Our setting for this episode, Sheffield’s Endcliffe Park seems like many other popular green spaces, but it has a hidden history: its waterways once helped fuel the Industrial Revolution in the ‘Steel City’. We discover how Sheffield’s past intertwines with trees as our guide, local urban forester Catherine Nuttgens, explains how nature and the city have shaped each other through the centuries.

Local people are very passionate about trees, Catherine tells us. Woodland and green spaces were - and still are - the lungs of the city, vital to their communities. You may have heard of the protests against street tree fellings here that hit headlines, but Sheffield bounced back to become the UK’s greenest city, with more trees per person than any other.

Endcliffe Park is one of many green spaces in easy reach for residents, just beyond the city centre. As we follow the Porter Brook through the park, we also:

  • admire the wildlife-filled ponds and streams that are part of Sheffield's industrial heritage
  • see Shepherd Wheel, a former water-powered grinding workshop instrumental to the area’s cutlery industry
  • meet Stella Bolam, community forestry officer at Sheffield City Council, who is dedicated to helping people connect with nature and working with community groups and schools to plant trees
  • hear about Eat Trees Sheffield, the Regather Cooperative project that harvests excess apples from the community to make apple juice
  • learn about the nearby Grey to Green project that’s transformed tarmac into a tranquil haven for people and wildlife and tackles climate change too.

Listen now on iTunesLibsyn or Soundcloud.

You are listening to Woodland Walks, a podcast for the Woodland Trust presented by Adam Shaw. We protect and plant trees for people, for wildlife. 

Adam: Well, today I am in Sheffield, known of course as the Steel City renowned for steel production during the 19th century Industrial Revolution. But despite that historical heritage, woodland and green spaces were, and still are, the lungs of the city and seen as vitally important. In fact, it is now, according to Sheffield University, the UK's greenest city, with 250 public parks and over four and a half million trees. That's more trees per person than any other city in Europe and in 2022, Sheffield was named as a Tree City of the World. And I'm meeting Catherine Nuttgens at Endcliffe Park. That's a 15 hectare open space opened in 1887 to commemorate the Jubilee of Queen Victoria. And interestingly, it isn’t in the middle of the countryside; it is two miles from the city centre, the first in a series of connected green spaces, known collectively as Porter Valley Parks, all of which lie along the course of the Porter Brook. Well, although it really is coming to spring, we've been hit with some rather unseasonable snow, and I thought we were going to start with some snow sound effects, but actually this is a very fast-moving river that I'm standing by and I am meeting Catherine. Hello. So, Catherine, just explain a bit about who you are first of all. 

Catherine: OK. Yes, I'm Catherine Nuttgens. I used to be the urban lead for the Woodland Trust, but I've just moved into independent work as an urban forester, an independent urban forester. 

Adam: Fantastic. And you have. We've arranged to meet by this. I was gonna say babbling brook. It's really much more than that, isn't it? So is this the river? The local river. 

Catherine: This is the River Porter, so this is one of five rivers in Sheffield. And it runs all the way up the Porter Valley, which is where we're going to be walking today. 

Adam: Let's head off. So I have no idea where I'm going. 

Catherine: Going that way. OK, yes, let's go. Let's go this way.  

Adam: OK. You sound already confused. 

Catherine: I was going to look at that. I was going to look at that tree over there. Cause we planted it. Is it still alive? 

Adam: We can go have a look at that. It’s still alive. 

Catherine: Which tree? This tree? Here it's just so a total aside for everything that we're doing. 

Adam: We're already getting sidetracked. You see, if a tree was planted. 

Catherine: So yeah, I mean, this was one of... my old role at Sheffield Council was being community forestry manager and our role was to plant trees around the city. So one of the things that we planted were these War Memorial trees and it's very hard if you plant a tree to not go back to it and say, how's it doing? Is it OK? This is it, it's looking OK. 

Adam: This looks more than OK and also it's still got three poppy wreaths on it from Remembrance Sunday. And a dedication, lest we forget: to all the brave men and women of Sheffield who gave their lives and those who hereafter continue to give in pursuit of freedom and peace. 2018 it was planted. 

