Friday, January 22, 2010

The rotting corpse of Psalter Lane

Psalter Lane Art College is dead. Once a jewel in Sheffield's crown, a magnet for would be artists, designers, jewellery makers and film directors from all over Britain, it was swallowed up by Sheffield Poly, soon to become Sheffield Hallam University who took the decision, in 2008, to close it.

And close it they did. After years of rumours that its demise was imminent, it finally shut its doors in the summer. A skeleton of staff stayed on, moving stuff out for re-use down at the City Campus, tidying up admin loose ends until finally, in early September, the last handful of people walked out and the doors closed for the final and time. Contractors came and cut off the water and gas, though electricity remains for now.

With the removal of water and gas, the heating system, which for decades had kept the leaky buildings warm and dry, was dead. The interiors cooled down slowly, and the persistent, encroaching moisture, damp and drips from leaky rooves found itself unopposed.

So what is Psalter Lane like now? If you love the place, have fond memories of it, and decry the way it's been cast aside by the overlords of Hallam Uni, you may find some of these scenes distressing.

In late October, I had to pay a visit to the site, to inspect it and assess the risk of a fire being started there by arsonists (ie. kids who might break in). I visited all the buildings, alone, wandering through the deserted rooms and corridors. It was a weird and unsettling trip. Glad I wasn't on acid. Or am I?

I arrived just as it began to rain, on a chilly, damp afternoon, a truly leaden sky setting the tone. The two on-site security guards greeted me and let me in. They 'live' in the old caretaker's house at the back of the site. The main buildings are empty and silent.

To begin, I had a walk around the exterior, looking for obvious ways in. A few months ago, you were hard pressed to get a parking spot on the car park. Now, it lay empty, but for a few vans belonging to asbestos contractors working in the old substation on the edge of the car park

Click on the pics to see a full-sized image (they all look better full size)

Below: A Block, the orginal art college, empty for the first time in 150 years...
A Block in the rain

Below: B Block, home of the graphic designers and woodworking workshops...
B Block

Below: The car park is piled with rubbish and discarded furniture. A bonfire in the making...
A Block and rubbish

Wandering around out on the open car park is eerie enough, but go round the back of the buildings and the sense of abandonment is worse, palpable. Nature, always on hand to exploit a loophole, is already seeming to dance amongst the stone and concrete.

Below: Behind A Block, vegetation running riot...
Behind A Block, colours changed

Below: a fungus, feeding on the damp wood of the fire door at rear of A Block...
Fungus on A Block fire door

...weeds gain a foothold next to a Victorian drain cover...
A Block Victorian drain cover

Below: The path between E Block and A Block, strewn with rotting furniture...
Rubbish at back of A Block mono

Below: The industrial, functional things, machinery, ventilation systems, which were humming with power until recently, suddenly look rusty and dilapidated...
B Block LEV filter

C Block roof

Other industrial relics remain of a more remote past: old electrical insulators on the wall...
Old insulators, A Block

Below: rear of C Block, a fine piece of 1970s neo-brutalism...
C Block, rear view

Below: In places, even outside, you come across abandoned student artwork. The wooden frame is part of the 'Trebushed', a garden shed which converted into a working mediaeval siege engine
(trebuchet), which was a 2008 final year degree piece...
Behind H Block

It isn't just the old buildings which raise ghosts, real or imagined. Some of the external areas, particularly in that leaden Autumn weather, put me in mind of the sort of place you'd expect to stumble upon the speech-denyingly horrific scene of some child-murder, cold flesh and clothes scattered amidst the muddy leaves behind the concealing buildings.

Below: back of G Block...
Back of G Block

Below: The windows of C Block staircase from outside, looking up...
C Block staircase windows

In places, the drab greyness and air of silent emptiness is lightened, as here, by splashes of paint on a wooden door, a relic of a day when some art student leaned a board up against the door and splashed paint on it, Pollock-style, the paint now accompanied by the sucker roots of ivy tendrils...
B Block old door

Other colour comes from more industrial sources...
Discarded gas cylinders behind C Block

B Block LEV Filter

Below: the gnarled Victorian stonework looks old...
A Block wall

Scrollwork, A Block doorway (mono)

A Block memorial plaque

...but the 1970s concrete of C Block also now shows the scars and stains of its life...
C Block, front

C Block
windows, clouded and opaque like the eyes of dead fish...
C Block dirty windows

Below: E and D Blocks, and the 'quadrangle'...
E and D Blocks

...and a close-up of the rear entrance to E Block, once a smoker's haunt, now just haunted...
Back entrance, E Block #1

Rain on the roof...
Wet roof, C Block

Having wandered round the site, I was amazed at just how...dead it all seemed. I was used to it being such a vibrant place, a place I always looked forward to visiting. Now, it was like looking at the corpse of a dead family member. It resembled the place I knew so well, but was cold and silent.

