A comprehensive history of the infamous Hole in the Road; A lost icon of 1960s subterranean urban planning.
Branches of underpasses, converging into a space underneath a huge open motor roundabout. It doesn’t sound that appealing, does it?
However, the Castle Square roundabout — the ‘Hole in the Road’ — was just that. And Sheffielders still have an abiding fondness for it today.
Before the Hole in the Road: Sheffield’s Market Place
Since 1296, Castle Square was the site for Sheffield’s market place.
Even today, the broadly pedestrianised run of shops from above the entrance to Argos on Angel Street to above the Bankers Draft pub retains the original street name of Market Place.
In 1786 the markets mostly moved into Fitzalan Market Hall, which had been built on a section of the square. The market hall was demolished in 1930, subsequently ending over 600 years of market trading on the site.
(Fitzalan Market Hall stood on the plot later occupied by C&A, Primark and EasyHotel).
Much of the area was devastated by German bombers in 1940. Many of the plots around the square remained vacant for many years.
Numerous plans for the area were drafted — many aiming to prioritise the increasingly popular motor car in the city centre — beginning the lengthy process of designing what would become the Hole in the Road.
For some time a small, single-story run of ‘kabin’ shops stood on a massive expanse of concrete paving and planters. These would eventually be demolished to make way for better road connections and the large roundabout.
‘An underground city centre’
Castle Square roundabout was conceived to terminate the new Arundel Gate dual carriageway in the late 1960s. The flowing intersection would filter traffic to and from High Street, Angel Street and Commercial Street.
Underpasses were devised as a way for pedestrians to navigate on foot.
Ambitious plans would have had the subterranean precinct at the heart of a Japanese-style ‘underground town centre’.
A number of underpasses were built at various locations — notably further up High Street at the bottom of Fargate, with an entrance into Boots — but with planning for the Hole in the Road precinct having taken 20 years itself, the full dream was never realised.
Hole in the Road construction
The infamous Hole in the Road was eventually built in 1967. The main feature was a kind of giant oculus through a curved roof in the middle of the busy roundabout, exposing the underpass network.
Each fork of the concrete-walled underpass doubled up as little shop spaces (GT News, Thorntons Chocolates, Tobacconists), or entrances to street-level department stores (C&A, Walsh’s/House of Fraser).
Looking back, it felt a little like a small early forerunner to Meadowhall-type malls; but with more drunks and dodgy smells (especially around the stinky toilets)!
“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.”Jarvis Cocker, speaking to World of Interiors magazine
Disorientating for some people, the main area had a strange perspective once inside due to being built on a slope. The floor and roof angles never seemed to match, wherever you stood.
The near-brutalist structure didn’t date well either. Despite the nostalgia for it today, people relentlessly complained about it in its later years.
Pick up a bargain
Escalators and ramps from pavements at all four street-level corners descended into the giant space.
As well as the built-in shop spaces, you could often pick up The Star from a newspaper seller or have your shoes polished in the precinct.
Illegal traders would invariably be selling their wares. You’d see dozens of posters, dodgy leather jackets, cassettes and video tapes strewn across the floor. Lookouts kept watch in the middle to warn their friends at the first sighting of any police.
“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.”Jarvis Cocker, speaking to World of Interiors magazine
Giant hexagonal plant pots were eventually placed in the centre to displace the lookouts. This gave the brutalist concreted area some needed colour from the flowers and shrubs.
A massive Christmas tree was placed right in the middle each year. It reached high out of the overhead opening, making it visible to folk at street level too. Nobody ever seemed to see it being craned in, leading to annual conversations about how it possibly got there.
The infamous fish tank
Most who mention the Hole in the Road fondly remember the fish tank. A large glass panel featured on the wall at one edge, surrounded by kids who’d insisted their mums would let them stop to see the colourful fish swimming around.
It was often used as a bribe: “If you behave whilst shopping we can go see the fish”.
The fish tank also doubled as a meeting place for dates. Absolutely everyone knew what you meant when you said “Meet by the fish tank?” Bunches of awkwardly poised men would anxiously gather at 7pm each Friday and Saturday, awaiting their date.
“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.”Jarvis Cocker, speaking to World of Interiors magazine
The thick magnifying glass of the tank housed 2000 gallons of water. Up to 20 fish were contained, including carp, godfish, bream, rudds, roaches and more. The occupants were fed five times a week, eating up to a pint of maggots and bread in just two days.
The fish tank was planned to be a centrepiece for the opening of the Castle Square roundabout precinct. However, the tank was empty during the ceremony; the water not being ready to house the fish.
Relocating the fish
When the closure of the Hole in the Road complex was announced worries set in for the fish. A brief campaign to rehouse the fish tank at Ponds Forge failed. Other alternatives never came to light and the city centre lost the popular attraction.
The keeper at the time took the domestic fish home and released the wild contingent at his favourite fishing locations.
Closure and redevelopment
Plans to close the precinct began to formulate in the mid 1980s. Its fate was sealed in 1991 when an Act of Parliament approved plans for the Supertram network.
The Hole in the Road was filled in during 1994 to accommodate the Castle Square Supertram stop. Debris from the recently demolished Hyde Park and Kelvin Flats was used to fill the chasm.
Additional to Supertram platforms, Castle Square now houses a newsagent kiosk and small retail outlet at ground level. Several trees line the area where the roundabout was, adding a bit of greenery to the concrete surroundings.
Potential monorail landmark
Forerunning the Supertram network, earlier plans could have seen a city centre monorail system in Sheffield. The 1970s plans would have seen the minitram system running over the top of the roundabout, preserving the precinct below.
The Minister for Transport aborted the Minitram in Sheffield plans in 1975.
Spaced around the Castle Square site are several pieces of public art.
Four ‘Winged Lions’ (often mistaken for griffins) sit atop pillars at the High Street entry point from Arundel Gate, seemingly enforcing the bus gate.
These lions were cast from moulds of small stone statues that stood in the old Market Place in the 1960s. Originally, those statues were part of a wall around the base of Sheffield’s old Crimea Monument.
A pair of large gritstone ‘Fighting Rams’ sit nearby the Bankers Draft. Fighting Rams were created by sculptor Jonathan Cox during the 1995 Stone City Symposium.
Designer and Jeweller Brett Payne specially built a section of steel railings which encompass parts of the square. These were so liked that Payne was invited to design similar railings for nearby Angel Street when it was redeveloped two years later.
Brett Payne would later also have input on the stunning ‘Cutting Edge’ water feature in Sheaf Square.
The old Hole in the Road roundabout is represented by visible perfect circles paved into the ground. Of course, this can only be appreciated fully when observed from above.
In 2016, the University of Sheffield teamed up with creative agency Human to recreate the complex in Virtual Reality.
Visitors to Millennium Galleries during the city’s Festival of the Mind were treated to a computerised exploration of the Hole in the Road.
The virtual exhibition — some 22 years after the Hole in the Road was filled in — is testament to the fondness that remains for the landmark.
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