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Winter Garden, Sheffield - Let there be light

Gareth Gardner, Civic Focus

Let there be light

A school party scampers among tree ferns, and excited children prod a palm tree. Benches are full to capacity with pensioners enjoying the winter sunshine and office workers munching on sandwiches. Sheffield's Winter Garden really comes into its own between October and April as a temperate indoor park, a respite from rain, snow and frost.

The 70m-long, 22m-high glasshouse, designed by Pringle, Richards, Sharratt Architects, was built on the site of a I960s extension to the Victorian town hall It celebrated its first birthday just before Christmas and has attracted well over one million visitors.

Along with the adjoining Millennium Galleries, it forms the centrepiece of Sheffield's ambitious £ 120 million 'Heart of the City' regeneration project. The building itself has attracted many plaudits, thanks to its innovative timber structure and soaring glazed arches.

Yet there is still much work to be done. A four-star hotel being built between the Winter Garden and town hall will link to a new pedestrian route through the Millennium Galleries to the railway station. And a brand new public space - Millennium Square - is to be created on what is currently a car park at one end of the Winter Gardens.

Urban regeneration company Sheffield one has drawn up a masterplan for the city centre which includes an e-campus, restoration of the listed I96os housing development Park Hill, and a brand new £400 million retail quarter.

The Winter Garden is a glittering beacon for this seemingly brighter future. It has already been nominated for a 2004 Civic Trust Award.

As the garden enters its second year, has it fulfilled its promise as an uplifting retreat from the British climate? We went along one sunny lunchtime to ask visitors and workers to give their opinion.

Mark Dennis, city ambassador

I do an hour at the Winter Garden and then swap with another ambassador, and go out and about in the city centre. It gets too hot in the summer, but it's very nice and warm to come into when it's cold outside. I think it's a fabulous building, with all the wood.

Sisters Dorothy Cam, Sheila Bray and Joyce Kemp:

Joyce: We're in here having five minutes. It's somewhere nice to sit out of the weather. But I keep thinking 'Is this it? I thought it would be bigger.

Sheila: I've been several times. I see it as a haven, a place to meet friends.

Gareth James, Viv Roberts and baby Nia

Gareth: The impressive, but a little bit underwhelming when you come in. The waterfalls could be ten times bigger. But it smells clean in here. And you don't get market researchers, so you don't get hassled.

Viv: I like the wooden arches, but the interior is a bit of a let down. I suppose it will be nicer when the plants grow. The floors already look a bit dirty. It looks a bit like corners have been cut.

Martin Walker, Crazy Cactus Company

This shop has been here since the Winter Garden opened and you get very knowledgeable people coming in. It's a marvellous building to work in, it reminds me of a cathedral. Being among all these plants is very relaxing. It's a tropical paradise.

Stuart Shepherd, horticulturalist and daughter Clare

Stuart: This is a very impressive collection. The building reminds me of an upturned boat, it's airy and spacious. I used to live in Sheffield in the 1980s and the centre has really changed for the better. It's certainly cleaner.

Vivien Chaplin, home carer; Marylin Phillips, hairdresser

Vivien: It's the first time I've been here. It could do with being a bit bigger.

Marylin: It's lovely. Sometimes I bring friends in here, but sometimes you can't get a seat. It has boosted Sheffield's profile and is bringing people back to the city.

© Civic Focus 2003