Robin Hood, the Pilgrim Fathers, Mary Queen of Scots and world-famous steel. South Yorkshire hides its light under a bushel
South Yorkshire, once part of the old West Riding of Yorkshire, is a region of two halves. The west, known for steep hills, rivers and ancient woodlands, is flanked by the Pennines and contains part of the Peak District National Park, while to the east, the land flattens into arable fields dotted with Anglo Saxon towns and villages.
This contrasting topography has lent it a unique and diverse heritage, often forgotten by visitors on their way to north Yorkshire. I grew up on its eastern border, and returned to live in Sheffield – the nerve-centre of its industrial past – 14 years ago. I would defy any visitor not to be seduced by the region somehow.
My home stands at the foot of a Bole Hill where 3,000-year-old funerary urns were found – a spot where open air lead smelting was probably carried out until the 16th century.
Metalworking is what Sheffield has excelled at and the city is a good place to begin an exploration of the region. Straddling seven hills and five rivers, with deposits of coal, iron ore, ganister and millstone grit for grinding, it was ideal for steelmaking, and manufactured knives as early as the 14th century. The author Chaucer wrote of the mayor of Trumpington in The Reeve’s Tale, “a Sheffield thwitel baar had he in his hose”, a ‘thwitel’ being a multi-purpose blade.
There are two unique museums that show this industrial history. Abbeydale Hamlet, a scheduled Ancient Monument, is a cluster of Grade I- listed, 18th-century buildings and their contents where early steel production was carried out. Kelham Island sits on a 900-year-old, man-made island in the middle of the River Don, telling the story of industrial Sheffield from ‘Little Mester’ workshops to mass production, through working engines, noisy machines and curious objects. My favourite is a Penny Farthing made for the Tsar of Russia.
By the Elizabethan age, Sheffield cutlery was renowned. The city was also prominent for being a location where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned. At Manor Lodge, about a mile from the city centre, the doomed queen and her entourage lived under house arrest with the sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, George Talbot, and his wife, Bess of Hardwick.
At this time, Manor Lodge was a great country residence overlooking a deer park and acres of rolling countryside. Today only the three-storey Turret House remains but it was here that Mary was held. It is said that she would take the air and watch the hunting from its roof, and that her ghost, known as the Grey Lady, has been sighted.
Mary was also held at Sheffield Castle, the few remaining ruins of which lie under Castle Market in the city centre.
Wentworth Castle, near Barnsley, is not so much of a castle as a large stately home, built by the Earls of Strafford. Its 18th-century gardens, much of which were only recently uncovered, reflect political rivalry between a neighbouring estate at Wentworth Woodhouse. The Earls of Strafford were of Tory persuasion while their neighbours were Whigs.
A sham castle – one of 26 follies in Wentworth Castle grounds – alludes to the Stuart succession to the crown, and a garden based on a union jack suggests the partnership of England and Scotland.
These Grade I-listed gardens are significant, as many historic estates were sold off for open cast coal mining after the Second World War. Featured in the BBC television series Restoration, the variety within the grounds is impressive – from formal gardens to far-reaching views, tree-lined walks and national collections of flowering shrubs.
I visited them before restoration began. Choked with plants injudiciously added by the Victorians, they were at the time a delightful jungle, where after scrambling through rhododendron bushes, I came across a solitary magnolia tree in bloom standing like a giant candelabra.
Another lesser-known beauty spot is Roche Abbey. Founded by Richard de Busli of Tickhill Castle and Richard FitzTurgis of Hooten, in 1147, it sits in the valley of Maltby Beck.
Roche was built in the new Gothic style and Cisterian monks arrived from Newminster in Northumberland to occupy it. Although it was affiliated to Fountains Abbey farther north, today it is not on the major tourist routes. Dissolved and dismantled in Henry VIII’s reign, its excavated foundations show one of the most complete ground plans of any English Cisterian monastery – a delightful place to picnic. Its valley was landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in the 18th century.
