Residual Jungles #2 - The Hole in the Road

by Ian Trowell - National Fairground Archive

'The Hole in the Road' became part of Sheffield folklore from its construction in 1967 to its demolition in 1994. Its 27 year history saw it as memorable facet of the city for a variety of reasons that merged together in a loose fashion. As a 'residual jungle', the inclusion of a large and solitary fish tank was part of the allure of the underground structure. This seemingly out-of-time, disjointed and somewhat paltry example of aquatic exhibition then intersected with another latter-day 'menagerie' - the strutting and claiming territory of the 1970s and 1980s youth and music movements.

Photo: Hole in the Road
The subterranean utopia of the Hole in the Road (Sheffield History Forum).

A hole in a road

The Hole in the Road was officially known as Castle Square when it opened its subterranean passageways in November 1967. The Sheffield Star reports a cost of 240,000 with a long-running 20 years of planning. The opening speech talks of the Hole in the Road being the initial part of plans for traffic and pedestrian segregation all the way from "Hyde Park Flats to Lansdowne Flats". A sense of realism is then removed from the proceedings with talk of Sheffield becoming a Japanese style "underground town". Its design, scope and scale was not overly revolutionary, but it quickly gained a place in the hearts of Sheffield people. The simple construction consisted of pedestrian ramps and escalators leading to a selection of underground 'stand-alone' small shops and franchises alongside underground access points to some of the larger department stores resident on the above-ground road junction. Research from the 'Sheffield History Forum' lists the memorable contents of this inner-city bunker as follows:

"A shoe repair shop, an entrance to Yorkshire Electricity, an underground entrance to C&A, tobacconist, sandwich shop, people who used to sell posters (laying them on the floor either round the edge or in the middle near the plants), stinky toilets, the fish tank, the Escalators taking you down, South Yorkshire transport office (timetables), the small island of plants right in the middle, Instant Images, SWFC Kabin, an entrance to Bunker and Pratley's TV shop, Tandys, Decor8 paint shop"

Sheffield musician and writer Jarvis Cocker recalls the Hole in the Road in 'Three Things Which Have Inspired Me' from 'Interior World', a supplement to 'World of Interiors Magazine', January 2000:

"The Hole in the Road, or Castle Square as it was officially known, was a kind of sunken pedestrian precinct in Sheffield city centre. One of my earliest memories is of being taken there as a young child to look at the fish tank that was set into one wall, as a reward for not causing too much trouble during a shopping expedition. When it was first built I guess it was seen as a symbol of Sheffield's determination to be a 'City of the Future', but it soon became the favourite hang-out of the local wino population. They would occupy the long curved benches that ran around the circumference of the building leaving little or no room for weary shoppers. In the early Eighties the council got sick of this and so sawed these benches down during the night, leaving minuscule three-seater jobs at each entrance. I still remember the scene the next day when all the drinkers turned up as usual only to find that their natural habitat had been destroyed during the night. They stood around scratching their heads bewilderedly for a while - and then moved into the Peace Gardens up the road."

"The Hole in the Road also had a reputation for late-night violence which made it a scary place to walk home through in the early hours - and this was not helped at all by the fact that the building's construction gave rise to an effect similar to that of the Whispering Gallery in St Paul's Cathedral - meaning that it was extremely difficult to work out where any menacing noises were coming from."

"Despite all this, the Hole in the Road was one of my favourite places in Sheffield and I would always show it to any out-of-town visitors. I was dismayed when it was knocked down and filled in, in the early 90s. When I go back to Sheffield and see the mini-roundabout that now occupies its space I always find myself thinking about the fish in the fish tank and what happened to them - or whether they're still down there in the dark; wondering where all the people have gone."

Photo: Hole in the Road
The city in motion? (Sheffield History Forum).

Punk historian and local author Tony Beesley also has a strong attraction to the Hole in the Road, lamenting its original purpose as "the symbol of a city in motion". However, as an outsider visiting (and eventually moving to) Sheffield at the start of the 1980s the best motion through the Hole in Road was usually as quick as possible if you wanted to avoid the general decay of artifice and array of tramps either arguing or comatose - though there was always one resident who seemed to achieve a blend between busking and begging with various hand-written signs giving horoscopes and weather forecasts.

The fish tank

The Hole in the Road had a single fish-tank, seemingly not affiliated to any particular shop and without signage or circumstance. It was just built in to the side of a wall, with that thick distorting glass common to many aquatic display units giving you a sense of uncertainty as to how large the tank actually was.

The fish-tank was built as part of the project and was marketed as a centrepiece to the occasion. The plaque commemorating the opening of the Hole in the Road was alongside the tank. The opening reports from the Sheffield Star suggest that the aquarium cost 2000 and was the biggest tank in the UK outside of examples in London and Belle Vue zoos. Mr John Mitchell, a local aquarist, is named as the man in charge of the tank. Things don't get off to an ideal start for the opening ceremony as there are no fish in the tank, the water and grounding not being settled. This is in part due to a design fault - the tank has a stealthy access point for feeding and stocking, however the base of the tank cannot be reached from the cramped confines of the access space without the attendant physically having to get inside the tank, water and all.

