Gleadless Valley, 1955-62
(architect – Sheffield City Council Architect’s Department (City Architect – J L Womersley, project architects – D R Paxton, A N Tunley. G M D Elson, J Gray, GA Butcher, R A Shaw, R T Simpson)
Aerial View Blackstock road
Gleadless Valley was designed and built coincidentally with Park Hill between 1955 and 1962 under the supervision of city architect J.L. Womersley. The 300 acre site located some 2 to 3 miles from the city centre had been rejected before WW2 as unsuitable for building because of the hilly terrain. However, the demand for homes, and changes in architectural approach, made a housing scheme more feasible. Womersley exploited Sheffield's greatest asset - its topography and used it as an opportunity for picturesque planning. In a similar fashion to his other schemes - he applied his favourite maxim from the 18 Century landscape architect Capability Brown “Flood the valleys , Plant the tops “
One of the main challenges when designing the scheme was the rolling terrain of the area, An initial slope analysis revealed that nearly 50% of the proposed residential areas had a slope steeper than one in eight ; reaching 1 in 4 in places. Womersley overcame this by using a diverse range of patio houses, chalet-type housing and blocks of cluster houses which could be varied in design to suit the slope.
The way that the housing was built impressively on the contours of the land and the retention of the ancient woodland is the reason that Gleadless Valley is held in such high esteem. In the immediate post-war period, the Architectural Review were trying to promote an aesthetic of modern architecture was composed into the landscape. It was described at the time by the Council as being “Mediterranean in appearance”, perhaps because of the way the buildings caught the sun as it moved across the valley. It is commonly thought that the 1951 Festival of Britain was the culmination of this ideal The composition of Gleadless Valley is always surprising, always related to its natural setting and consisting of close-up to long-distance views so you can quite clearly understand your position in the environment.
The recent Pevsner Architectural guide suggests that Gleadless Valley vies with Park Hill as Sheffield’s greatest contribution to the post war public housing in Britain. It is a highly successful fusion of two, apparently opposing ideals; high density housing types on small plots versus the garden city.
Essentially Gleadless Valley is the suburban counterpart to its fiercely cosmopolitan brother in the city centre and is often overlooked by many fans of post war architecture and planning in favour of the more urban and centralised schemes
Farmland was bought up by Sheffield City Council by compulsory purchase order The project was planned to accommodate 17000 residents The brief was to provide housing for 17,000 people in three distinct neighbourhoods, Hemsworth, Herdings, and Rollestone (apparently the names were taken from the area’s farms and hamlets for continuity), each having a shopping centre and a primary school. When completed, Hemsworth contained just over 2000 dwellings, Herdings about 750 and Rollestone 1600.
The area is divided naturally into three parts by Rollestone Wood, a large triangular wedge of woodland and this has influenced the pattern of development.
As a rule, developments built on existing urban sites and those built in ‘virgin’ countryside have differing profiles of historic legibility.
Those replacing earlier terraced and back-to-back housing tended to involve wholesale clearance and re-landscaping. Removing most physical traces of earlier landscapes, compared with those built across rural landscapes, which were more likely to preserve earlier features, such as mature trees, woodlands and earlier roads.
The best examples of this are to be found within the Newfield Green area, where ancient field boundaries are already marked by the presence of many mature trees
The Meersbrook stream separates Gleadless Valley with north and south-facing slopes on either side, the former having fine views of the city, the latter the Yorkshire/Derbyshire border moorland.
The valley itself and adjoining woodland formed the basis of a footpath system linking the neighbourhoods, shops and schools. Following Radburn principles, separating pedestrians from the road; two underpasses under principal traffic routes, further this aim.
Two tower block schemes are incorporated into the project, three blocks were built at Herdings at Raeburn Place in 1959. These blocks are built at an altitude of over 660 feet (200 m) and are a significant landmark on the Sheffield skyline. (“Superhuman additions to a new landscape”- John Betjeman – 1961 ) They were among the first tower blocks to be built in Sheffield and were constructed by a London firm because; at the time; no Sheffield contractor felt confident to take on the project. One of the blocks was demolished in the mid 1990s after it was found that it had been built on a fault and was unsafe. The two remaining blocks were refurbished and re-clad in 1998.
Six more tower blocks were built at Callow Mount, Drive and Place in 1962 at the northern end of Gleadless Valley close to Newfield Green, these too were re-clad and modernised in the late 1990s.
The six Point blocks at Callow mount
The natural characteristics of each area formed the basis for the house design and layout. A good deal of research work was apparently carried out in designing the house types suitable for steep slopes, leading to some unconventional (for the time) solutions. The general pattern was a ‘mixed’ development of two storey houses, three storey flats, four and six storey maisonettes and 13 and 15 storey point blocks, at a net average density of about 70 persons to the acre
The houses were designed to cope with the various slope conditions and fell into three broad categories – ‘along the contours’, ‘across the contours’ and ‘irregular contours’ types.’ The contemporary press reported that the experience gained from these designs, and subsequent Ministry of Housing and Local Government sociological surveys, would be invaluable in the development of future sites over similar terrain within the city.