Catherine: One of the reasons I want to check it: it's quite a challenging place to plant a tree as there's an awful lot of football here. So the ground is really compacted, I think it's a red oak.  

Adam: A red oak. 

Catherine: That should be the right tree for this place. When they go in, they need so much water and it's 60 litres of water a week when it's dry, so keeping them alive, especially when the ground is so compacted is quite a challenge. It's something that happens all around the country is that people think ‘I've planted a tree and now I can walk away’. But actually the real work goes into sort of making sure trees have got enough water. So that they can, you know, for at least the first sort of two or three years of planting. So that they can survive to the good. 

Adam: Brilliant. Alright. Well, look, we've already got distracted. We we've, we haven't even started. We've gone the wrong direction. But anyway, your oak is doing very well indeed.  

Catherine: I'm sorry. It's it's, it's good. 

Adam: So tell me a little bit about where we're going and why, why you've taken me on this particular trip. 

Catherine: Sheffield is actually the most wooded, well, it's the most treed and wooded city in Europe. There are more trees per head in Sheffield than there are in any other city in Europe. So I thought the Porter Valley is quite good because there's quite a lot of cafés on the way. So that's quite good. But also it was a great way of describing about how the, how the landscape of Sheffield has kind of shaped the city and how how kind of people are shaped by the landscape also. The landscape is, you know, is is shaped by the people and, and here's a real case in point, because although it all looks very beautiful now and as we go up the valley  you’ll see, you know it, it gets more rural. Actually it's all artificial. This is a post-industrial landscape. 

Adam: So I mean when you say that, I mean this is this is a creative landscape this, so that I don't really understand what you mean. I mean they didn't knock, you didn't knock down factories. This must have been natural ground. 

Catherine: Well, it was natural, but basically Sheffield started Sheffield famous for iron and steel, and it's also on the edge of the Peak District. So there's there's these five very fast flowing rivers that actually provided the power for the grinding holes are places where they made blades and scissors and scythes and all these different things. And so along rivers like this one, there were what were called the like, grinding hulls, the little factories where they they use the the power of the water to sharpen those blades and to you know, to forge them and things. As we go further up, we'll start to see how the Porter kind of has been sort of sectioned off. It's been chopped up and made into ponds. There's what we call goits that go off and they would have been the little streams that go off and power each, each grinding hull along here. 

Adam: I mean you you say Sheffield is the most wooded city in the UK per head, and yet it hit the headlines a few years ago when the council started chopping down trees. And it wasn't entirely clear why, but the the local population were up in arms. So why was that? Is was that an aberration, or was that a change in policy?  

Catherine: No, I mean people call Sheffield, the outdoor city. People in Sheffield have always been really connected to their trees. But I think when we got to the, you know, for the street tree protest, you know, the vision was beautiful, flat pavements and there were just these annoying trees in the way that were lifting all the paving slabs and everything. We thought what we need is lovely flat pavements, all the people that are complaining about trees all the time, they'll be really happy. But obviously that wasn't the case because people actually do quite like the trees. So what happened here was that the the council decided to send to send a crew to fell in the middle of the night, and then so they knocked on. Yeah. It was, yeah, honestly. Yeah, it was mad so. The the policemen came, knocked on people's doors, said ‘sorry, can you move your cars? Because we want to cut down the trees.’ And now obviously if a policeman knocks on your door in the middle of the night, you know, it's it's pretty scary. So the ladies that they did that to said no, I think I'm going to sit under this tree instead. And it was just mad. Just think, what are they doing? Because it was in the Guardian, like the morning, it got international by the sort of lunchtime. And it was if, if you wanted a way to create an international protest movement about trees, so that's the way to do it. So. But I mean, that was the thing Sheffield is, so it's not an affluent city, but people do stuff in Sheffield, you know, something's happened, someone's doing a thing about it, and they're really good at organising. And in the end, thank goodness the council stopped. If there are things going on in your city, dialogue is always the best way, and consulting and co-designing with the public is so important because it's that's what these trees are for. They're here to benefit people. So if you're not discussing kind of the plans with the people then you know, it's not it's you're not properly doing your job, really. 