Aquatic displays were common from Victorian times, and remain in key seaside locations (such as Blackpool Tower) as well as in surviving in smaller locations such as the original aquarium at Matlock Bath. Exhibition of aquatic specimens has always been a popular and intriguing spectacle, remaining to date with large modernised centres such as 'The Deep' in Hull along with recent interests in phenomenon such as 'Paul the Psychic Octopus' who kept nations enthralled when the football went into decline during the 2010 World Cup tournament. Whilst there is an educational and spectacular (in terms of colour) aspect to aquatic exhibitions, there is also a strange attraction to weird, over-sized, unknown, ugly and slightly dangerous world of what lurks in the deepest oceans.

The Hole in the Road fish-tank didn't aspire to anything more than what the actual Hole itself aspired to. Something of little thought that was easy on the eye. A passing moment. A place to park the pushchair and get a minute's sanity. There were no frightening eels or unclassifiable crustaceans, just fish - common breeds on the whole - moving backwards and forwards.

Photo: Hole in the Road
The fish tank (Sheffield History Forum).

The late Kenneth Cornthwaite took responsibility to look after the fish-tank well before Cameron and Clegg's 'Big Society' ideal. As a fish-fancier he had been concerned at the apparent disregard of the tank in the 1980s and wrote to the council to express his dismay, being offered a job to care for the fish and their environment until the closure of the Hole in 1994. His sister Kath has kindly passed on some proud facts of the operation: the tank held 2,000 gallons of water and contained about 19 fish including 2 rudd, 2 roach, 3 goldfish (one of them a 18 year old silver one), 2 crusian carp, 2 bream (one bronze and one silver), a chub, a dace, a golden rudd, an orfe, a tench and a koi carp. They were fed five times a week and would devour a pint of maggots and bread in two days.

The big question for many Sheffielders is what happened when the tank closed (assuming Jarvis' suggestion of it still being down there isn't true) and Kath gives an answer here: "Half of the fish belonged to the attendant so on the day of reckoning the wild fish were let into the rivers of the keeper's favourite fishing spots and the domestic fish he took back home with him to his own tank. It was suggested to have them on show at the Ponds Forge Leisure Centre but the council at the time didn't seem too willing and a little dark corner out of the way in the Centre was offered but alas it never happened."

Peacocks, punks and menageries

The Hole in the Road is mentioned as a possible gathering point for the myriad musical tribes that flourished through the 1970s and 1980s. Tony Beesley, as a young punk, recalls a large gathering of mods and a running skirmish (well, more just a running) at the sight of some old rockers. From the 1970s onwards musical cults began to diversify and engage in tribal and ritual 'battles'. Territory was sought within the city centres, prime gathering spots to initially meet and talk, to pose and preen, and eventually to defend or attack as the 'rules of engagement' dictated. The Hole in the Road was the ideal place to act out fantasy inter-cultural conflicts.

Youth cults became attached to music, with icons from the scene cascading down fashion styles, clothing, hairstyles, looks and gestures. Whilst, at a very basic level, youth cults by their very virtue are out to shock the generation above, their rivalry fed the cult at various levels - to add an element of excitement to the engagement in the 'scene' and to further shock the generation above by having such a propensity for violence and intolerance (of other cults). The cultural strategist Malcolm McLaren was using the fashion and tailoring talents of Vivienne Westwood to tailor a look to deliberately antagonise the (in his eyes) archaic 'teddy boys' of London. Westwood and McLaren 'detourned' the iconic codes of the rocker scene and cross-pollinated it with couture ephemera from the sex and bondage scenes, picking up waspish or effeminate dandies to model the look. Punk was born as much as a continuation in stirring up cultural conflict as it was in supposedly being about something new.

Photo: X Clothes
X Clothes cultural identities on display.

Photo: X Clothes
The opening of the Sheffield shop.

From the late 1970s and the birth of punk the gloves were off regarding the antagonistic co-existence of competing scenes. Youth scenes affiliated to music movements began to diversify and declare war on each other. The commercial forces in the music and entertainments industry around post-punk and new wave dictated the fractionalisation of identities into new codes with the visually-led dressing up scenes such as the new romantic movement. The arrival of the shop X Clothes in Sheffield at the start of the 1980s saw the culmination of this process, allowing the music and fashion scenes to nourish a finely honed sense of identity nurtured in fledgling style magazines such as i-D and The Face. X Clothes, originating in Leeds and spreading to Manchester and Sheffield, worked on the dandyish and finely detailed boundaries between style cults. X Clothes, after operating on Leopold Street for a few years, moved premises to 17 Market Place (above Angel Street) and, until its closure at the end of the decade, kept watch over the Hole in the Road.

Style tribes, suitably kitted out, thus marked out spaces in the city centre, mixing the parading ground mentality of the menagerie with the overblown and performance-heavy rituals of jungle law. This process continues apace to date. A rebirth in the spectrum of scenes in the late 2000s has seen cities such as Sheffield delineated and striated with new cultural geographies. Viewing and preening interact, performance becomes perfected and predominant, just as in Bostock's time.

Photo: X Clothes
Variety in identity.