I suspect the wider British climbing community looks on Sheffield's 'Climbing Capital' title with more than a little bemusement. No mountains, about as land-locked as this country gets, a pretty unremarkable city still struggling to find a path onwards from it's industrial past - what exactly is the appeal?
I first encountered the steel city on a school trip to the University. The cliché of a northern industrial town didn't impress – blackened brick-built mills lining the river, terraces close-packed on the hills, low scudding clouds – in a word, grim. Four years later I was filling in my University application form. The climbing bug had bitten hard, I read On The Edge and dreamed of gritstone; my first and second choices were both at Sheffield. Apart from a couple of brief interludes in Cumbria and Leeds, I've been here ever since. The reason is simple.
Jerry Moffatt - The Real Thing
The Peak District's gritstone edges curve along the city's western edge and are perhaps the most developed climbing area in the world. A little further west lies The Peak's limestone heart and a wealth of trad and sport routes. Its pretty much all single pitch, and a little lacking in coastal or mountain grandeur, but the settings are varied, the views pleasing, and for convenience its hard to beat. As Royal Robbins put it, "your climbs here are like little inlaid jewels."
Sheffield remains an in-between city; smaller than the regional centres of Manchester and Birmingham, but without the strong identity of Liverpool or Newcastle. The city centre is lacking in grand architecture, and has struggled in recent years with competition from the giant Meadowhall shopping complex a few miles away down the Don valley..
Unlike nearby Leeds there is no burgeoning financial centre or Harvey Nicks here.
I had this explained to me, by a conspiratorial local, as being down to "the council, all good methodists see, never liked pomp"; more recently Blunkett's 80's labour administration gave rise to the still-used epigram 'People's Republic of South Yorkshire'. Although the last twenty years have seen their fair share of white elephants (National Centre for Popular Music anyone?) there have been steady and marked improvements in the city centre.
In contrast to this is the statistic that in 2003 Sheffield Hallam was the wealthiest borough outside London, with 12% earning over £60,000. Not much evidence of that on the ground though; Sheffield remains a place where wealth may be carefully accumulated but not flaunted, ostentation is avoided, and folk stay down to earth.
It's an oft-quoted fact amongst Sheffielders that it is the only town in the world that borders directly onto a national park. Not easily checked out, but the truth is that a third of Sheffield actually lies within the Peak National Park, the crossover including crags like Rivelin and the entire Burbage valley. Less well known is that it is officially the greenest city in Europe, with more trees per person (over two million in total) and numerous parks. A green belt scheme has kept development on the western (Peak) side of the city under careful control and open countryside begins only 3 miles from the city centre. Coupled with the layout of the parks this allows walks, runs or cycles from home which can take you out into the Peak or round a smaller circuit whilst barely using the roads.
Sitting east of one of the most defined sections of the Pennine ridge, Sheffield benefits from a strong rain-shadow effect. It's not unusual to see this happening in front of you as cloud boils off the moors to evaporate into clear skies over Rotherham (and, yes, there's climbing over that way too!) This phenomenon has even given Sheffield the record for the longest-lasting rainbow ever observed (over six hours). Much of the time the prevailing south-westerly winds also bring the air mass over Wales first; in effect a double rainshadow.
Having lived in both Manchester and Leeds my general impression is that Sheffield's weather is both drier and sunnier but windier and colder, and without the prolonged spells of drizzle and clag that are familiar to folk in the west of England.
As is common with much of the UK, late May into early June perhaps offer the best chance of warm, dry weather. For the grit hardcore my experience is that mid-November and mid-February tend to be the most reliable for cold, clear weather. Nowadays 'The Grit' attracts climbers from across Europe and beyond, often at fairly random times of year, but more regular are climbers from Wales seeking respite from the winter. Llanberis based Pete Robins was born and raised in Sheffield and knows where to head when the weather gets him down;
"It can get really frustrating in Wales in winter. The best local climbing is in the mountains and they take forever to dry out. On the Eastern Edges you know that as long as there's a breeze, then as soon as the rain stops the rock is drying. You can have a productive day in far more marginal conditions than in Wales."
For the winter week-nights and rainy weekends, Sheffield is well supplied with climbing walls. In fact I'd be surprised if there's a city anywhere in the world with more wall space per person. There are two big climbing centres offering everything – The Foundry and The Edge, two dedicated bouldering walls – the gigantic Climbing Works and the University's small but popular Matrix, plus a top-roping wall at the Virgin Gym. Add to that a clutch of private training boards (although the legendary School is now closed) plus the infamous cellar potential and you're unlikely to want for more.
Not being a big user of walls myself their popularity, and the broader church they attract, can be surprising. A couple of years back when The Climbing Works was being built it seemed a bit of a gamble. With two successful years behind them the team's belief has clearly paid off.
"I was pretty convinced there was a market," says Sam Whittaker, "I wouldn't have put my money in otherwise!"
Percy Bishton wasn't too worried about competition either,
"Working at The Edge I'd seen how many people just wanted to drop in to the wall for an hour's bouldering without the hassle of finding a partner or wasting time belaying. Of an evening the bouldering wall would be heaving whilst the lead wall was quiet."
