Bleak Water

by Danuta Reah

Personal Illustrations by Ben Newsam
E-mail me at ben.newsam@gmail.com

A number of years ago, I read the book Bleak Water, by Danuta Reah. It is set in our shared home city, Sheffield. It is an atmospheric crime novel, full of dark forebodings and containing some "difficult" subject matter. I enjoyed it greatly, and it made a big impression on me at the time. So much so, in fact, that I sent my copy as a present for a friend who lives abroad and who doesn't know Sheffield at all. I went to the trouble of visiting the various locations used in the book, took photographs, made notes, and added little stickers to the book so that my friend could maybe visualise the locations better.

This page contains the best of those photographs and the relevant quotes from the book, together with the notes I made at the time and some later updates. It may help other readers of the book to visualise the locations as well. Page references refer only to the copy I had, and I can no longer check them.

In the introduction to the book, the author states that she has "taken a few liberties" with the geography of the Sheffield canal and towpath. She implies in the text that one would go up through Tinsley Locks towards Rotherham, whereas in fact Sheffield is at the summit level of the canal and Rotherham is in the downstream direction. There is also some ambiguity in the text about on which side of the canal the towpath is. In real life, the towpath is on the South side of the canal from the canal basin, and changes to the North side somewhere near Sheffield Arena, but certain hints in the text sometimes suggest that is on the other bank. In the example on this page, the towpath seems to be on the South side, as they have to cross the bridge to get to it.

Although many of the places in the book are real places, the author describes them in a particular, rather negative, way emphasising the run-down, the decrepit, and the crumbling, thus creating the dark atmosphere of the novel. I could not do this in the pictures, mainly because the real locations are fairly bright and cheerful. It is the author's skill that has produced such a disturbing book with a keen sense of place, rather than the locations themselves. Although including people in the illustrations would have made better pictures, I tried to avoid human figures, as I hoped a more desolate feel would result.

001 - The Cemetery

Page 6: "The cemetery was on one of the highest points of the city, and the hills ran away to the west, a cascade of roofs and winter trees."


002 - Park Square

Page 10: "The traffic inched past the bus station and then she was on to the confusion of the massive Park Square roundabout."


003 - The Road past Victoria Quays

Page 10: "She drove past the hotel that seemed to mark the end of the gentrified area and under the bridge to the road that led along the canal side."


004 - Bridge

Page 10: "The brickwork on this side of the bridge was crumbling, the surface stained with the water that ran from the broken fall pipes."

I think that this is the bridge referred to in the story. I originally meant to take a photo of broken fall pipes and crumbling brickwork, but decided in the end that the water stains on the roof of the bridge were too pretty to ignore!


005 - Cul-de-sac Beyond the Bridge

Page 10: "Beyond the bridge, there was a narrow alleyway, a cul-de-sac, where old household rubbish was dumped and then left to rot."

This cul-de-sac looks very dodgy, but the red footpath on the right hand side indicates that it is a part of the "Five Weirs Walk" along the river. It also leads to the "Spider Bridge", which is suspended by cables and goes under the viaduct as it crosses the river.


006 - Steps Near the Market

Page 30: "The steps took you to an empty road and a car park, and they smelled of pee."

These steps are now closed, and the "gallery shops" are not used any more. Kerry could have come down here on her way to Victoria Quays. She would have got to the upper level by going up a ramp to a footbridge across a road farther up the hill. On reflection, the steps leading down from Fitzalan Square to Bakers Hill would have made a more atmospheric photo.

[2017 update: the entire market building has been demolished.]


007 - Café at Victoria Quays

Page 32: "She hurried across the cobbles, her feet turning on the uneven footing, towards the café."

When Victoria Quays was newly restored, it was hoped that it would become a fashionable meeting place. The reality nowadays, as you can see, is somewhat different.


008 - Bacon Lane Bridge

Page 65: "...then he turned away from town, towards the road that crossed the canal over Bacon Lane Bridge. There was a route on to the towpath there, she remembered."

If I were to do this photograph again, I would want to show the ramp on the left that connects the towpath to the road.


009 - Cafés in Peace Gardens/Millennium Square

Page 108: "Later that morning they met for coffee in one of the pavement cafés that abounded in the city."

I don't like this picture. A better example would be a view of a couple of cafés in Chapel Walk, by St Marie's Roman Catholic cathedral.


010 - Wicker Arches

011 - The East House, Spital Hill

Page 121: "They arranged to meet later, at the pub on the hill near the Wicker Arches."

"The pub on the hill near the Wicker Arches" is The East House at the top of Spital Hill, and is mentioned by name elsewhere in the novel. It is closed now, but was still open when I took the photos, although very run down. Years ago it used to be popular with students.

[2017 update: The East House pub is no more, it is now a betting shop.]


012 - Canal Basin

Page 124: "The Parkway ran behind the canal basin, and the massive blocks of Park Hill and Hyde Park stood out against the night sky in the distance."