I spent nearly an hour walking around outside, and time was moving on. I had to get inside and do my tour before darkness came. The main entrance was still decorated with the remnants of the big party which took place there back in summer, now like the xmas decorations in mid-January.

Below: Kid Acne's mural and farewell message, painted over the main entrance for the leaving party in June...

Kid Acne's farewell

I went in, chatted to the friendly security staff, who'd opened up for me, and then I began my walk-round, alone in the echoing winter gloom of the deserted rooms and corridors.

I began with A Block, the old Victorian building which, being Grade 2 listed, will not be demolished. It used to host the library, the film theatre and a series of offices. Unfortunately the camera malfunctioned in this section so I didn't get all the pictures I wanted. I got no pics of the huge expanse of the deserted library, or the attic, which is every inch the attic in the horror short 'Drip' (see my earlier blog entry). The splendour of the Victorian rooms still peeked through the more modern imposition of the office environment, and being able to see the rooms stripped of their 21st century accoutrements was edifying. One thing which struck me was how much stuff had been left behind. Office furniture, stationery, personal nick-nacks, the place was far from being truly empty. It was as if people had left in a hurry, grabbing what they could along the way.

Empty office safes, A Block

Computers in empty office, A Block

The other thing was the total silence. It was quiet outside, but no sound penetrated in here. I could hear every thump of my heart, and it was almost a relief when I entered a back room to be faced with a bank of still live telecoms routers, all flashing LEDs and humming relays. It was like finding life on Mars. Outside that room, there was a post-apocalyptic feel about the place, as if everyone had fled in the face of a zombie army or a plague of Black Death proportions.

A Block dark corridor

The empty offices were unnerving, but the library was worse. Ever played any of the 'Silent Hill' computer games? The library was like being in a real-life version. I expected to be menaced any moment by split-headed dogs or lumbering mutants. What made it all the more poignant were the messages which departed staff had scrawled on the walls, the day they left...

Below: Click on the images to enlarge and read the scrawled messages...
A Block goodbye message

A Block goodbye message

A Block goodbye message

A Block goodbye message

A Block goodbye message

A Block goodbye message

A Block goodbye message

My camera malfunctioned here, in the ground floor library, so I couldn't get any pics of the upstairs. I just continued my fire safety inspection. Eventually however, I fiddled with the camera and managed to get it working again, just in time to enter C Block, the former home of the fine artists. A lot of the bigger degree pieces from 2008 were still in situ, but the encroaching damp, leaky ceilings and bone-chilling, grave-like cold, were causing the hardwood parquet floors to swell and rise up in wooden billows, artificial waves breaking into pixellations of collapsed blocks.

Below: room 302, Heath Robinson guttering rigged to try and divert roof leaks out through the open window. Parquet floors destroyed by the wet...
C Block studio

Below: room 306 looking much as it did at the degree show in June, except for the erupting floor...
C Block studio, leftover art

Below: student artwork in room 304...
Love Chair, C Block

...and in 401A...
Paint on white wall, adjusted, C Block

In fact, C Block struck me, more than the other blocks, as almost a giant artwork in progress, commenting on decay, the disappearance of humanity, fear and isolation, loads of different themes, left behind by previous tenants or created by the new situation. It has to be experienced by walking around in there alone, but it speaks to you, in dozens of different voices all at once.

Below: series of pics of level 2 corridor, C Block...
C Block corridor

C Block corridor

The Level 2 corridor, with the familiar painted corner visible at the end...
C Block corridor

Below: Level 2 corridor; dark and totally silent...
C Block, deserted corridor

Below: a piece of artwork in a room on Level 1...
2008 degree work, left behind, C Block

Below: the 'painted corner' on the C Block stairs...
C Block stairs

From inside the building, the grimy windows offer new perspectives on parts of the outside...
Duct, C Block, through window, mono

From C Block, so familiar to me, I wandered through the basement studios and into D Block, former home of Metalwork and Jewellery, a single storey, one corridor building running between C Block and E Block, which used to be Printing and Photography. This section was particularly spooky. One of the security staff, a big bloke we'll call 'Bill' (because that's his name), swore he saw "something" moving across the landing of E Block stairs, as he came round the corner of the darkened D Block corridor at the stair foot. A pale mist or vague shape, it was enough (he said) to make him run back down the corridor to C Block and the main entrance. This was in my mind as I ventured into the rooms of D Block. I don't believe in ghosts, but isolation and silence, in an environment of empty rooms and silent corridors, can exert a malign influence on your imagination. I felt watched, though whether it was ghosts or just the place itself, I can't say.

