|Fields of glory: Sheffield at sunset. Photograph: Billy Richards Photography/Getty Images/Moment RF|
An industrial city famed for snooker finals might make for an unlikely getaway, but its vibrant arts scene won comedian and writer Jon Holmes over
Sheffield is famous for its cutlery, in which my interest is fleeting, usually around mealtimes. But it has also just been awarded the accolade of Best Value City Break in the UK by TripAdvisor, which annually rates the most affordable British cities for an overnight stay. In other words, Sheffield probably has a lot more to offer than spoons. I gave myself two days to find out what, and in that time I discovered boutique hotels, open spaces, excellent pub trails, art and culture. The first thing I found, however, was a bear pit.
If you’re the kind of person who takes a mini-break in order to wind down, a walk through the Sheffield Botanical Gardens is a perfect start to your visit. Quiet, contemplative and packed with plants from all over the world, meandering paths lead you through Asian, Mediterranean and Himalayan herbaria… until you chance upon a fully restored bear pit. It dates from 1836, but has been resolutely bear-free since the 1870s, when local legend has it that a child fell in to it and was eaten by a cross one.
Today it houses a 7ft-tall grizzly made of steel, part of a citywide art installation that reflects Sheffield’s vibrant cultural scene. Going Public, which runs until December, is showing little-seen works from various private collections at venues all over the city, from the Millennium Gallery to the cathedral.
I arrived in the latter just in time for the weekly mother and toddler singing group, which was ensconced in a corner. The staff were busy preventing the kids from coming face-to-face with entirely inappropriate artworks, such as Marthe, a melting, headless figure that looked like an aborted experiment involving a human candle.
I noticed a man in a dog collar and sought his counsel. “What do your regulars think?” I asked. “That’s not the weirdest,” he replied. “Follow me.” In a small side chapel suspended upside down above the pews was the eviscerated torso of a man. Behind us the children began to sing “Hickory Dickory Dock”. “That’s a Jake and Dinos Chapman,” I said, because I recognised it from somewhere. “Apparently, yes,” said the chaplain. “I prefer the nativity scene we’ve got in the crypt.”
For a city founded on knives, it all seemed appropriately cutting edge. Beyond its ho-hum high street (a TK Maxx; a Zizzi, its never-exotic menu curling up and dying inside a glass poster-holder by the door) the city felt contemporary and progressive, yet never less than proud of its heritage. A perfect example was the Winter Garden – a tropical greenhouse whose curved larch frame has won architectural awards – and is the biggest urban glasshouse in Europe. It conjoins the Millennium Gallery, home to the “world’s largest metalwork museum”, which tells the story of Sheffield’s history with the stainless stuff. A retired steelworker called Vincent told me that you could always tell when someone is from Sheffield: “Because t’first thing they’ll do is pick up thy cut’lry to see where it’s made.”
Whatever your preconceptions of Sheffield, they are probably out of date. More than a mere snooker venue, the Crucible, under the stewardship of Michael Grandage, Sam West and now Daniel Evans, has grown a reputation for producing some of the most innovative theatre work anywhere outside of London. Earlier this year, the city’s Curzon and Showroom cinemas had a public row over when they could screen Force Majeure, a Swedish arthouse film. Boutique hotels, such as Brocco on the Park, meanwhile, have made Sheffield a viable spot for a romantic mini-break.
And between old favourites such as the Fat Cat and upstarts like BrewDog Sheffield, the city is one of the best places pint for pint in the country. Take the smart quarter of Kelham Island, with its views of distant hills and mills. It’s not a real island, more a strip of land between the River Don and a manmade goit, where the water once drove its millwheels to prosperity. It was the industrial heart of the city but its works are long gone, replaced by hip bars, gastro pubs (I can recommend the Milestone for its pan-fried duck hearts) and stylish apartments.
I sat in the sunshine and had an artisan craft beer on the very spot where 200 years ago – or even 50 – real men with hammers would have would have hit me with them for being such a ponce.
Yet you get a real sense that their city is looking forward, not back. Later I ate at Marco Pierre White’s new restaurant in the heart of the city. The food was modern, fashionable and chic. The service was relaxed, friendly and bright. The cutlery was made in Sheffield.
Jon Holmes’s new book, A Portrait of an Idiot as a Young Man, is out now (Orion Books, £12.99). To order a copy for £10.39, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846