The building behind the church is part of the renovated Hyde Park flats complex. Park Hill cannot be seen as it is hidden by the newer buildings just beyond the tram bridge.


013 - Kashmir Curry Centre

Page 136: "...so they went across the road to the Indian café. ...they sat at the Formica tables over dishes of spiced chicken and saffron rice."

The "Indian café" with the Formica tables in this location would be the Kashmir Curry Centre on Spital Hill, almost exactly opposite the East House pub. I used to go there in about 1980 or so because it was the cheapest curry in Sheffield and the quality was very reasonable for the price; they had wholemeal chapatis for a start. It really did have Formica-topped tables, and unless you asked, you were not provided with cutlery; there was a wash-basin in the main body of the restaurant for washing the hands before eating. A Google search reveals that it has gone a bit upmarket in recent years and now uses tablecloths.

[2017 update: The legendary Curry Centre closed completely in 2013]


014 - Cadman St Bridge

Page 136: "...where the dark hole of Cadman Street Bridge might still be visible along the canal in the night."


015 - Old Warehouse

Page 141: "She'd walked the canal often those first weeks, past the old warehouse with the corrugated roof, and buddleia growing from the cracked pipes."


016 - Tinsley Locks

Page 154: "There's over a mile of locks there, and it takes between two and a half and three hours to get through."


017 & 018 - Possible Locations for Maggie's house in Walkley

Page 182: "Access was through a small gennel and up a flight of stone steps, then through a gate into what must once have been a beautiful garden."

I haven't been able to find a house that is an exact prototype for Maggie's house yet. There are several possibles, and these two photos are the best matches so far. I think it might be made up from a mixture of several real places. The word "gennel" (pronounced "jenn'l") is a local word for a short and narrow public pathway or a tunnel through houses for access to the back. In some parts of the country such things are called "twittens". My own theory is that "gennel" is a corruption of "general", as in "general passageway", hence it being spellt with a "g" rather than a "j". Maybe, maybe not.


019 - Coffee Bar in Broomhill

Page 189: "...she drove down into Broomhill and stopped for a sandwich at the small coffee bar."

2017 update: The Cream Coffee Bar near the lights is now a Costa place, and Refresh in the foreground is now a Thai restaurant. In fact, she probably would have gone to Vittles which is further down the road and not visible.


020 - Footbridge over Tinsley Locks

Page 189: "An arched footbridge with white railings stretched across the canal and bare trees lifted their branches to the sky. The canal looked gentle and benign here, not a place of torture and violent death."


021 - Valley Centertainment

Page 310: "...she swung the car into the concrete acreage that was Valley Centertainment. The bright colours and the lights seemed to emphasize its windswept bleakness."


022 - Bridge over Tram Tracks Towards the Canal

Page 310: "She parked near the tramline, and they walked towards the bridge that would take them to the canal."

In the book Tina parks in Valley Centertainment, and there is a bridge over the tram tracks. In fact the footbridge to the canal is one stop further along at the Retail Park, which is even more windswept and bleak:


023 - Possible Original for the Mary May

Page 310: "...a small cabin cruiser with faded paint and dirty curtains in the cabin window.
<...> It was old and shabby."


024 - Bushes by the Towpath

Page 361: "Ellie's body had lain undiscovered in the bushes for months."


025 - Tram Stop at the Cathedral

Page 389: "...they walked up the hill to the tram stop at the cathedral, just as a tram was gliding up to the stop and they all piled on."


026 - View of Canal Basin from Tram Tracks

Page 390: "...she knew the canal basin was down there, behind some buildings
<...> She didn't want to think about it."


027 - Centertainment Tram Stop

Page 391: "She had to get off the tram and go back down the towpath. The next stop was the Centertainment."


028 - Cinema at Valley Centertainment

Page 392: "She could see into the cinema foyer.
<...> The smell of popcorn drifted out through the doors and it made her want to cry."


029 - Boats on the Canal

Page 393: "...then she was by the canal, a wide, flat pool gleaming in the lamp light, boats moored on the far side, quiet, still. The boats were painted: red, green, blue."


030 - Railway Bridge

Page 419: "The path ran into the darkness under the bridge. The flat metal of the girders made a roof above her."


Notes

I don't think there is a single building used as the model for the gallery. One excellent candidate, though, is a large brick warehouse with arched windows standing next to the water:

This fits the description, but the location is wrong. There are plenty of remains of old buildings that could also have provided inspiration. The real restored building at the end of the canal basin would make a splendid art gallery, but has never found a tenant as far as I know:

The building above is just beyond the famous "straddle" warehouse, itself now an appartment block:

...and of course there's the extraordinary painting that features so much in the book, The Triumph of Death painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in about 1562:

...and finally some links to sites where the book might be obtained:

https://www.harpercollins.co.uk/9780007116317/bleak-water
https://www.fantasticbooksstore.com/bleak-water.html
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bleak-Water-Danuta-Reah/dp/0007116292