Lets face it, the thought of branches of underpasses converging into a space underneath a huge roundabout doesn’t sound that appealing does it?
But since Castle Square roundabout was redeveloped from just that into a tram stop in the early 1990s people have been pining for the infamous ‘Hole in the Road’ (‘Ole in t’road’); a kind of giant oculus through a curved roof in the middle of a busy roundabout exposing the underpass network.
‘An underground city centre’
Originally the site for Sheffield’s market place since 1296 (the broadly pedestrianised run of shops from above the entrance for Argos on Angel Street to above the Bankers Draft pub retains its original street name of Market Place) until expansion to the Fitzalan Market Hall (where EasyHotel now stands) and beyond, much of the area was devastated by German bombers in 1940.
After post-war clearing, a lot of the plots stood vacant for many years before being developed into vaguely what we see today. As well as the surrounding taller buildings a wide High Street ran up the hill from Commercial Street towards the Cathedral.
A small single-story run of ‘kabin’ shops stood on a massive expanse of concrete paving and planters, all of which were demolished to make way for better road connections and the large roundabout.
Castle Square was conceived to terminate the new Arundel Gate dual carriageway that came in the late 1960s, filtering traffic to and from High Street, Angel Street and Commercial Street.
Ambitious plans would have had the subterranean precinct at the heart of a Japanese-style ‘underground town centre’, and 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.
Eventually built in 1967, each fork of the concrete-walled underpass network doubled up as little shop spaces (GT News, Thorntons, Tobacconists) or entrances to street-level department stores (C&A, Walsh’s/House of Fraser), making it feel a little like a small early forerunner to Meadowhall-type malls; but with more drunks and dodgy smells (especially around the stinky toilets)!
Despite the nostalgia for it, should the hole in the road have still existed today people would probably relentlessly complain about the area, much like they did in later years when it was open.
Pick up a bargain
Escalators and ramps from pavements at all four street-level corners overlooking the roundabout descended into the giant space, which had a strange perspective once inside due to being built on a slope.
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 roundabout space.
Illegal traders would invariably be selling their wares, setting down dozens of posters, dodgy leather jackets and jeans or cassettes and video tapes across the floor. Lookouts would stand right in the middle, glancing across the tunnels ready to warn their friends at the first sighting of any police.
Giant hexagonal plant pots were eventually placed in the centre to displace the lookouts and give the area some colour from the flowers and shrubs.
At christmas a massive tree was placed right in the middle which reached up and out of the overhead opening, making it visible to passing vehicles at street level too. Nobody ever seemed to see it being craned in and so it would lead to long conversations about how it could possibly have been put there.
The infamous fish tank
Most who mention the iconic landmark remember the fish tank. This large glass panel featured on one of the walls and kids would insist on their mums letting them stop to watch the colourful fish swimming around (often used as a bribe: “if you behave whilst shopping we can go and see the fish”).
It also doubled as a familiar meeting place for dates as absolutely everyone knew what you meant when you said “Meet by the fish tank?”
The thick magnifying glass of the tank housed 2000 gallons of water and contained up to 20 fish, including carp, goldfish, 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.
Despite being a planned centrepiece to the opening of the Castle Square roundabout precinct, and the plaque for the opening being placed close by, the fish tank had an inauspicious start; being empty during the ceremony due to the water not being ready for the fish.
When the closure of the Hole in the Road complex was announced a brief campaign to rehouse the fish tank at Ponds Forge International Sports Centre 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.
Jarvis Cocker’s inspiration
In a piece for the ‘World of Interiors’ magazine, Sheffield singer/songwriter Jarvis Cocker talked about the landmark when asked about places that inspired him, saying: "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."
The Pulp singer continued: "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.”
Castle Square tram stop
The Hole in the Road was filled in during 1994, apparently using debris from the former Hyde Park and Kelvin flats, to accommodate the current street level Supertram Castle Square stop.
Rumour mongers insist that the basic structure of the underpasses still exists in some form. If that particular urban legend is true (very doubtful) then I’m appealing to the council or whoever to let me in with my camera, just for a short time… Please!
Forerunning the tram network, plans in the 1970s would have seen a city-centre monorail/minitram system run over the top of roundabout, preserving the precinct below. Such plans were aborted by the Minister for Transport in 1975.
As well as the Supertram stops (one of only three that carry all major tram service lines in the city), Castle Square now houses a GT News kiosk as well as a small retail outlet at ground level. Several trees line the area where the roundabout was, adding a bit of greenery to the concrete surroundings.
Several pieces of public art are spaced around the area of the Castle Square site.
Four winged lions sit atop pillars around the Arundel Gate and High Street access points. Often mistaken for 'griffins', these versions were cast from moulds of small stone statues that originally stood on a wall around the base of Sheffield's old Crimea Monument. Those statues were once relocated to the old Market Place around the early 1960s, making the current incarnations an apt 'return' to the same site.
A pair of large gritstone 'Fighting Rams', created during the 1995 'Stone City Symposium' event by sculptor Jonathan Cox, sit outside the Bankers Draft.
Specially built steel railings, designed by jeweller Brett Payne (who later also had input into the design for the popular 'Cutting Edge' water feature in Sheaf Square) were built around parts of the new square. These were deemed so successful that Payne was invited to design similar railings for the adjacent Angel Street area when it was redeveloped two years later.
In aerial photographs of the site now, the former Hole in the Road roundabout is represented by visible perfect circles paved in the ground.
A version of this article was originally written for and published at Social Sheffield / We Love Sheffield magazine.
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