‘Along the contours’ dwellings, used where the contours were roughly parallel for a horizontal distance of 80 feet or more, were generally terraced units. Steeper sloped led to the development of the ‘reverse plan’ (colloquially referred as an “upside down” house) with the living rooms at the upper entrance level and bedrooms below.
Examples of this can be seen in Raeburn Road .
Other designs include flat roofed dwellings with entrances at first floor and garages underneath accessed via the rear as seen at Fleury Place
We had garages under the houses, bearing in mind they were
built into the steep hillside so the area comprising the middle hays did not have room to park on grass verges etc... Also they were all cul de sacs so no speeding motorists either due to the bollards at the end of each one, the view was (is) spectacular stretching over to the moors of the peak district.
‘Across the contours’ dwellings were generally narrow fronted in orders to present the minimum dimension to the slope. Footpath access was employed and, where this became too steep for convenience, the terraces were staggered, allowing footpaths to run diagonally across the contours.
Seen on the east of Blackstock road
‘Irregular contour’ houses were used on sites where irregular slopes and curves made the use of terraced dwellings difficult.
There are several deck access blocks providing entry at different hillside levels.
These can be best viewed towards the bottom end of Gleadless Road
The team also developed a three storey cruciform block, with segments, which could be set at different levels to avoid excessive under building.
Plan of cruciform block
Spotswood Mount Housing
These striking two storey patio houses with living rooms on the first floor are built on a 1:5 slope with an enclosed patio garden between each house. These look over the roof of the house below providing unobstructed views across the valley. Access to the lower houses is by steps and ramps
Perspective view of Spotswood Mount houses
Floor plans of Spotswood Mount houses
Gleadless Valley sports 2 post war churches
Holy Cross Church, Spotswood Mount, 1964-65
(architect – Braddock & Martin Smith)
Now somewhat semi iconic as the the backdrop to Warp films “This is England 86” - It is dramatically sited, the church has a canted east front, broadly triangular in shape with a concrete central column rising to form a cross. The interior is lit by rooflights and is plain white. It is dominated by a very striking full height stained glass window by John Baker, made at the Whitefriars Studio - with immensely tall figures of the Virgin Mary and St John with their traditional symbols, and a crown of thorns above them. There is a chunky rough-hewn font on one side of the altar balanced by a wood pulpit on the other. The silver cross is by David Mellor.
The other church is the Gleadless Valley Methodist Church, Blackstock Road with its very Functional tower of 4 brick piers topped with a cross
Derby Place. 1978-80(architect - Sheffield City Council, Planning & Design (John Taylor & Peter Jackson)
These three-storey stepped profile blocks were built further up the south facing slope long after the main estate was finished. They were the second iteration of this type of development, the first being in Netherthorpe a couple of years earlier. Designed to house elderly people live on the top two floors, the ground floor was reserved for families who could enjoy private gardens. There are also flats similar to this off Fleury Road
Ok Ok this one isn't from Derby Place but you get the idea...
The flats are deck access and have extensively glazed facades articulated by projecting greenhouse porches and rain spouts carried on slim timber brackets. The ‘organic’ feel of the buildings is enhanced by the massive baulks of timber used to support the ends of the decks, by the planters of rough creosoted timber used to line them, and by the low-pitched roofs.
These blocks are different form their predecessors in ensuring that each level has its own access by means of bridges – to give the impression perhaps that the residents are not living in a block of flats but in bungalows that happen to be on top of one another.
There are similar blocks in Stannington and they were some of the last deck access flats to be built, at last achieving at last the humane approach to housing that the Smithsons, amongst many others, believed such planning could provide.
A private development in the Rollestone area is Paxton Court - a group of 10 energy efficient buildings built in 1984 by Cedric Green
There no getting away from the fact that unfortunately nowadays that Gleadless Valley has the significant elements of a sink estate; with high levels of poor health and deprivation against a backdrop of limited occupational outlet and economic opportunity.
The mere mention of the estate will usually conjure exaggerated imagery and opinion regarding anti social behaviour, benefit dependents and criminality in the minds of those who have no connection or have never visited the estate. For those living on the estate, and with the generous help of the media, this can easily evolve into a self fulfilling prophecy. The residents, closely followed by the architects/ planners, are usually the first to be blamed for such sociological problems. I’m glad to note that there now appear to be several community groups fighting back against such prejudicial thoughts
Bibliography and acknowledgements
Ian McInnis and Sid Fletcher – C20 2012 AGM Sheffield tour
Sheffield Pevsner Architectural Guide- Ruth Harman / John Minnis