Below: out back of C Block
Outside rear entrance to C Block

Below: abandoned casting furnace, C Block
C Block basement casting furnace

Below: the courtyard between C and E Blocks
Back entrance, E Block #1

Below: a thing in a cupboard, C Block basement.
Thing in cupboard, C Block

Below: Mr Wilson
Abandoned art, C Block basement

Wall art, C Block basement

Below: left behind paintings display to spiders and silence
Abandoned art, C Block basement

Below: The abandoned woodworking machine shops, C Block
Deserted workshop, C Block basement

Below: oh! Graffiti in C Block basement
Abandoned art, C Block

Below: This huge composite portrait dominates the wall of one of the C Block studios, even now, nearly 2 years later
2008 degree work, C Block studios

Below: clay head, suitably outraged at the closure
Clay head, C Block basement

Below:Staircase windows in C Block
Window art, C Block

Below: C Block studio art
C Block studios

Leftover art, C Block studio

Below: C Block studios
2008 Degree show mural, C Block

2008 degree work, abandoned, C Block

C Block studio

Broken wood

Mural art detail, C Block

Gold mural, C Block studio

Below: Where are they now?
2008 degree work, C Block


Below: abandoned workbenches, with Record vices still attached
C Block basement workshop

Below:Great Cthulhu waits, and dreams, in sunken C Block
C Block, deserted workshop

D Block, the old Metalwork and Jewellery Department, ws utterly silent. The drip of a tap would have been a hammer blow there. You held your breath walking through, because the sound that came back from the cold walls was unpleasant.

Below: abandoned office, stripped of all but a chair
C Block, deserted workshop

Moving into E Block, past the spooky, darkrooms, the print area seemed light and warm and full of sunbeams. Screen printing equipment lay untouched, destined for the skip, including the beautiful Victorian press (below).
E Block printing presses

B Block was creepy. Upstairs, the gloom of the dusk was seeping in like water and horror lurked around every corner until, suddenly, a beam of gold sunlight broke through the slaty sky and the dirty windows (below)
Shaft of sunlight in gloomy office, B Block

Below: deserted workshops in B Block
Abandoned workbenches, B Block

B Block workshops

Abandoned benches, B Block

B Block woodworking

B Block workshops

equipment left behind in B Block

Below: The Sentinel
The lonely sentinel

Update: It is now January 2010. Psalter Lane has been dead for 18 months. Over the past few weeks, a company have been employed by the university to remove all non-fixed items from the buildings. So that means that everything you see in these photos; all the benches, furniture, artwork, tools, everything that isn't bolted down, has been taken, most of it skipped, broken and nor lost forever. Most of it I guess isn't important, but what of the old victorian press in E Block? Sledgehammered to manageable chunks of cast iron and weighed in as scrap? Probably. [May 2010 update: yes it was]

Over the Yuletide holidays, a gang of people who knew exactly what they were doing broke into the buildings and methodically stripped it of lead and copper and anything else of use or value. The on-site security presumably slept through it. Is it any different to the methodical stripping-out already described? Other than sanction, I don't see much, and at least those removing the scrap metals were making some use of their spoils, not just breaking, burning or burying them.

In March, demolition contractors move in. Everything will be gone, except A Block, the original college building. I might have a chance to get on site before that happens. If I do, I'll try and take some photos.


  1. I woke up in quite an optimistic mood this morning...
    This but the tin hat on it though...
    I tell ya...
    The world is run by palistines who know the price of everything and the value of nowt...


  2. Anonymous1:22 PM

    ALthough I am now in tears, thank you for taking the time and caring about PL.
    I've not even been past it since it closed and i'm not sure I could go near it now and not be 'on my way to work'.
    It has been a major part of my life, and now 18 months later the sadness is still as raw as the day we found out they were closing us down.

  3. So Lovecraft moved the dark Source of time between the the Slaughter House and space of fiction. Between English lessons and the Slush Bucket - kitchen effluent - were fat spattered navy-blue uniforms. Those blazers, badges, Oxford bags, six buttons high - its over, well over. You tell me, try sell me... a distant past... -
    They, we, tear down the past - broken promises - neuropathic memory. Not just the Mandarins, but us all complicit - ticking away - in amnesia. Oscar, fried snails, french kissing in the school hall, fear of intimacy, sexy teacher in knee boots, railway club; lost. Lost.
    So Trev, brave as ever, you offer salutary warning through words and images - ever your strength - to be heeded. All Praise Night.

  4. Her face, at first just ghostly,
    Turned a whiter shade of pale...

    Poignant words and images; laden with honest nostalgia.

  5. Thank you for taking the time to do this. I was at Psalter Lane from 1971 to 1975 and it has always been the happiest time of my life - so sad to see it trashed like this.
    The modern world can be a bugger sometimes!

