Get us in your inbox


Techno DJs in pubs, queer nights in cutlery factories... how Sheffield became the UK’s DIY party capital

Forget big nights out in soulless super clubs. Promoters in this Yorkshire city are putting on events in the most unexpected places

Sheffield’s DIY party scene
Photograph: Jamie Inglis / Groundwork / Gut Level
Photograph: Jamie Inglis / Groundwork / Gut Level
Daniel Dylan Wray
Written by
Daniel Dylan Wray

Head into Shakespeare’s in Sheffield on a Thursday afternoon and you’ll be greeted with a scene fairly typical of a traditional boozer. Solitary blokes reading their paper and nursing a pint, real-ale aficionados scribbling away in little notebooks, someone sitting quietly munching on a pork pie and crisps in the corner. But return just hours later and the steady thump of techno will be sending bouncing ripples into those glasses of foamy beer. 

Slamming dance music and real-ale pubs may not be things you would necessarily associate with one another, but on the first Thursday of every month you’ll find the GROUNDWORK crew in the upstairs function room merging these two worlds with great success. ‘The combination of club tunes and the warmth of a real-ale pub, drinking good beer at a reasonable price and finishing by midnight seems to satisfy people,’ says Alex Hatch, who runs GROUNDWORK with Isaac Crookes, Jamie Roberts and Oliver Heaviside. 

A person rapping in a pub
Photograph: Groundwork

They bring their own PA system, with subwoofers that Roberts built himself, and turn the 100-capacity function room that’s normally used for pub quizzes and open-mic nights into a sweaty, bouncing, vibrating, early-doors party. As evidenced by the huge success of Annie Mac’s Before Midnight club night, there’s clearly an appetite for an alternative for those who want to avoid ‘going the full slog till 6am’, as Hatch describes it. 

However, while Mac’s night may be geared more towards to ravers-turned-knackered parents, GROUNDWORK is teeming with twenty-somethings getting warmed up and loose for the weekend. Sets come from resident DJs, as well as an ever-rotating mix of guests, with the original remit of heavy techno now expanded to leftfield club music in general – depending on who’s playing, you may hear everything from Balearic grooves to disco screamers to industrial EBM.

They’ve turned a room normally used for pub quizzes into a sweaty, bouncing, vibrating, early-doors party

The night’s old-school setting is matched by its discreet approach to promotion. ‘We’ve never been that fussed about pushing the promo too hard,’ says Hatch. ‘It’s not really in any of our personalities. We’ve pretty much always done things the same: we make a Facebook event and post in it once, we put out a post on Instagram and that’s it. We were doing that when five or ten people came and we still do that now the pub is packed.’

The collective also DJ at other nights in the city, but their original night at Shakespeare’s is showing little sign of slowing down after five years. ‘We’re really lucky in that each GROUNDWORK somehow tops the last one,’ says co-founder Crookes. ‘It’s a bit of a running joke that we’re due for a dead one soon but it never happens.’

A corridor in a pub
Photograph: Groundwork

This low-key, DIY, under-the-radar approach to throwing parties is something that’s thriving in Sheffield. While 2022 saw the arrival of Forge, a huge state-of-the-art club in an old steel works, and Hope Worksa former gun-barrel factory, has been at the epicentre of dance music in Sheffield for years, a lot of the best nights in the city at the moment don’t necessarily always take place in traditional clubs. Instead, they are popping up in old shops, warehouses, industrial units, secret locations and – in the case of GROUNDWORK – real-ale pubs. 

Nights such as Apricot Ballroom, Side5tep, Thirdspace, La Rumba, Kabal and Control are seeking out all the nooks, crannies, corners and crumbling post-industrial spaces the city has to offer – and creating unique experiences that eschew the typical big-club experience.

‘There’s definitely a back-to-basics school of thought going on,’ says Hatch. ‘It seems like more people are realising that you don’t need to pay £15 to see a household name in a massive space to have a good time. Back in the day, before our time, so much of what made a good night out was going to the same spot, bumping into the same people and knowing that regardless of who was playing the music was going to be good. Hopefully GROUNDWORK takes the essence of that. Not in protest to any of the more mainstream stuff in Sheffield, but just to offer something different.’

Three people with their hands up at a party
Photograph: Gut Level

Meanwhile, another night called Gut Level exists not only to throw killer parties, but also to cater to a woefully underserved LGBTQ+ community. ‘It’s about making a freaky little space within the city that creates good times and social and creative opportunities for those who didn’t really have anywhere similar to go before,’ says co-founder Frazer Scott. These ‘creative and social opportunities’ range from hosting exhibitions to open-deck sessions and clothes swaps.

Gut Level is open to everyone, but so as to maintain a safe space for marginalised communities, you have to be a member to attend events – its tiered system starts at just £2 per year. It is an especially unique in that it marries hedonism with ‘holistic downtime’ that could involve anything from talks to craft sessions. The promoters have had to move venues a few times and tweak operations depending upon each space. The last venue Gut Level used was a Grade II-listed former cutlery factory, later acquired by developers to be turned into flats (of course). It’s still between venues at the moment, but has got its hands on a cosy temporary space in the centre where people can work, eat together and attend workshops during the day – a nourishing stopgap before it gears up to move back into a space where partying can be more of a focus again.

It’s about making a freaky little space that creates opportunities for those who didn’t have anywhere to go before

So, what’s behind this new wave of DIY nights sweeping the city? GROUNDWORK’s Roberts says it could be a result of the current economic climate. A lack of cash floating around means people are getting more creative, organising parties that are less likely to be hit by crippling costs and potential losses. ‘I don’t think the current climate lends itself to taking risks on expensive bookings in 700-plus cap venues,’ says Roberts. ‘It seems to make more financial sense to keep it small so the risks are lower.’

The natural by-product of putting on parties at the smaller end of things is growing a genuine and meaningful community. Since launching in 2019, Gut Level has garnered 2,000 members. ‘There is a close-knit mix of regulars who make the space what it is,’ says Scott. ‘Scruffy weirdos, party heads and queers – people who we love to bits and who help keep everything going.’

A room of people clapping their hands
Photograph: Groundwork

Which all goes to show that it’s about much more than just a night out: the young people of Sheffield are building something significant here. ‘The enriching value of hedonism and dance-music culture is not always understood,’ says Scott. ‘We’ve had some of the best nights of our lives and met the majority of our friends and partners through music and partying. These spaces play a really important part in our society.’

That said, the hardcore real-ale-drinking crew have yet to be converted to the pummelling techno parties that take place above their heads once a month in Shakespeare’s. ‘There are always older blokes coming up from the bar to see what’s going on,’ says GROUNDWORK’s Hatch. ‘But we can rarely keep them up for longer than ten minutes.’

You may also like
You may also like