Adam: And you said there's lots of choice of places to go with trees in and around Sheffield. And the reason you've chosen this particular place is why? Why does this stand out? 

Catherine: Well, I think I mean, first of all, it's quite it it, it is a beautiful valley that's kind of very accessible. We've got, I mean here the kind of manufactured you know the Porter has been Victorianised, it's all got these lovely little rills and things. Little rills. You know where little rills kind of maybe that's the wrong word, but the kind of. 

Adam: No, but I do. Teaching me so many new words. So what is the rill? 

Catherine: So you know, just kind of little bits in the the stream where they've made it, you know, kind of little rocks and things. 

Adam: Like rocks. Yeah, that is beautiful. They're like tiny little waterfalls. It's wonderful. I love it. 

Catherine: So here for example, I mean looks lovely like these ponds that we have. I mean there's always there's things like the, the kingfishers and and there's the kind of Endcliffe Park Heron that everyone takes pictures of. And there are often Mandarin ducks. I think we passed some Mandarin ducks earlier on, didn't we? But this is actually. This is a holding pool for what would have sort of, how would the grinding hull that now has gone. So it's actually a piece of industrial heritage. Yeah, it looks, I mean, it has now all been kind of made nice. In the ‘30s some of these pools were were kind of put over to and probably in Victorian times as well. They're actually swimming areas. They converted them into swimming. 

Adam: I mean the water, I mean, you can't see this if you're listening, but water's super muddy or or brown. It's not appealing to swim in, I’ll just say, but OK, no, no one does that these days. 

Catherine: No. Well, they they do up at Crookes, actually. There are people going swimming that that's a, that's a fishing lake. So it's much deeper, but it's a little bit. 

Adam: Are you a wild swimmer?  

Catherine: Yeah. Yeah. Let's go out into the peak a bit more and out into the the lovely bit. 

Adam: Ohh wow, you said that's the way to. I mean, I can't get into a swimming pool unless it’s bath temperature, let alone. 

Catherine: It's lovely in the summer. I'm not a cold swimmer, right? But I do love it in in the summer. It's not. I mean, that's what's great about Sheffield, really. And that, like, there's so much nature just within sort of 20 minutes’ walk. I mean, some people just get on their bike and go out into the peak and whether it's you're a climber or a wild swimmer or a runner or just a walker, or you just like beautiful things. You know? It's it's it's kind of here. 

Adam: And there is an extraordinary amount of water, I mean. It's, I mean, you probably can hear this, but there seems to be river on all sides of us. It's so we've been walking up the Porter Brook, which you can hear in the background and we've come across Shepherd Wheel a water powered grinding hull last worked in the 1930s. 

Catherine: Come this way a little bit. You can see the there's the wheel that they've put together. So inside. I'm just wondering whether we can through a window we can look in. But so so Sheffield say a very independent sort of a place. The what used to happen is the the little mesters there were they hired. They were men.  

Adam: Sorry that's another word. What was a mester? 

Catherine: That is another word. A mester. That is. I mean. So I think it was like a little master, so like a master cutler or whatever. A little master. But but in in there there were there were individual grinding grindstones right with the benches, the grinding benches on and they hired a bench to do their own piece work. So so it was very independent, everyone was self-employed and you know they they. So the wheel actually sort of was important for probably quite a few livelihoods. 

Adam: We’ve come up to a big sign ‘Shepherd’s Wheel in the Porter Valley’. Well, look at this. Turn the wheel to find out more. Select. Oh, no idea what's going. You hold on a sec. Absolutely nothing. It's it's it's, it's, it's, it's a local joke to make tourists look idiotic. Look, there's another nutter just turning a wheel. That does nothing. 

