Sheffield Cathedral: A Place for All People
Sheffield Cathedral sits close to the heart of Sheffield city centre, yet in the past looked closed and unwelcoming due to the poor state of the main entrance and external landscaping.
A Place for All People is one strand of a major project to transform the cathedral, to make its presence, both spiritual and civic, felt, and to create a welcoming place for everyone. As it starts to make more use of its space, the cathedral is also working to improve its sustainability with the help of its growing, vibrant community.
Vision and aims
The impetus for this large scale project was a European Regional Development Fund grant in the early 2000s, which allowed the cathedral to scope the project.
There followed several years of fundraising and work to repair the exterior stonework, particularly the tower. This was part-funded by Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and Historic England. This done, Sheffield could focus on the challenge of engaging and enthusing more people.
A Place for All People was a £2 million project, with £1.4 million HLF funding, which focused on improving the visitor experience through development work and increased public engagement.
The capital work built a new entrance, improved accessibility and reconfigured the external public space; the engagement strand focused on re-energising the Cathedral’s volunteer programme, creating new interpretation and a guidebook, refreshing the education programme, and developing the new shop.
The project had ambitious aims. These included doubling visitor numbers - which it has more than achieved already - and ensuring that every schoolchild in Sheffield would visit at least once during their school career. The works finished in 2015.
The other strand of the project, the Centenary Project, was funded by money from local trusts, and from the Landfill Communities Fund. It tackled the improvement of internal facilities such as lighting, sound, underfloor heating and recovering the floor, and the move from fixed to stackable pews.
The old entrance to the cathedral made it seem unwelcoming and closed. It suffered from poor lighting, which also encouraged vagrants. With six steps leading inside, it also had access issues. In order to encourage and engage with visitors and the local community, the project developed a new entrance, landscaped public space, improved access within the building and created a café, a shop and meeting spaces.
The new entrance structure sits between the cathedral building and the Narthex on the South side, which was previously a challenging space to use and has now been converted into a shop. The whole space leading into the cathedral is very light and bright.
The cathedral overcame initial issues with the project plan, which was turned down by the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England (CFCE) due to the location of the shop at the main entrance. This was however, the obvious place for the shop due to the available space in the empty Narthex and Cathedral Architect, Clive England, along with the Fabric Advisory Committee (FAC), worked very hard to get the CFCE on board.
During the building work the Nave was closed to the public for over a year and a temporary wall was constructed to enable the worshipping life of the cathedral to continue largely unaffected. The cathedral used the Cutlers’ Hall (across the road) for occasions such as Christmas and Easter. There was lots of visitor interest in the project and the team of guides and welcomers were vital in keeping visitors informed about the progress of the project.
The re-laid exterior square is now a busy public space which draws people towards the cathedral entrance. Although planning permission was required from the local authority, there were no major issues due to the lack of archaeological concerns.
The cathedral continues to improve aspects of the landscaping and will be removing the steps on the square to make the space more useable. Renovation of external CCTV was completed with a First World War Centenary Cathedrals Repair Fund grant, and the cathedral is currently renewing its flood lighting.
Internally, the cathedral installed a ramp and two wheelchair lifts to improve access to some of the chapels. The cathedral building is now a much more accessible space. St George’s chapel, however, can only be accessed by stairs due to its position.
The project allowed the cathedral to recruit new staff such as a Volunteer Manager and a Heritage Education Officer to increase capacity for developing new interpretation, educational materials, the guidebook and the volunteering programme.
The Volunteer Manager works four days a week (originally contracted for three) and now has responsibility for safeguarding. The cathedral now has around 180 volunteers (up from just 20) performing a huge variety of essential roles: from cleaning and giving tours, to welcoming visitors and helping manage data. This has made a huge difference to the cathedral’s confidence in doing new things.
The cathedral works with several organisations, including both universities in Sheffield, as part of its drive to increase the diversity of its volunteers.
The heritage education programme has produced a successful guidebook, now in its second edition, and created new interpretation in the Heritage Interpretation Centre and on tablets around the cathedral which show videos. The cathedral now feels in a position to reconsider and improve this level of interpretation to make better use of technology and the interpretation space.
One of the key project aims was to ensure that every child in Sheffield visits the cathedral at least once while at school and the funding has allowed the cathedral to develop a good range of resources for schools. The cathedral team has continued to develop its offer to schools, particularly with regard to the cathedral as a place of worship and faith.
The education programme has developed a school visits model and educational resources. It was initially thought that this would be self-funding; however, this has not been the case due to local school resources. Although challenging, the project is continuing to develop and change to meet local needs.
Overall, the project achieved its heritage aims and has given the cathedral the capacity and skills to consider further improvements and developments. As well as reviewing its interpretation and educational materials, it is working to create more display space to showcase its collection and continue to improve the cathedral’s offer as a cultural, as well as spiritual, destination.
Reflections and lessons learned
The project proved challenging for cathedral staff, especially when working to submission deadlines for grant bids, and trying to keep the public and congregation engaged during lengthy building work.
However, following the project’s completion and success, the cathedral now has increased confidence in carrying out further work, increased capacity and a chance to reflect on the lessons learned.
The cathedral tried to keep the congregation and public informed and consulted on the project before it started, which was challenging as the project came immediately after a sustained period of external building work.
The team worked to sustain stakeholder engagement during the works, carrying out site tours and sending out updates via a newsletter. Cathedral staff believe that they would now handle this differently, making more use of social media and website updates.
The cathedral and project team were successful in consulting with other external partners such as HLF, the local authority, FAC and CFCE and tried to ensure that they consulted as early as possible.
Preparing for a project can be one of the most stressful and busy times for a staff team. The cathedral was challenged regarding staff time, resources and tight timetabling when it came to writing up grant bids and gathering documentation.
High quality external project management made the project much easier. The team also developed well-managed processes for record keeping and financial management including cash flow and a system of drawing down grants to ensure invoices were paid on time.
Managing a large-scale project comes with challenges and learning points. Sheffield believes it would have benefitted from having frank discussions with others who had undertaken similar projects. This leads to a feeling that there should be freer discussions between cathedrals and the Church of England more broadly. One suggestion was that funding authorities might encourage this before the start of a project.