces of Cudworth. Hidden in an old quarry along a country trail they stare out from all sides. Everywhere you turn revealing a new face to look at. This is no sanctioned piece of public art, it’s just artists working within their environment. It’s a kind of sculptural graffiti. In Sheffield meanwhile the River Don has become the playground of the local artist Dan Dan. Not much is known about the artist who creates free standing works of art on the river bed. They stand and fall at the whim of the waters around them yet they keep being erected.

Visiting the stone faces of Cudworth

Street Art Stumbling

Street art of course is great for stumbling upon. You never know what you might find and in Sheffield’s Park Hill Flats you can see the ghosts of residents past. Mixed in with the development happening in this part of the city, it creates a real juxtaposition. Murals too from Kid Acne can be sneaked at through the fences which guard these brutalist structures. They are only biding their time until their rebirth. Elsewhere across the region a nod should be given to Phlegm. Immediately recognisable his work can be found in many places. Sheffield, Rotherham and Doncaster all have their own Phlegm pieces though you might need to spend some time searching them out. It’s an effort that is worth the reward though. Here is an artist whose fantastical worlds have become highly sought after and a Phlegm mural in a town is a real badge of honour.

There are plenty of other street artists whose work can also be seen across the region. A fuller guide to who and where they are can be found in our ‘Guide to Street Art in South Yorkshire‘ article. Here once again the fun is in finding the work. Artists such as Jo Peel, Sarah Yates, Rob Lee, Marcus Method and Kid Acne are just a few of the many exciting street artists who contribute their talents to the walls of the area.

Phlegm murals can be found all around South Yorkshire including this one in Doncaster

Final Reflections

As part of our South Yorkshire stories we’ve spent time looking at the art and learning about the area. From a base of street art, we’ve expanded into sculpture and installation. We’ve moved from town to town and experienced art within country houses and country streets. It’s also the case that not all of the art we discovered could be covered within our articles, though that doesn’t mean that any of it is any less impressive. It’s just that there’s too much and to write about it all would require a blog just dedicated to that.

For a Yorkshireman getting the time to really explore South Yorkshire has been a privilege. You forget what is on your doorstep. Perhaps it’s human nature that people tend to look towards further shores. Yet here we are with so much available to us and within easy travelling distance too. In total we filled five action packed days just exploring and could easily find more. What could be better than truly learning about your home county and better still, learning through the eyes of its art.

A Five Day Trip around South Yorkshire

Day One – Rotherham

A place dominated by its impressive minster. Here is where the Rother meets the Don. Visit the Roman Ruins at the Clifton House Museum. See the dramatic steel henge at the Centenary Riverside. Walk along the canals and see the street art at Holmes Lock

Day Two – Barnsley

Overlooked by it’s dominant town hall. See the sculpture of Dicky Bird and others from Graham Ibbeson. Explore the excellent Cooper Gallery and learn about the Barnsley artist Abel Hold. Wander towards Mandela Gardens and the Civic to see the public art outside.

Day Three – Doncaster

Explore the market square and the corn exchange before visiting the Mansion House. Take a look at the minster and take a look at the towering Danum sculpture by the new council offices. See if you can spot street art from Doncaster’s SPzero76

Day Four – Sheffield

Discover the rewilding and the exciting grey to green project of Castlegate. Wander around the stunning Kelham Island Museum. Explore the old Park Hill Flats and see the view of the city from them. See how many pieces of street art from Phlegm and other local artists you can discover

Day Five – South Yorkshire

Visit the majestic Cannon Hall and learn about it’s history of artists. Explore the country parks and walk along the rivers. Discover the stone faces of Cudworth and explore it’s hidden corners.

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