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  • Writer's pictureTom Blower

Every street – cycling the Sheffield A to Z

In July 2022, having fulfilled a years-long and continents-wide cycling plan, I returned to my newly adopted home of Sheffield, and found my feet itchier than they had ever been before. I needed a new project to work on. Inspired by Davis Vilum's meticulous endeavour to cycle every single street in central London, my thoughts turned to the Sheffield A to Z Pocket Street Map. What better way to get to know this city—to which I had originally escaped by bicycle, saving me from an annus horribilis of negative thoughts—than to cycle on every one of the streets covered here? With the summer temperatures set to climb towards a heatwave peak at the end of the month, and armed with my paper map and a red pen, I headed out after work into the ever-shortening evenings, wondering what I would discover. Here are, in no particular order, some moments from this undertaking.

Meersbrook Park Road, S8 – I think the first time I ever saw any images of Sheffield may well have been when I watched Four Lions. The film's ability to blend humour and cold-blooded violence through satire really stuck with me. It's pitch black now, but I recognise this street from the 'squat jogs' scene, in which the would-be terrorists are nearly discovered carrying shopping bags filled with volatile explosives. The contrast between the intent of these jihadists and the well-meaning but idiotic innocence of the lead character's co-worker is what generates the humour, but underlines the notion of a Venn diagram whose circles are only just overlapping. At the time, I don't think I appreciated just how separate people's lives can be even when they're living in the same city. But the variety between Sheffield's postcodes is evident, with the residents of each often subdivisible into distinct chunks. There is plenty of human traffic between these zones, but at certain hours, the distinctness of an area's architectural and demographic features really come to the fore. Maybe this is just the mistaken perspective of an outsider looking in. Perhaps. I take a last look over the park before clipping in and freewheeling away into the dark. Rubber Dinghy Rapids, bro.

Penthorpe Close, S12 – Hoping I can find a cut-through conjoining this road to the next, I ride the entire length of the road, expecting to reach the quiet end of a residential cul-de-sac. Instead, I come across a coal-yard filled with an assortment of vehicles, all coated in a thick layer of grime. Campervans, small trucks, even the pavement leading out onto the road are obscured by the jet-black dust which clings to everything and whose smell pervades the warm evening air. I approach a man whom I could only assume works here, for he too is caked in black dust, to ask if my hunch was correct. “Sure thing pal, it's just through there.” I weave my way down the overgrown cut-through he indicated, past long-parked vehicles in various states of decay. Strange, how one can be thrown from one world into another, one era into another, with just a turn of the corner.

Claywood Drive, S2. Though transient, these are still home to someone.

Babington Close, S2 – Against the dying light, a brazier burns with a dirty orange flame, emitting noxious fumes as things evidently not supposed to be burned are disposed of in someone's front garden. From another open doorway, the sounds of a bickering family, and the face of a young child peering out, its face obscured by the encroaching shadow and the filthy smoke billowing and drifting in the gentle evening breeze.

Faraday Road, S9 – The lowlands flanking either side of the River Don form an industrial corridor stretching from the fringes of the city centre out towards Rotherham in the northeast. Underwheel, the tarmac forms ridges and bumps over the cobbles it was meant to smoothly replace, worn thin by the wheels of massive industrial vehicles, and in patches gives up the pretence entirely, sending sudden jolts through the handlebars and into my hands. The high warehouses hem in the sky on both sides, and though the quietude of a Wednesday night brings a stillness to this part of town, the occasional lorry rumbles past on a main thoroughfare with a cargo of goods bound for somewhere. On the corner of the road, a plaque commemorates a former working men's club as part of the heritage of the Don Valley, now obscured by rust and parked cars.

Standish Gardens, S5 – The cookie-cut pattern of houses belies the fact this road holds the ignoble but gratifying title of 'Lowest effort grid square on the map', with one edge just grazing the corner of square G2. This is, at least in terms of roads, the most featureless square on the map. Of course that's a reductive view, but it's only that way because of the lens through which I'm looking, ignoring the vista disappearing into the dying light just beyond the high panelled fences. When you're setting your own rules, the prizes you set for yourself are inherently meaningless but nonetheless immensely pleasurable to attain.

Standish Gardens, S5. Just.

Woodthorpe Crescent, S13 – Metal fences hold back the sprawl of possessions and rubbish out onto the already littered streets. Crushed Yazoo bottles, glass shards, pieces of disfigured children's toys are scattered across the tarmac, and in the gardens beyond, little changes. A large skip straddles the edge of the pavement, filled with a mix of domestic and building waste, wedged between several tradespeople's vans. The houses here seem to come in a drably limited range of partly to fully pebble dashed. I'm trying not to judge how people live, and I'm trying to imagine the kind of lives here that people must be living where they don't—or more possibly can't—care about how the place seems to be treated. If anything, it's simply a symptom of the ignorance that comes through privilege. At the very least, this task seems to be divesting me of some of that ignorance.