Catherine: And actually an interesting well timber fact is that up in North Sheffield there's a wood called Woolley Wood there and all the trees were a lot of the trees are hornbeam trees. Now hornbeam is really good, as its name might suggest, because it it was used to make make the cogs for for for kind of structures like this, because the the wood was so very hard and also it was quite waterproof. There's actually when the wheel bits were replaced here they used oak. But one of the I think one of the problems with oak is that it's got lots of tannins in that can actually rot the iron work. So so actually. There’s kind of knowledge that's been lost about how to use timber in an industrial way and and. 

Adam: So if you happen to be building a water wheel, hornbeam is, your go-to wood. I'm sure there's not many people out there building water wheels, but you know very useful information if you are. All right, you better lead on. 

Catherine: I think we can head unless you want to go, won't go down that way or go along along here much. There we go. We'll cross. We'll go this way. I think. Probably go down here. Yeah, this has got a great name, this road. It's Hanging Water Road, which I'm not sure I would think. It must be a big waterfall somewhere. I'm not sure whether there is one right so. It's just a a good name. So yeah, so this is more I think going into more kind of established woodland. Still see we've got the two rivers here. 

Adam: So tell me about where we're heading off to now. 

Catherine: We're going up into. I think there's a certainly Whitley Woods is up this way and there's one called Bluebell Woods, which would indicate you know, ancient... bluebells are an ancient woodland indicator, and so that would suggest that actually these are the bits where the trees have been here for much a much longer time. I think there's still kind of one of the things that they try and do in Sheffield, is kind of bring the woods back into traditional woodland management, where you would have had something with called coppice with standards. So the coppice wood was cut down for charcoal burning cause. So the charcoal, these woods, all these many, many woods across Sheffield fuelled all this steel work. You know they need. That was the the heat that they needed. So charcoal burning was quite a big industry. And and the other thing is that's good for us is that actually having kind of areas of open woodlands, you know, open glades and things, it's really, really good for biodiversity because you have that edge effect and you know, opens up to woodland butterflies and things like that. 

Adam: We're just passing an amazing house built on stilts on the side side of this hill, which has got this great view of the river. 

Catherine: There's. Yeah, there's some incredible houses around here. 

Adam: Where? Where so which where are we heading? 

Catherine: We'll go back down that way. 

Adam: OK. All right. You may be able to hear it's not just the river, it is now raining. And actually it's all making the snow a bit slushy, but we're on our way back. We're going to meet a colleague of yours. Is that right? 

Catherine: That's right. Yeah. So Stella Bolam, who. She's a community forestry officer who works for Sheffield City Council. She's going to be joining us. And yeah, she worked with me when I was working for the council and is in charge of planting trees with communities across Sheffield. 

Adam: OK, so Stella, hi. So, yeah, so. Well, thank you very much for joining me on this rather wet day on the outskirts of Sheffield. So just tell me a little bit about what you do. 

Stella: Yeah, of course. So our team, community forestry, we basically plant trees with people. It's our tagline, I suppose, and so we we work with community groups and schools to plant those trees and provide aftercare in the first three years, two-three years. 

Adam: Aftercare for the trees. Yeah, yeah. 

Stella: Yes. Ohh obviously for the people as well I mean. 

Adam: What sort of? Give me an example of the type of people you're working with and what you're actually achieving. 

Stella: Yeah, yeah. So I can tell you about a couple of projects I did. When I first joined a couple of years ago. So one was in an area called Lowedges, which is quite a deprived area of Sheffield. In the south of Sheffield. And we worked with a couple of local groups that were already formed to build, to plant a hedge line through the park. It's quite long. It's about 2000 whips we planted, and we also worked with a group called Kids Plant Trees, who advocate nature-based activities for children, which obviously includes planting trees, and we work with a couple of local schools. So we map all the trees that we plant and so for our records.  

Adam: And how did you get involved in all of this? 

Stella: I a couple of years ago I changed careers.   

Adam: You were a journalist. Is that right? 

Stella: I was a journalist. Yeah.  

