I went to Hull in the spring of 2016 for no particular reason other than that it was the end-point of a two-day bike ride up from King’s Lynn, but I found it a very genuine and straightforward place with a strong sense of its own identity. It’s still a city where ’everyone knows everyone’, as relatively few people move in or out, and it hasn’t attracted many immigrants (unlike say Boston, which I passed through on my way to Hull). Having said that, while the city centre shops have some individuality, the new shopping centres by the station are as generic as those anywhere else in Britain.
The city was in the throes of preparations for its rôle as Britain’s City of Culture 2017 (hull2017.co.uk), and in places it was virtually impossible to move in the centre, there were so many roadworks (see below). Alas, better cycling facilities seem to have been largely ignored in the pedestrianisation project. The focus seemed to be largely on infrastructure, but the projects are behind schedule. The expansion and refurbishment of the Hull New Theatre (new as in 1939, not 1379 as in my Oxford college) is running a year late, though it should still open at some point in 2017. Likewise, the Ferens Art Gallery closed in mid-2015 for refurbishment – re-opening has slipped from to early January 2017 to simply ‘early 2017’. Pietro Lorenzetti’s Christ Between Saints Paul and Peter (a masterpiece of the Sienese Renaissance, painted c1320 and acquired in 2013) will return to the Ferens after four years of conservation at the National Gallery, and the gallery will also host the 2017 Turner Prize exhibition and ceremony. Luckily, the excellent Hull Truck theatre company will be busy, with a programme including plays by Richard Bean and about the boxer ‘Battling’ Barbara Buttrick, both from Hull. Local musicians to be celebrated include Woody Woodmansey (drummer with Ziggy Stardust’s Spiders From Mars) and ambient music pioneer Basil Kirchin, and of course there’ll be an exhibition on poet Philip Larkin at the University of Hull’s library where he worked for 30 years (the library’s been refurbished, and houses the university’s fine collection of 20th-century British art). No doubt poet Andrew Marvell (born near Hull in 1621) will be remembered. There also be a tribute to film director Anthony Minghella, who studied at the university. No mention of Hull-born Maureen Lipman, alas (she talks the good talk about her love of her native Hull, but may possibly prefer life in North London). Hmmm – maybe they’re best off concentrating on infrastructure improvements.
In the meantime
In the meantime, the large Maritime Museum is strongly recommended – it’s in the city’s former Dock Offices, a triangular landmark built in 1871 and currently an island in a sea of roadworks; to its south is Prince’s Dock and to its north Queen’s Dock, created in 1778, is now Queen’s Gardens. Seafaring and overseas voyaging remain of course an enduring source of fascination to the British – the Ferriby Boats, dating from the Bronze Age (c1800BC) and found in a mudbank a short distance west of present-day Hull, are perhaps Britain’s oldest sea-going vessels. Hull (properly Kingston-upon-Hull) was founded in 1293 by Edward I as a port to supply his army in Scotland; from 1598 to 1869 it was a major whaling port, with ships sailing north towards Spitzbergen and then later to the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay; they hoped to be home each year for Hull Fair in October but risked being caught in ice – in all 66 of 186 ships were lost. The Wilson Line, founded in Hull in 1831, became the world’s largest private shipping line, and the arrival of the railway in 1840 allowed the city to become a major fishing port. In World War II only London suffered more bombing damage than Hull, and although the city was rebuilt in lovely grey concrete it entered a period of steady decline. It does still have scraps of its old town, with evocative street names such as Land of Green Ginger, and Holy Trinity church (mainly 14th-century), and some excellent old-style pubs. The Humber is notoriously hard to navigate and is still surveyed every two weeks above Hull as five-knot tides cause the sandbanks to shift constantly. Pilots have been employed since 1512, and were made compulsory in 1541; the Spurn Point lighthouse, at the mouth of the Humber estuary, was in use by 1427, with a 90-foot tower built by John Smeaton in 1776 and the present 120-foot tower raised in 1895. There are still three lightships upstream from the Humber Bridge (opened in 1981 and unlikely to ever pay off its construction costs).
Hull is largely bypassed by guidebooks, so I’ll just mention that Hull has more excellent museums, all free, with several in the newly dubbed Museums Quarter, just east by the River Hull, including Wilberforce House, with hard-hitting displays on slavery and its (partial) abolition. The Hull and East Riding Museum and the Streetlife Museum (covering history and transport, respectively) are also well worth a look; The Deep, at the mouth of the Hull, is a huge and family-friendly aquarium. The former Fruit Market by the river is seeing regeneration, with the new Humber Street Gallery, aiming to be a major centre for contemporary art, and the Yorkshire Brewing Company (actually a new microbrewery, but you can’t fault their ambition).