A few miles from Roche, Conisbrough Castle on its high mound dominates the landscape. Also built in the 12th century, it features a Norman keep regarded as one of the finest stone towers in England. The roof and floors were restored in 1992.
There are three levels to visit, each a single room. A staircase is climbed to the first – an entry hall, raised above the ground to keep invading troops at bay. The second storey was used as a grand meeting room and dining hall, but surprisingly is barely larger than the average modern living room. The lord would sleep in the room above this.
Knights of the castle would have lived at ground level, only retreating to the keep in times of conflict. Nevertheless, exploring the interior chambers of a tower, made medieval life more tangible.
Sir Walter Scott describes Conisbrough Castle in Ivanhoe, his novel of 1819, which also reinforces the reputation of Robin Hood. Known as Robin of Loxley, the legendary outlaw is believed to have been born in the hamlet of the same name lying to the west of Sheffield. Robin of Loxley is recorded in a 17th-century manuscript, and the foundations of his birthplace were said to be visible in Loxley’s Little Haggas Croft in 1637.
A cave where he reputedly hid, lies tucked in a gulley in Stanage Edge – the largest grit crag in the country. The Edge is one of the most dramatic spots in the Peak District, offering expansive views across neighbouring Derbyshire. It is one of my favourite sunset walks, when the rock is rendered pink against either purple or copper-coloured heather.
South Yorkshire was the home of outlaws of a different kind, and Bawtry, on the border with Nottinghamshire, was central to their story.
This market town, where I grew up, used to boast it was the smallest town in England, but its greater claim to fame is that it was the point of exodus for the Pilgrim Fathers. In the 12th century, Bawtry was an important port at the head of the River Idle. It was down this river in 1608, that Pilgrim women and children fled in small boats to the coast. Their menfolk journeyed overland, and the families joined ships that would take them to Holland. In 1620, they embarked on “the weighty voyage” to the New World on the Mayflower. The school I attended is named after the ship.
A couple of miles north of Bawtry is the village of Austerfield, from where William Bradford, governor of Plymouth colony, originated. My best friend’s grandmother lived in the cottage where Bradford was born and I visited it several times. To the south of Bawtry, in Scrooby village, Plymouth elder William Brewster occupied The Manor House.
As a child, I was well versed in the story of the Pilgrims, and although the River Idle is smaller than it was centuries ago, I would play on its banks and flood plains imagining its dramatic past.
For details of accommodation and attractions in the region visit www.yorkshiresouth.com.
Tourist Information Centres
Sheffield: 14 Norfolk Row S1 2PA; tel: (0114) 221 1900; www.sheffield.gov.uk.
Rotherham: 40 Bridgegate S60 1PQ; tel: (01709) 835904; www.rotherham.gov.uk.
Barnsley: The Civic, Eldon Street S70 2JL; tel: (01226) 206757; www.barnsley.gov.uk.
Doncaster: 38-40 High Street DN1 1DE; tel: (01302) 734309; www.visitdoncaster.co.uk
Where to stay in South Yorkshire
Leopold Hotel (TBC) A majestic Victorian school building transformed into a boutique hotel. Decor is minimal and contemporary combined with original features. One
of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Leopold Street, Sheffield S1 2GZ. Tel: (0114) 252 4000 or visit www.leopoldhotel.co.uk
Rutland Hotel (TBC) Victorian character with contemporary design and landscaped gardens. 452 Glossop Road, Sheffield S10 2PY. Tel: (0114) 266 4411 or visit www.rutlandhotel-sheffield.com
Cubley Hall (4 star) Small country house hotel set among gentle hills. Great carvery restaurant attached. Mortimer Road, Penistone, nr Sheffield S36 9DF. Tel (01226) 766086 or visit www.cubleyhall.co.uk
Robin Hood Inn (4 star) Early 19th-century building in secluded rural location. Locally sourced food, table reservation necessary. Greaves Lane, Loxely S6 5BG. Tel: (0114) 234 4581 or visit www.robin-hood-loxley.co.uk
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