Popple Street, S4 – Switching back up and down a hill along rows of densely packed brick terraces, these streets which, in other neighbourhoods might sit quiet, here teem and bustle with life. Unlike wealthier suburbs, there are far fewer cars here than there are spaces for parking, and the deliberate dead-ending of the street plans quietens the flow of traffic, which surges and fumes only a parallel road away. Everywhere children spill into the street, riding scooters, kicking footballs, or chasing one another, as parents chat in doorways, occasionally glancing a supervisory eye over their offspring, eyeing me as I ride by with unintentional conspicuousness. Teenage sisters in niqabs shepherd their unruly younger brothers in pristine white jubbah thobes to or from the mosque, while others in t-shirts and leggings play with their hair, occasionally looking up from their phones to engage their friends in direct conversation. Here, the mess of life, of a life lived communally, seems more natural, and though the occasional rings of barbed wire atop a garden wall at the end of the terrace gives the sense that this life is not easy, it is certainly one filled with different values and different pleasures.

Sandford Grove Road, S7. A different neighbourhood, a different world and way of being.

Brightside Lane, S9 – The riverside of the Don itself has some beauty to it, with shallow waters tumbling over rocks and weirs on their way towards the Humber, but turn away for a second and the whole arc of Sheffield's Industrial Revolution architecture confronts you, from the rise that made the Steel City to its mid-twentieth century demise and post-industrial malaise, with all but the most resilient or significant of buildings demolished and giving way to housing or more competitive businesses. Following Brightside Lane, one of the arterial roads into the city from the northeast, I am suddenly sandwiched between towering brick buildings housing some of the city's only remaining steelworks. Behind multi-storey-high doors, and brick walls blackened by decades of wear that wouldn't be out of place in a Lowry painting, sit gargantuan machines and crucibles capable of pouring hundreds of tonnes of molten steel in a site that remains one of the highest-capacity steel producers in Western Europe. Over 200 years of history sits behind these walls, an admirable but futile gesture of permanence against the inevitable tide of time. I turn the corner onto Hawke Street and the world changes once more.

Pickering Road, S3 – “Any representation of a road, track or footpath is no evidence of a right of way.” The scotch mist hanging in the air is slowly becoming a steady rainfall, large raindrops beginning to slap heavily through the canopy of poplar or birch. This road shows either the age of the map—published in 2020—or the lack of investigation by the cartographers producing it, for clearly nature has taken hold here a lot longer than two years ago. This makes sense, given its primary purpose seems to have been to allow access to the defunct Sheffield Ski Village, about which rumours of revival still circulate of revival despite a decade of arson, vandalism, and fly-tipping. A thick carpet of moss and earthy detritus almost completely covers the tarmac, and everywhere traces of human influence are being subducted by verdant strata of death and regrowth. The road eventually comes to a stop in a dead end, blocked by a triple barrier of an earthwork berm, a palisade fence, and a gigantic block of concrete. Fortunately, a couple of the galvanised steel stakes are missing, meaning that with a few minutes of cajoling, swearing, and grunting, I can wrestle the bike through to the other side, just in time to get my waterproof on as the heavens open up. In this weather, seemingly no amount of effort could be worse than turning back on myself.

Pickering Road, S3. Quite the squeeze.

Sevenfields Court, S6 – Fucking, fucking, fucking hell. I curse myself as I drag myself up yet another hill I've already summited several times in order to catch a small close I missed from the previous day's ride, adding needless miles and climb to what will be an already long evening. But I cannot ignore this little white blip amid a sea of coloured red lines. My face is hot with self-irritation and effort as I make the long descent up from the Loxley River into the northwest of the map. Yet, turning off the main road into Sevenfields Court, I am immediately struck by a sense of calm. A cluster of bungalows, tucked away behind the jostling rows of two-storey semi-detached neighbours, feels like a placid little island amid the tail end of the rush hour which is beginning to peter out on the parallel main thoroughfare. A communal lawn is staked out with several washing lines rotating lopsidedly in the breeze. I roll gently along a narrow path between the clothes and linens, and follow the Court as it rounds on itself. Holding myself to my original commitment to cycle on absolutely every street feels important at a time when I could just let things slide. It helps that the sun is shining.

Ashgate Road, S10 – Initially, this road presents itself as a bright brick terrace with an elegant façade, but the illusion only goes so far. I've been around the back to revel in the cobbled mess of what could easily be a stand-in for a Victorian tenement, complete with glass-strewn cobbles and the remnants of outside toilets. Opposite stands Summerfield, a road which seems to be trying hard to maintain an air of exclusivity with its mononym (one of only around 20 on a map of over 3,000 streets). A set of wrought iron gates complement its “Private Road – Residents Only” sign, behind which an array of expensive-looking cars sit on a freshly tarmacked turning circle outside even more expensive-looking townhouses. A custom Mustang with gold-sprayed rims looks a gaudy parody of itself, and yet perfectly appropriate here. I wonder where they leave their bins.

Ellis Street, S3. A last remnant of industry before a new development of housing.