They are both keen to point out the diversity of folk the wall attracts,
"We have plenty of regulars here who never go out to the crag. Some just see it as an alternative to the gym, but a lot are outdoor types for whom climbing isn't their main sport. Sheffield is full of climbers but you don't realise that they're just one fraction of a massive outdoor community."
The city is well placed on the motorway network with the M1 directly east of the city. Trains links are good with the east coast mainline taking you to London in 2 ¼ hours. Hull is an hour east from where ferries go to much of Europe. There is no immediate airport but Manchester, Robin Hood and Leeds-Bradford are all within an hour's travel.
Wild Country is a business 'run by climbers for climbers' and because of this the Peak District is an amazing place to work. People often ask us if we wouldn't be better off in a big town on an industrial estate and in many ways we would be - but then it would be much harder to hit the crags on the way home.
Now this may sound flippant but there is a large degree of truth in there, as in many ways the heart of the peak is not the best place to base a business. Unemployment is low so it's harder to get staff, the skills pool is lower, communication is more difficult and it is harder to find suitable premises. However, on the upside, the staff we do get are loyal, hardworking and generally happy not to be doing a long commute for work - and once settled the business does feel more like a part of the community.
Richie Patterson - Wild Country
There are so many climbers in Sheffield, and so many good climbers, that there is no one 'scene'. It rarely takes long for new arrivals to settle in with a group with similar interests and ability, and its never hard to find someone up for something different. Despite hanging out regularly in the three main climbers pub's – The Lescar, The Broadfield and The Sheaf View, I've yet to work out just who the 'The Sheffield Mafia' is, perhaps a media myth or just that the scene is much bigger and more inclusive nowadays?
It's not unusual to spot big names around town, whether BMC president Rab Carrington tending his allotment or Ben Moon having a kickabout in the Park. In the pub or supermarket I might bump into current hotshots like Ryan Pasquill or Dan Varian. Even for legends-turned-property-barons like John Allen or Jerry Moffatt, Sheffield has had plenty to offer despite drifting out of climbing.
John Coefield is an active climber and has managed to mix work and leisure by landing a job at Vertebrate Publishing. He tells us his general thoughts on living, working and climbing in Sheffield:
"Although I'm from the area originally, living and working in Sheffield makes a lot of sense for me. Given I spend most of my time bouldering these days, there's world-class bouldering in the Peak and it's only a short drive to the Yorkshire grit, and not really that far to the Lakes or North Wales if you're sufficiently motivated (I try to be!). At Vertebrate, our suite of books started off with Peak District titles and, although we cover much of the UK now, we still feel the Peak is our home patch."
"There seems to be a lot going on climbing-wise in and around the city for work, although I know I'm very fortunate to have the kind of job I do. With three big walls, plus plenty of manufacturers and distributors either in the city or in the Peak, I reckon the climbing industry jobs are there if you look for them. And of course there's Outside – I wonder how many climbing 'alumni' have graduated from Outside over the last 20-odd years?"
"I think there's a good feel around the climbing scene here at the moment too, and particularly the bouldering scene. I think it's less cliquey than it has been, and that can only be a good thing, particularly for climbers looking to move into the area. When I consider the variety of climbing, the nature of the climbing community here and the accessibility of other areas in the UK, I'm really happy I live and work where I do."
Being such a large diverse city, the opportunities Sheffield offers run to far more than just the climbing. Dylan and Lucy Fletcher moved to Sheffield from London three years ago. Dylan, originally from Lancashire, moved to London to study sports science where he met Lucy, from Cornwall, a journalist. Ten years on, both with busy careers they were happily settled in London and buying a house in Stoke Newington when
"We got gazumped," recounts Dylan, "It was a real shock."
For the couple the experience epitomized the negative aspects of the capital and caused a rethink.
"We went up to Sheffield that weekend to climb, visit friends and generally get away from it all, and ended up putting an offer on a house in Nether Edge."
Two years down the line and it seems the move was the right one. What do they like about Sheffield?
"The quality of life. In London I was working three different jobs and trying to set up a climbing hold business in between. Since moving I've been able to commit to the business 100%, I can afford a workshop four times the size, and if it's quiet I can nip out to Burbage for the afternoon. Not bad really, and we didn't need to downsize. We just needed to move."
What is clear is that whilst it's by no means perfect, life is about compromises and as far as they go Sheffield makes a pretty good one. Attractive as living nearer to mountains or coast (preferably both for most of us?) may be, the realities of balancing work, family, play and social life make a city on the edge of The Peak far more workable. And the beer is pretty good too.
Sheffield / The Peak District
Sheffield gives access to a huge range of gritstone and limestone:
Most Popular Climbs:
Local Climbing Walls:
Local Climbing Businesses:
For a longer list of climbing businesses, try:
- OPINION: It's Time to Stand up for Stanage 20 Sep, 2017
- DESTINATION GUIDE: Stanage - Britain's Most Popular Crag 17 Jun, 2010
- Beyond the Mountain by Steve House 17 Feb, 2010