  6. Anonymous10:11 AM

    Interesting set of photos - as someone who knew PL but not very well. Amazed so much still left behind there, and not sure why the comms are still operating??

  7. Anonymous10:27 PM

    Chris, sorry brian. you have take some great pic's mate. but i'm so sad that its over with. i was a student in psalter's last year doing metalwork and jewellery. It pisses me off to see such a waste of a fantastic building. the atmosphere there was so unique that it can't be replaced by the city campus. the indivuality that the students had at psalter has been bypassed by a lack of moral in the new buildings the design students have move to and speaking from experience as i am still at the shitty campus, sterile and uninspiring... ALL HALE THE PSALTER.... Pongo

  8. Thanks everyone. I may be going there again soon, so I'll maybe have the chance to photograph what's left and break a few more hearts.
    gtvrxb18, OK I give in, which one are you? And wasn't it the grease bucket? Time oxford bags made a comeback I say. They all do, sooner or later.

  9. Carrie4:08 PM

    My work, my precious work, I didn't even know I'd left that stuff, what a turd.

  10. Carrie, which work in the pics was yours? There's a slim chance it might not be lost :-)

  11. suzanne2:35 PM

    thank you for these. i was there doing Silversmithing & Jewellery '79-82 and then again in '97-2000 for MA. it was so comforting going back and seeing such familiar things...and staff! it was a brilliant place to be a student and small enough for all courses to mix well. i have so many great friends from those days and facebook has brought up lots of great photo's.
    i think the party was poorly organised/advertised and a lot of people missed it. a sad evening.
    my daughters are both now in Sheaf and there is no soul or heart to their world down there. the refectory, bar (and even the tv room!) kept us going! we were surrounded by visual stimuli from all subject areas(inside and outside) and lived in tree lined streets. their world is sterile and urban and strangely insular.

  12. Anonymous1:06 PM

    Hi Brian
    just wanted to say a big thanks for posting the photos of Psalter Lane. I was a student there in 1979 onwards and it was a fantastically vibrant place to study. I was unaware it has closed as I now live and paint in Cornwall. Wad just researching it for a piece I'm doing and came across your work. Incredibly sad, it holds such a special place for me, along with other places in Sheffield which are long gone, the Wapentake, the penthouse, student flats of despair in nether edge, weird but very poignant, thank you so much

  13. I am equally fascinated and traumatised by abandoned and derelict places. We were talking about university today and it's crazy I didn't think to search til now. This one is especially awful as I get the sense the majority didn't get a say and the majority would've loved to see Psalter busy and thriving today. It wasn't my campus but I spent time in the library cos they had the best VHSs and The Wham Bar was ace. Did you manage to get in there at all? What happened to th Human League plaque? Anyway, thank you for this caring piece on a very important place.

  14. Lary,

    The Wham bar was converted ito a pc room years ago. I did get in but there was nothing worth photographing. I don't know what happened to the Human league plaque, but someone removed it. I would have if it had still been there. My wife, Jude Calvert-Toulmin, was a student there in 1979 (i think) and she was very upset to see it like this too.

  15. wow thanks Brian!

    I was at Psalter Lane doing Media Production 2005-2008 and loved the place, I even did my final project on the campus and it's history.

    I haven't been past since..what's the state of play now anyone, it all still empty and desolate..or is it flats?

  16. Hello Brian

    Many thanks for this poignant, spooky post. I was at PL for three years, 1988-91 during which I remember lock-outs against the Poll Tax, bowls of soup for 20p in the refectory, Suzanne the lovely librarian and an air of freedom of expression and creativity. I left the UK long ago so I have no idea what the current atmosphere is like on UK campuses but I feel I was lucky to have been at Sheff Poly during that time, PL really was a special place. Thanks again for taking the time and trouble to write this piece and upload so many great photos.

  17. just came across this one idle moment and suddenly i was transported back to some of the happiest times in my life - 1981-84. So sad, so sad. Thanks for capturing this.

  18. Eric Pagan7:59 PM

    Its like someone's pulled down my and my friends den. I was there for the sit-in when Rhodes-Boyson was planning to savage our student grant money in the early 1980's. I have lots of memories of the place. Thank you for the insight Brian.

  19. What a fine chap you are for doing this. My journey from pittsville to the light kick-started in the period 1963 -1966 in the original building studying graphic design under creative doyen Ted Veevers with my buddy David Banks. I'm told this is all now a housing estate and if I ever re-visit Sheffield it will be too painful to see.

  20. It is a housing estate. I haven'rt been back to see. Most of the departments, after much moving and shuffling, have now settled in the old Head Post Office building on Fitzalan Square and Pond Street, which is nice...

  21. I spent nearly two years there doing film studies, all the way from America. Decided to reminisce and this is what I find? Sad, so sad.


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