Adam: What sort of journalist? 

Stella: I did print journalism and that.  

Adam: Local through the local newspapers? 

Stella: No, I worked in London for at least 10 years. I worked in London. I moved up to Sheffield and I was a copywriter. 

Adam: Right. So a very different world. So it wasn't wasn't about nature. You weren't. You weren't the environment correspondent or anything. 

Stella: It was very different. No, no, not at all. It's human interest stories, though. So I've always been interested in in people and communities, and that that's the thing that I've tried to embed in my work in forestry as well and trying to sort of help people connect to nature and understand that that connection a bit more. 

Adam: You've moved around the country and we've been talking about how important trees are to people in Sheffield in particular. Is that true? Is that your experience, that it is different here? 

Stella: Yes, they’re  very passionate about trees and that can go either way. So you know there's people that love them and people that are actually quite scared of them.  

Adam: Scared? Why? Why scared? 

Stella: Yeah, I think because a lot of people don't understand trees and they think they're going to fall over. They say things like, oh, look at, it's moving in the wind. And I sort of say, well, that's natural, that's how they grow, right? But obviously I wasn't taught that at school. So people don't have that general understanding about trees. So I try to sort of, I suppose, gently educate people if they do say negative things. Because I obviously do love trees and you know, I think they give us so much,  

Adam: And you said you work with a lot of schools. 

Stella: Yeah. 

Adam: Do you feel young people have a particularly different view of nature and trees than older generations? Do you see any distinction there at all? 

Stella: Yes, I think though, because of the climate emergency we're in, I think kids now are much more attuned with what's going on with you know, are the changes that are happening in our climate. So we do incorporate a little bit of education in our work with schools. So we talk to them about trees, why they're important, and we'll often let them answer. We won't tell them they'll put up their hands and say, well, because they give us oxygen or, you know, the animals need them. So I didn't know anything about that when I was at school. So I think that's probably quite a major change. 

Adam: You must know the area quite well, and there's lots of different parts of woodlands in and around Sheffield, so for those who are visiting, apart from this bit, where would you recommend? What's your favourite bits? 

Stella: Ohh well I I like the woods near me actually. So I I live in an area called Gleadless and Heely and there's there's Gleadless have have got various woodlands there. They're ancient woodlands and they're not very well known, but they’re absolutely amazing. But the other famous one in Sheffield is Ecclesall Woods.  Yes, it's very famous here. It's kind of the flagship ancient woodland. It's the biggest one in South Yorkshire. 

Adam: And you talked about getting into this industry in this career, you're both our our experts, both women that that is unusual. Most of the people I I meet working in this industry are men. Is that first of all is that true and is that changing? 

Stella: It is true. Yeah, I think it's currently about I'm. I'm also a board member and trustee of the Arboricultural Association, so I know some of these statistics around the membership of that organisation and I think there's. It's between about 11 and 15% of their members are women. So yes, it is male and it's also not very ethnically diverse either. I think it is changing and I think I can see that sometimes even when I'm working with kids. And you know, young girls who are you can see they're like really interested. And I sort of always say to them, you know, you can do, you can work with trees when you when you're grown up, you can have a job working with trees. And like a lot of sectors, I think traditionally men have dominated. And I think a lot of women sort of self-select themselves, edit them out of their options, really, cause you you're not told about these things. I mean, I'd never heard of arboriculture five years ago. 

Adam: We've we've just rejoined the riverbank. It's quite wide. So this is the Porters River? Porter Brook been told that so many times today I keep forgetting that the Porter River, no didn't quite get it right. Porter Brook. Is it normally this high? I mean it's properly going fast, isn't it? Think that’s amazing. 

Stella: Yeah. So I was going to just have a chat with you a little bit about a project called Eat Trees Sheffield. 

Adam: Yes, OK. 

Stella: Yeah. So this is a project that was initiated by an organisation called Regather Cooperative, but they also are massive advocates of supporting a local sustainable food system and as part of that, it's harvesting apples. And they make a beautiful pasteurised apple juice from apples locally. 

