THERE are two ways in to Sheffield’s medieval past.
One is via a metal ladder through a disused trapdoor under a disabled access ramp in Castle Market ladies toilet.
The other is through a door by the spiral ramp delivery road at the back of the market.
A small metal plaque and a faded sign are all that tells the world that here once stood Sheffield Castle, one of the most important fortifications in medieval England. Tourist attraction it ain’t.
Yet amid the concrete and decay of the 1970s market that betrays the timeless spirit of its traders and shoppers, is limited access to a past that could help shape the city’s future.
The Castle Market building for all its nostalgic kitsch is as dated as loon pants, clackers and the Ford Capri and will soon be going the way of those 70s relics.
If the city is not very careful the remains of Sheffield Castle could go with them when the markets move to The Moor and Castle Market is demolished next year.
Although there are plans to excavate the site to find out what remains lie undiscovered the project will rely on Lottery funding and help from English Heritage. But there appears to be a growing public awareness of what’s at stake.
Sheffield is stirring. Finally.
“There can’t be many cities in the world that would allow this to happen to its history,” says activist, historian and professional Sheffielder Ron Clayton as he unlocks the door to the only accesible bit of Sheffield Castle remains.
In a room roughly 18ft square is a corner of a stone wall with some chunks of masonry from other areas of the site dropped on top.
That’s it. The only publicly accessible piece of Sheffield Castle. The roots and reason for the city’s existence in a single chamber next to pallets of toilet rolls and Nik-Naks.
“We should be able to do a bit better than this and awareness is growing,” adds 59-year-old Ron.
“People are interested and I don’t think you can make much sense of Sheffield’s history until you open up this area and let people see where it all started.
“It’s hard to visualise the castle now. All that has been left since the 18th century are the street names and a bit of stone work, cellars and vaults but the castle dominated Sheffield for about 400 years. The arguments over how big and important it was is neither here nor there. It’s where Sheffield grew up.”
“I would open up the whole area and have it as a feature for the city. We have to get the planning application and the funding right and we need the political ambition of a Bob Kerslake or a Jan Wilson to get the job done.
“The project to get this area properly excavated and displayed is a bigger project than the Heart Of The City that linked the railway station to the city centre. If we do it right it will make a huge difference to the reputation and perception of Sheffield around the world.
“I just want to help keep the flame burning because if we don’t it will be gone for ever. I want to have my ashes scattered here so that if the buggers don’t do anything about it I can come back and haunt them.”
The good news is that the buggers actually do want to do something and are widely in agreement with Ron.
Simon Ogden is the City Council’s city centre manager.
“We want to find out how much remains under the Castle Market and can’t do that until the building comes down,” said Simon.
“We have excavated the bits that are accessible and it seems evident that there are reasonable remains. We have to find out how extensive they are, how significant and what we can make of them.
“We also want to de-culvert the Sheaf where it meets the Don so the confluence of the rivers can be seen at the corner of Blonk Street. There would be a benefit for wildlife, water visible on both sides of the road, with green space and the castle ruins in a park.
“We have removed some of the traffic from Exchange Street and Exchange Square, eight lanes of traffic that is now on the ring road. That was all part of the plan for that area.
“We could create a square and new buildings to link the city to Victoria Quays.
“Work starts in June on the new market on The Moor which should be completed by October 2013 at a cost of around £18 million, the work is out to tender now. The markets will move after Christmas 2013.
“We are going to have to bid for funding from the Lottery and English Heritage for demolition, excavation and archaeological work on the Castle Market site.
“It depends what’s there as to how much it will cost, what land will be built on and what will be kept for other purposes.
“It will have to be done very carefully, it’s not a simple demolition job. It’s going to be complicated and expensive.”
That last sentence will set alarm bells ringing in these financially straitened times.
But what price a city’s past?
Fail this time to secure the remains of the castle and it’s gone for ever. Sheffield can’t afford for that to happen.