The tunnel changed shape and size several times, marking different eras of construction of the culvert. All were stone or brickwork. Above, Sheaf Street followed our exact route; most of the street had been laid directly over the culvert. Close to the Don, we were now in an older area of the city, where some of the first millponds had been. Appropriately, the neighborhood that was above us is named Pond Hill, and nearby is Pond Street.
The tunnels under Pond Hill were the largest we’d yet seen, and they were made of finished stone instead of the rough blocks we’d seen earlier. I estimated that the arched channels are about twenty feet high. The Brobdingnagian proportions seemed ludicrous when compared with the twelve-inch-deep stream that flowed past our boots. Incredibly, the tunnel expanded again as we came into sight of the outlet to the River Don: a truly vast chamber, with an arched ceiling that made me think of being in a cathedral or a stadium. I later found out that the masonry arch that loomed over us had originally been the Canal Bridge, which had connected the city center (just to the west of the Sheaf) to the Sheffield Canal basin (just to the east of the Sheaf).
The water has not always been so low. On the night of March 11th, 1864, heavy rains caused Sheffield’s new water-supply dam to break a few miles east of town. Nearly three million tons of water roared down the Loxley River valley, into the Don, and through the center of town. Between 240 and 290 people were killed. The London Times reported that sleeping residents were drowned “like rats in a hole.” The water was high enough near the mouth of the Sheaf (where it connects with the Don) that children were drowned in their second-story bedrooms, and the next day corpses were found stuck in a tree and lodged at the top of a haystack.
Maybe this had been on the mind of the builders of the tunnel when they made it so grand. In fact, the Sheaf has continued to flood occasionally, and in sections where its channel is not quite as large, it has burst its banks and flooded nearby areas. Just a few months prior to our visit, on June 25, 2007, heavy rains had caused both the Sheaf and the Don to swell over their banks; a 13-year old boy was wept away and drowned by the Sheaf.
The River Don was the end of our journey, and we climbed along the waterline and up the riverbank, streaming water. I was happy that we’d come out here; just about where we climbed up the riverbank, I knew, there had once been the clearing that gave Sheffield its name—a field along the Sheaf (or Shef) River, where a Saxon village developed. After the Norman conquest of 1066 AD, a castle had been built on the same spot, and just as the Sheaf is below the contemporary city, fragments of the old castle still exist beneath today’s Castle Market.
In fact Sheffield history can be traced back much further even than that. The very oldest evidence of human-built dwellings in England—remnants of a hut from 10,000 years ago—was discovered in a region in northern Sheffield. The residents of these earliest built structures doubtless drank and fished in these same rivers and streams, and perhaps it would be possible find out enough to determine just how their community interacted with rivers and other still-extant parts of their environment. But I was satisfied already. The River Sheaf has flowed through all of Sheffield’s history, and with it as a connecting thread we had already explored nearly a thousand years of the city’s past. That’s plenty for one day. We packed up our gear and set off to walk back to the car—aboveground, and fully in the present.