Good intentions do not always turn out as anticipated. This was the case with Sheffield’s ‘Hole in the Road’, a development opened on November 27, 1967.
The city was blitzed by the Luftwaffe over several nights in December 1940 with over 600 deaths and hundreds made homeless. After the cessation of hostilities, Sheffield councillors were quite rightly intent on rebuilding an exciting new comfortable city for everyone. Their main priorities included removing slum housing and erecting high-rise flats as well as getting to grips with traffic flow in and around the city. The ‘Hole in the Road’ or Castle Square subway system formed part of the Civic Circle. City housing projects included the Parkhill Flats and the Hyde Park Flats.
The intricate subway system quickly dubbed the ‘Hole in the Road was at the confluence of a number of roads – High Street, Arundel Gate and Angel Street. The unusual feature of the scheme was that the roundabout in the centre was not filled in. It provided an opening above the central concourse where all the subways met.
Enthusiasm was overflowing amongst city councillors at the opening ceremony of the Hole in the Road – the only one of its kind in Europe – and which had cost in the region of £240,000. Ald. Stirland, chairman of the town planning committee, said the new development was ‘the end product of 20 years of planning and design’.
The subway had more than a dozen exits and entrances – by heated ramps escalators and steps – providing access to half a dozen major stores and other shops. Incorporating display windows, showcases and kiosks, the subway complex also had a control office and inquiry office for Sheffield Transport Department. Many of the display windows were fitted out; the others had all been let. Even while the opening ceremony was in progress the public flocked into the subway to see its display windows and basement shop entrances and to walk in the large central concourse.
Ald Stirland said the future would see a system of pedestrian segregation stretching from the newly constructed Hyde Park Flats area to the Lansdown area of Ecclesall Road. Further ahead, he ventured, Sheffield might need an ‘underground town’ system such as was already working in Japan.
He told an audience it seemed ironic that ‘whereas this generation was thinking of bringing miners out of the bowels of the earth, the next might think of putting shop girls down there to work 35 or 40 hour weeks’.
The Lord Mayor, Ald Harold Lambert chaired the opening. No one could doubt, he said, that Sheffield was now measuring up to being a city of the second half of the 20th century. It had met the problem of providing free movement for pedestrians by putting them either above or below the traffic flow.
Ald Stirland said all of the buildings in that area were planned after the Blitz. They had been constructed to meet the challenge of the Civic Circle, a project costing nearly £2,000,000 which when completed would incorporate three-quarters of a mile of dual carriageway.
The shopkeepers had co-operated in making their entrances on to the subway, and there was easy access to the Hole in the Road from the bus station at Pond Street and from car parks.
Alien in the 1960s but much in evidence during the ensuing years, down in the Hole were muggers, morning wine imbibers and graffiti artists.
For several weeks after the opening in 1967, one of the novelties of life down the Hole was the number of confused pedestrians trying to find their way out. Another was the frequency with which the escalators broke down.
In 1994 came the painful death of a good idea. The Hole in the Road had declined into a seedy, neglected and unwanted landmark. On Monday January 10, 1994 work started ‘to transform this sad and sorry remnant of 1960s architecture into a modern continental square’. The major engineering task was to ensure that the basements of shops which used to open into the Hole – such as C&A and House of Fraser – were properly sealed off and damp- proofed. Engineers would then reconstruct Castle Square and lay out Supertram rails as a final phase of an £800,000 project.
The last person used the Hole by mistake. Alan Betts was walking past the subway entrance on Arundel Gate when the barriers lifted for an historic photo call. He slipped past engineers and council officials to make his way down the slope. Martin Wilson, acting chief engineer from the council, raced in to rescue him.
A bemused Mr Betts confessed: ‘I was half asleep. I’ve only just got up’.
Coun Mike Buckley, chairman of the planning and economic development committee, said: ‘I’m not sorry to see the Hole in the Road go. It was something which was right for the time in the 60s and 70s but it was not appropriate for today’s demands.’
Over at Hyde Park in the early 1990s, the largest of the tower blocks, Block B, nicknamed ‘Alcatraz’ was also being demolished. The reasons behind this were many, including vandalism; continual break down of facilities; infestations of ants; and many other social problems.
Perhaps fittingly, more than 5,000 tons of rubble remains of Hyde Park bathrooms, kitchens, bedrooms were tipped into the Hole in the Road as foundations for a modern city square.
Thus, two of the architectural dreams of the 1960s which turned into nightmares just 30 years later were used to cancel each other out.