Postcard from Hull

It’s time to give Hull – crowned 2017’s city of culture - a second chance, 

says Kaye Holland

Who needs the Golden Gate Bridge - The Humber Bridge credit: hutchyb

Hull often gets a bad rap for being a place where “only salesmen and relations come,” as Philip Larkin once put it.

The poet had a point. Hull was bombed heavily during the Second World War before becoming one of the most economically deprived areas in the UK following the decline of the fishing and shipping industries in the seventies – a casualty of the Cod Wars with Iceland. All of which caused Hull to head the list of crap towns in the 2003 book Crap Towns: the 50 Worst Places to live in the UK.

But just because it was, doesn’t mean it is. After almost 70 years of decline there’s a palpable sense of excitement in the East Riding air, half way through the Victorian whaling town’s City of Culture year.

And for good reason: a cool £25million has been invested into revamping the city centre, in a bid to put the port city back on the travel map.

After checking into the family-run Kingston Theatre Hotel (www.kingstontheatrehotel.com) that was the former home of Victorian couturier Madame Clapham, my friend Em and I were ready to step out and see what Kingston upon Hull (to use its full name) has to offer in 2017 on a guided walking tour with Paul Schofield.

An enthusiastic and externally knowledgable guide, Paul’s affordable (£4, www.tourhull.com) tour takes in the historic old town – that somehow survived the Second World War unscathed – whose atmospheric, cobbled streets are lined with pretty, pastel painted Georgian houses.

Standout streets include the Land of Green Ginger – a wonderfully, if unusually, named thoroughfare - where you’ll find England’s smallest window. Measuring a mere half an inch wide, the slit was used by the gate-keeper of the George Hotel to keep watch.

  • The Kingston Theatre Hotel credit: Kaye Holland

  • Hull Old Town credit: Kaye Holland

And everywhere you walk, expect to see a cornucopia of cream coloured telephone boxes. Hull has had its own telephone exchange (KCom) - the only city in the UK to do so - since 1902 and, as such, all of its phone boxes are cream rather than the red that BT uses. “We’ve always been a little different here” smiles Schofield. Or as Larkin once wrote, Hull “is a city that is in the world, yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have a different resonance.”

Hull’s shopping scene is another symbol of it’s uniqueness, of its determination to be different from other British cities. There are no cookie clutter shopping centres - the likes of which plague everywhere from Harrow to Hartlepool - here.

Rather you’ll find the locally loved Grade II listed Victorian Hepworth Arcade - home to Fanthorpes (www.fanthorpes.co.uk) which has been serving music lovers since 1946 and Dinsdale’s Joke Shop (01482 223622). One of the country’s oldest joke shops, Dinsdale’s opened in 1833 and is something of a local landmark that’s hardly changed in years: it still sells whoopee cushions, rubber cushions and stink bombs by the bucket load.

Meanwhile the disused warehouses and cobbled streets of Hull’s historic fruit market have been transformed into independent shops, galleries, restaurants and boutiques that have become the heartbeat of Hull’s 2017 cultural events.

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The Maritime Museum credit: franckreporter

Museums more your bag? Don’t miss Hull’s museums quarter. Most major cities have museums but Hull’s are not only free, they are exceptionally good. I’m not the only one to think so: they were named in the UK’s Top 10 free attractions by The Guardian readers.

The lions share lie within the Old Town on the High Street. I loved the Streetlife Museum of Transport (www.hcandl.co.uk) where you can walk down a 1940s high street, as well as the Hull and East Riding Museum - the place to marvel at majestic Roman ruins.

The Maritime Museum in Queen Victoria Square is another must visit so as to discover more about Hull’s intimate relationship with the sea (something that was also acknowledged by 2016’s Sea of Hull art installation, that saw crowds of naked volunteers painted blue and green).

And art aficionados will want to make a pilgrimage to the award winning Ferens Art Gallery (www.hullcc.gov.uk/museums) which re-opened at the beginning of the year following a multi-million pound refurbishment. From September, Ferens will host one of the art world’s most prestigious awards: take a bow the Turner Prize (www.tate.org.uk/art/turner-prize). For now, seek out Pitero Lorenzetti’s 700 year old masterpiece Christ Between Saint Paul and Saint Peter.

Hull is also the birthplace of William Wilberforce. The world’s most famous freedom fighter, Wilberforce dedicated his life to many causes - most famously his 20 year campaign to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade that resulted in the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807, abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire.

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Wilberforce House Museum credit: Kaye Holland

Head to the Wilberforce House Museum - a pretty Grade 1 listed building - to learn a little more about the fight for abolition through campaign, resistance and rebellion of Hull’s most celebrated son.

However Hull’s most famous adopted son is, of course, Philip Larkin - a statue of whom greets visitors at the railway station, which lies at the end of the line. “When your train comes to rest in Paragon Station against a row of docile buffers, you alight with an end-of-the-line sense of freedom,” wrote Larkin, who made Hull his home for over three decades.

For the full low-down on Larkin, look to Larkin: New Eyes Each Year (www.hull2017.co.uk). This biographic exhibition at the University of Hull (www.hull.ac.uk), where Larkin spent three decades as librarian, lifts the lid on the life of one of Hull’s most influential creatives…

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Hull Marina credit: hutchyb

And don’t leave town without dropping into The Deep (www.thedeep.co.uk) - Hull’s Lottery funded flagship millennium project, home to over 3,500 fish, sharks, rays and penguins - before gawping at Humber Bridge (www.humberbridge.co.uk), one of the engineering wonders of the UK and the seventh longest suspension bridge in the UK.

Fed your mind? Now feed your stomach… The local specialty is the patty – aka deep fried cakes of mashed potato, onion and sage – served with chips. These cholesterol heart attacks waiting to happen were invented for those who couldn’t afford fish with their fries, and are a great source of local pride.

But if you’re not a fan of grease, tuck into upscale Indian fare at Tapasya & Marina (www.tapasya.org.uk/marina/index.php) against a backdrop of the Marina, that’s packed full of gleaming boats. Or for burgers, sharing boards and live music in a shabby chic setting, settle in for an evening at Furley & Co (18 Princes Dock).

Then pop in for a pint (and still have change from £3!) at one of the city’s characterful pubs - there’s no bland high street chains here - like Ye Olde White Hart (www.yeoldewhitehart.com). Built way back in 1550, this historic watering hole has a mysterious skull housed behind the bar, which was found after a fire there in the 19th century. The pub also has ‘plotting rooms’ upstairs where talks that triggered the Civil War are said to have taken place.

After a few drinks with friendly locals who are only to happy to share their world with you - it’s never dull in Hull - I found myself turning to Em and slurring “I love Hull”, only to hear her hollering down the phone to her other half: “You have to come to Hull.”

It seems Hull is no longer just “a place for salesmen and relations.”

DID YOU KNOW?

* Hull is home to England’s smallest window

* The Civil War is said to have started in Hull

* There are life size sculptures of fish in the pavements

* That the HMS Bounty was built in Hull