Sheffield Parkway, S2 – The only road on this map it appears to be illegal to cycle on. I wait for an opportune moment, long past midnight, and slip down the on-ramp onto the dual carriageway, taking the shortest, fastest route I possibly can along the very fringe of the tarmac. A set of blue lights coming at me up ahead momentarily frightens me into hiding my front light. I breathe a sigh of relief as a late-night ambulance tears by in the opposite direction and take my exit, scorching into the night high on a mix of adrenaline and gummy sweets.

Division Street, S1 – I've always found the very centre of Sheffield a place of mixed feelings. The number of shuttered shops and vacant lots around Fargate and The Moor give the impression of somewhere whose heyday is past, and I normally prefer the smaller-town feel of the neighbourhood high streets that pepper the suburbs instead. Yet there is a proud grace to the City Hall's colonnaded front, and the attempts to regenerate from the post-industrial collapse suffered by much of this part of the country have clearly had results. Today there is a festival atmosphere as football crowds flood the street ahead of this evening's match in the group stages of the Women's Euros. Swedish supporters sport gaudy-looking horned helmets, while on the opposite pavement, a brave Dutch fan clops past in a full orange three-piece suit and wooden clogs. Of course, the many pubs and bars that line the road aren't taking sides, keen to capitalise on everyone's thirst in the scorching weather, fuelling the heady roars and chants that will later roll out across the periwinkle blue sky.

Kenninghall Drive, S2. Another lost street, cut off from the road network and left to the elements as a glorified footpath.

Cliffe Farm Drive, S11 – There have been a lot of cul-de-sacs tonight, which don't make for much of a flow: turn, decide how far down the road seems reasonable to go, shoulder check, 180 turn, head back the way you came. It's a tenuous balance between an almost meditative, cyclical process of expunging the day's stresses and a purgatory of repetition. But every turn can bring something new. Suddenly, I interrupt a skulk of foxes circling under the foliage overhanging a low garden wall. They scatter in all directions, the more inquisitive ones turning back to look at me before slinking away into the shadows and ginnels. It's nearly midnight. The sun is long down, the roads are almost silent, and I should be heading back.

Avenue Road, S7 – I find this name an odd one: a little like calling this little close 'Street Street'. And a couple of sycamores do not an avenue make. Evidently, at some point, the council saw fit to try to decongest the area by paving over one end of this looped road and putting a bus stop on it. Since then, some enterprising people have constructed a garden and seating area from recycled pallets, with a combination of graffiti and miniature murals adorning the concrete bollards erected to stop desperate drivers trying to reach the main road. On the map, it looks like you can only enter this street from one end. But on a bike, that's rarely the case. Although, legally speaking, riding on the pavement is a fixed penalty offence, I don't think I've ever seen a police officer enforcing that rule, and as long as you're respectful and don't mess with anyone else's intended trajectories, people mostly seem to be OK with it. Personally, I like the hurly-burly of cycling on the road, but with the number of right turns I need to make down myriad side streets, I'm happy to exist in this liminal space between the law and what pedestrians are happy to let me get away with.

Woodfield Road, S10. I challenge you to show me a greener city this side of the Tropic of Cancer (or at least Birmingham).

Headland Road, S10 – I cut through between the hilltop suburbs of Crookes and Crosspool through Mulehouse Park and then the cemetery, the northern edge of which looks out onto the sun-bathed lands rising into the Peak District. It's views like this that are one of the reasons I moved here. According to some, Sheffield—like Rome—was built on seven hills, though there appears to be some disagreement as to which hills those are. The fact that there's enough to disagree over is enough for me. In the dappled evening light, the graveyard feels calm and inviting. Some newer graves catch my eye. One stands out, with golden characters etched into smooth, dark granite. First the beautifully calligraphed Cantonese characters, then a Romanised name in a bamboo-esque font, then the matter-of-fact details in a square-set, British style. “Born April 28th 1893, Canton China, Died Feb. 18th 1976”. This man's wife, also from China, lies next to him, having outlived him by twenty years. What lives must they have lived? What brought them here? The ensnaring web of colonial market forces imported by the British Empire? Or something else? I can't imagine a generation of people for whom life would have changed more dramatically. All this way. I'd be happy to end my time with a view like this.

I do not have the patience of Davis Vilums: I certainly didn’t have the patience to cycle the full length of all the roads on the map, particularly those on which I probably shouldn't have been riding. But the beautiful arbitrariness in determining the constraints of this challenge has still made this a wonderful experience. I have cycled nearly 400 miles, climbed just shy of 35,000 feet, used up three red pens, and experienced thousands of Roads, Streets, Closes, Avenues, Drives, Lanes, Courts, Terraces, Gardens, Crofts, Places, Rises, Crescents, Views, and every other conceivable way of access. It is an utter self-delusion to think one can truly ever 'know' a place: we are gifted only snapshots in time of a street, a neighbourhood, a city. But I feel at least a little closer to understanding the city that saved me and, wherever I am, will always retain a sense of home.

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