It’s a cold March. The sky is set to TV interference grey and there’s snow falling, enough to lightly cover the newly emerged bulbs of crocus and daffodil. As I slip and slide down the path towards Birley Spa Woods I can hardly feel my fingers, clutching the camera in case I lose it in the quagmire.
These woods lie at the south-eastern tip of Sheffield. They would have been part of Derbyshire in the 1960s before the boundaries were redefined. They remind me of the forests of fairy tales, the way the brambles and branches, as well as the strange urban geography has kept them hidden from most people, lost and a little forgotten. I think that’s why I love them so much. They are neglected and abused (children and teens regularly set fire to rubbish here or ride off road bikes and butcher the trees) and there’s something a little melancholic about them. They don’t have the attention lavished on them as say, Ecclesall Woods, but they have a charm all of their own.
Behind the primary school is the disused Victorian Spa. It’s fenced off and chained, sitting in beautifully haunting grounds. I used to think there was something menacing about the place but I think that I just misunderstood the place. It’s sad, neglected, and the ghosts of the Victorian and Pre-War day trippers are almost tangible around the old boating lake and spring. Nearby is the strange fossilised tree where they used to leave tokens and the ruins of the children’s paddling pool, graced by the splash of feet over eighty years ago.
The story of the Spa, a Grade II listed building is a fascinating one. Purportedly there was a stone, part of the lake wall, now gone, that had the date 1701 inscribed on it meaning that the spa and grounds might date back to the beginning of the 1700s but the first documentation of the site is in 1734 in a book about the mineral waters of England where it is called ‘Burleigh Spa’. There are records showing that people came from Sheffield in the Eighteenth Century to bathe and drink the waters for therapeutic purposes.
The current building on the site dates from 1842. There were two bridges over the stream in the grounds along with walks through the wooded valley and seven grottoes. The building contained two pools; one marble and one stone. Only the stone one remains. The bath house and hotel was eventually sold along with the cottages known as Rose Cottages and turned into pleasure grounds.
A boating lake, sandpits, rocking boats, see-saws and swimming in the ‘Roman’ bath were all advertised as part of ‘The Children’s Paradise – Birley Spa’. The pleasure grounds were closed to the public at the outbreak of war in 1939 and when the council housing was built in Hackenthorpe in the late 1940s and 1950s and the Sheffield Corporation became the owners.
(Shire Brook – The Forgotten Valley 2007)
As I move around the wrought iron fence of the Spa, I disturb the huge guard dogs that reside behind the security fencing of a modern house, now built upon the site of the old Rose cottage. For a moment, I am a little scared but then I marvel what it must be like for a modern family, surrounded by flat screen TVs and shiny granite worktops with all the mod cons, to be isolated and submerged in the woods like this. It reminds me of George Huxley’s house set in Ryhope Wood in Robert Holdstock’s ‘Mythago Wood’.
Just a few days later, I am back in the woods with friends and it’s discernibly warmer. We stand and watch a frog emerging from hibernation in the shallow waters of the old boating lake. There are stickleback darting and nibbling at a crumb of bread. Above us, in the trees we hear the sounds of woodpeckers at work. Spring is definitely arriving.