Orla Foster

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Sheffield’s Enchanted Woods

If you were to soundtrack Sheffield, just where would you look for inspiration? Would you reach for the synthesiser, or the penny whistle? To the trees, or the furnace? The Enchanted Woods is a multidisciplinary installation which brings together an original score by local band The Third Half, along with visuals and animations from design studio Human. The piece sets out to give viewers a sense of Sheffield’s unique character, evoking the magic of its woodlands and challenging popular perceptions of what it means to be an industrial city.

Quenching, cladding, forging, smelting. Sintering, casting, plating. These are the processes which brought Sheffield to the world. Even now, years after steel production fell into decline, it’s the echo of this bustling, machine-led past which has come to define Sheffield, a throwback to a time when automated processes formed the backbone of the population. Back in its industrial heyday, the groan and clatter of factories and forge drops would ring out across the landscape as people slept, and fumes blackened the walls of the pubs.

Culturally, the prevalence of manufacturing and machinery also made itself felt. During the 1970s, when the rest of the country had fallen hard for dishevelled guitar bands and snarling punk refrains, Sheffield outfits such as Human League and Cabaret Voltaire looked to machines for inspiration, reflecting the rigid, automated processes with synthesisers engineered to create strange, unworldly sounds.

Similarly, a long history of manual labour and unions created the idea of Sheffield as a robust, tightly-led bastion, quite distinct from its neighbours and shielded by hills. For all its acres of greenery, Sheffield made no bones about being a working town, the air glutted with sulphur and gas, the skyline a pocket of lights scattered across a jagged surface. “A town like Sheffield assumes a sinister magnificence,” George Orwell noted.

But what about the valleys and thickets, the winding bus rides and folk trains? The nature reserves, the streams, the horses, the antique villages ripe for an Agatha Christie dramatization? In recent years, we’ve been increasingly reminded that Sheffield is the greenest city in the UK, but how do you reconcile this idyllic portrayal with that of the tough-as-nails steel industry which put it on the map?

One approach is suggested in ‘Sheffield’s Enchanted Woods’, a piece which considers the city’s rural core within its role as an industrial centre. A free-standing installation, the work uses ambient music and animation to reach into the city’s past, and most importantly, explore the fluctuating role of the land itself. A five part composition performed by the Third Half will be set alongside visuals, designed by Human Studio, which depict the city’s natural resources and gradual development. The piece will also be played live towards the end of the festival.

Part 1, performed on harp, vocals and acoustic guitar, evokes the city at its earliest beginnings, in a gentler, more pastoral time, long before factories shaped the landscape, and before their decline made itself felt on the economy. A further segment by electronica act Animat will illustrate Sheffield’s manufacturing heritage by remixing samples from earlier sections of the piece. This cut’n’paste, postmodernist approach perfectly encapsulates the fractured identity of Sheffield, whereby raw materials are manipulated to fulfil new roles.

Such juxtapositions remind us that the industrial landscape didn’t spring up out of the earth unannounced. Steel production was enabled because the natural resources were here to make it possible. And if you had any doubts that the woods themselves are  “enchanted”, just consider the basic ingredients of metallurgy: natural minerals and craftsmanship. With these elements firmly in place, a pair of scissors can materialize from a lump of mud.

I spoke to Graham McElearney, harpist with the Third Half and co-organiser of the project, to find out what it was about Sheffield’s woodlands that had drawn him in. He talked about the the different stages of Sheffield’s development, and the unexpected bridges between them.

“I was really interested in the idea of a remembered history between the people who live here,” he said. “The music represents that sort of passage through time, the shared legacy of both a pastoral and industrialised past.”

To get a fresh outlook on Sheffield’s history, he and bandmate Peter Rophone met up with representatives from the council’s Trees, Woodlands and Countryside Section, who took them on a tour deep into the heart of the woods, drawing their attention to various landmarks. Ecclesall Woods, for example, are filled with whispers of the people who lived and worked there. Like the Neolithic patterns carved into rocks – showing that humans have interfered with their surroundings for as long as they’ve had the opportunity. Like the Shepherd Wheel, a watermill dating back to the sixteenth century, and one of the last remaining examples of the sort of heavy-duty machinery that used to be commonplace in the area. Like the wood collier’s gravestone, also the inspiration behind a Richard Hawley song, which marks the memory of an eighteenth century labourer burnt to death in his cabin. Echoes of the past are rooted deep into the lay of the land.

Of course, our perception of parks and woodlands has altered drastically since those times. We tend to view woods as recreational spaces, unconnected to furnaces and foundries – and our attachment to them, for the most part, isn’t bound up with how we make a living. Woodlands are the territory of Sunday strollers, excitable terriers, and would-be gold medallists keen to realign their thighs. This isn’t the scene of the daily grind. It’s a therapeutic space we enter to shed the worries of frantic, fast-paced lives, to feel closer to our inner selves and our ancestors, whom we imagine to have lived in “simpler” times. (Try telling that to the wood collier.)

‘The Enchanted Woods’ repositions the viewer as part of a collective history, reminding us that we aren’t simply disconnected dots in a technology-driven metropolis, but rather part of a constant entity made up of a whole host of different chapters, each setting the foundations for the next. Graham hopes that the project will appeal to people from the area and encourage them to reconsider the space they inhabit.

“So many research projects end up completely cut off from an audience, but as a university, we have a broader responsibility to contribute back and engage with the people who live in Sheffield,” he reflected.

“This project isn’t a literal retelling of Sheffield’s history, of course, but it’s a look at the space we inhabit, and a way of exploring our identity. ‘The Enchanted Woods’ represents a dream world that people often view with nostalgia, but the woods themselves also contribute to the city’s industrial presence.”

It’s hard to know what the iconography of a future Sheffield will be like. The steel industry may no longer be the city’s most prominent feature, but we still have the woods: a place we can all inhabit, a common ground which should be celebrated and explored. One thing’s for sure, the foundations for the next stage of Sheffield are there already, right beneath our boots.

2012. Commission for Article Magazine