Adam: From an actual planted orchard? 

Stella: No so well, they actually have just planted an orchard, but no, they basically accept donations from the community. 

Adam: So if someone's got an apple tree in their garden. They they pull off the apples and send it in. 

Stella: Yeah, well, they have to bring them in. Yeah. And they have to be in a certain condition that they're good for juicing, but yes. And then they get a proportion of the juice back the the people that have donated get some juice back.  

Adam: A fantastic idea. Fantastic.  

Stella: Yeah. And then they obviously sell the juice as part of their more commercial offering. But yeah. 

Adam: That's wonderful. So if you, if you've got a couple of apple trees in your garden, and you live around the Sheffield area, what's the the name of the charity? 

Stella: It's called Regather Cooperative. So, we're trying to create a network of people that, basically, can be connected to each other and build skills to look after these orchards because they do need looking after and valuing. They're very important, so yeah. 

Adam: Yeah, sort of connects people to their very local trees. It's interesting. I have a a very good friend of mine in London. Who does sort of guerrilla gardening. And on the the street trees has just planted runner beans and things coming up so so you know it just grows up. You can see people walking down and going oh, are those beans hanging off the trees? and you she you know, just pops out and grabs some and goes and cooks with them. And you know I'm not. I always think. I'm not sure I'd want to eat some some stuff from this street tree because God knows how. What happens there? But I I love the idea. I think it's a really fun idea. 

Stella: So it's just it's been nice meeting you. 

Adam: Well, same here. So we're back, we're back by the river. 

Catherine: By the river all along the river.  

Adam: All along, so yes. Final thoughts?  

Catherine: Yeah. So I mean, it's been so great to have, you know, have you visit Sheffield today, Adam. Like, it's always such a privilege to to show people around kind of the bits of our city that are so beautiful. Well, I think, you know, just this walk today in the Porter Valley and the fact that there's so many trees where there used to be industry is something that Sheffield's had going for it I think throughout the whole of its history. The the woodlands were originally so important to be the green lungs of the city - that was really recognised at the turn of the 20th century. But now if you go into the city centre, there's projects like Grey to Green, which is basically where they used to be a very, rather ugly road running round the back of the city centre, which has now been converted into 1.5 kilometres of active travel routes, and there the space has been made for trees. So instead of roads now there's kind of special soil and trees and plants and grasses and things like that. They're like, they look amazing, but also they help to combat climate change. So when the rains fall like they have done at the moment, the trees slow down all the flow of the water going into the River Don, it stops Rotherham from flooding further down. But it also helps well it also encourages people to visit the city centre and enjoy the shade of the trees and, you know, takes up some of the pollution that's in the city. And I think it's, you know, this kind of new kind of thinking where we're actually not just looking after the woods we've already got and letting it grow. Actually making new spaces for trees, which I find really exciting and you know, hopefully that's going to be the future of not just Sheffield, but lots of cities around the country. 

Adam: That's a brilliant thought to end on. Thank you very much for a fantastic day out and I was worried that it would be really wet and horrible and actually, yet again it's been quite pretty, the snow and it's only rained a little bit on us. Look, a squirrel.  

Adam: Well, I hope you enjoyed that visit to one of Sheffield's open wooded spaces, and if you want to find a wood near you, you can do so by going to the Woodland Trust website woodlandtrust.org.uk/findawood. Until next time, happy wanderings. 

Thank you for listening to the Woodland Trust Woodland Walks with Adam Shaw. Join us next month, when Adam will be taking another walk in the company of Woodland Trust staff, partners and volunteers. Don't forget to subscribe to the series on iTunes or wherever you're listening to us and do give us a review and a rating. And why not send us a recording of your favourite woodland walk to be included in a future podcast? Keep it to a maximum of five minutes and please tell us what makes your woodland walk special. Or send us an e-mail with details of your favourite walk and what makes it special to you. Send any audio files to podcast@woodlandtrust.org.uk. We look forward to hearing from you. 

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