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Hull - On The Waterfront

Once an illustrious maritime powerhouse and famous inspiration for poets, Hull slipped out of the spotlight decades ago.
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Once an illustrious maritime powerhouse and famous inspiration for poets, Hull slipped out of the spotlight decades ago. Sharing the story of its Renaissance and some insider tips, writer and filmmaker Dave Lee reveals there’s nowhere more deserving of a reputation reboot than the UK City of Culture 2017.

For a long time Hull has been thought of as something of an ugly sister to many of the UK’s cities, but if you live here, or are from here, or have spent any significant time here, you know that it’s a city of enormous creativity, humour, beauty and tremendous spirit.

With 2017 being the most significant year for the city since 1642, when the English Civil War kicked off in a city centre pub, old nationwide prejudices are being challenged and minds slowly changed. For the whole year, Hull is the UK’s City of Culture and for the many people who love this place, it’s a recognition and opportunity long overdue. We’ve known how cool we are for a long time; everyone else just needed to wake up, and catch up.

Visit with the notion that Hull is just a former fishing port somewhere in Yorkshire, and you’re in for a surprise. It’s true that during the boom years – the sixteenth-century through to the 1970s – it was the sea that made the city one of the most important ports in Europe. First whaling and then fishing brought huge prosperity, which in turn led to a well-educated population, wonderful architecture and a celebrated artistic community. But the world wars took a heavy toll. Over 90% of the city centre was destroyed by bombing during the Second World War and Hull’s fishing fleet was severely depleted as many boats were pressed into military service, never to return. By the beginning of the 1980s, industrial decline had set in too, leaving the
city purposeless.

What survived, and survives to this day, are flashes of its rich and varied past melded with the unique, unchanging character of this city’s people. Hull’s most famous adopted son, the poet Philip Larkin, said that the city is: “in the world, yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have its own resonance”. An astute observation for, although Hull is a proud part of Yorkshire, this city is definitely of-itself too and unlike anywhere else in the world. 

This sense of otherness permeates the city’s culture. Ever since the days of Andrew Marvell in the seventeenth-century,  Hull has produced or inspired a long list of  renowned poets. Even if you ignore Larkin, Philip Motion, Tom Paulin, Carol  Rumens and Roger McGough - all of whom were either born, studied or lived in the city - you still have Stevie Smith, Christopher Reid, Peter Porter (who named it “the most poetic city in England”), Douglass Dunn, Sean O’Brien and many more. There is something about the place that frees the mind and allows the words to flow. Even today there is a flourishing poetry scene evidenced in the poems written on plaques or etched into the pavements around the city.

 

The music scene too, primarily based around the legendary Adelphi Club – a semi-detached house meets music venue – has produced plenty of artists of note.  The Fine Young Cannibals, Everything But The Girl, The Housemartins, Beautiful South and David Bowie’s backing band The Spiders From Mars are all products of Hull. Yet eclipsing even these considerable collected achievements are this city’s theatre-makers.

Since Alan Plater first started making Hull the subject of his TV plays, there have been numerous acclaimed writers creating works about this city and its people, melding details of locality and personality with universal themes that lend their works appeal all over the world. John Godber is the third most performed playwright in the English language; Gill Adams has written some of the best-known TV dramas on British TV – Emmerdale, Band of Gold, Doctors – and current wonder-boy Richard Bean has just had a West End and Broadway smash with One Man, Two Guvnors.

In addition, enormously popular TV comedies like The League of Gentlemen, The Catherine Tate Show and Benidorm are peppered with Hull references and in-jokes thanks to being co-created by Hull-born writers.

Taken together (and I’ve not even mentioned the rich seam of novelists, dancers or other creative types), you begin to understand that Hull is far more culturally rich than many give it credit for. But the best thing is that the city is only just entering its most exciting artistic period. There’s a feeling of tremendous energy on the streets, a sense of excitement and creative vivacity exploding from every doorway and window.

The springboard for this current confidence came, weirdly, not from industrial, corporate or even cultural success, but food and drink. In the 1990s, a generation of Hullensians wanted to have a greater hand in the way the city looked, felt and worked. This wasn’t a conscious movement, but an organic blooming. Bars and restaurants began to open along Princes Ave, in the bohemian Avenues area to the west of the city centre. Men and women in their 30s and 40s, tired of drinking and socialising in chain pubs in the middle of town, banded together and began opening their own characterful establishments.

Within a couple of years of the millennium, Princes Ave was bubbling with independently run pubs, bars and eateries dedicated to seriously good food and drink. These spread into neighbouring Newland Ave before, finally, trickling back into the city centre. The café, dining and social scene of the Hull had been entirely re-invented in little more than a decade. And with it came a wave of culture: the bars were not only inspiring places for artists to meet and plan projects, they also became venues for those projects to be performed or launched. Artists that previously had only a handful of venues to strategise or showcase their work now have a multitude of riches, as well as willing and loyal crowds to soak it up. Hull is rocking again; there’s something to do, see or experience here every night of the week.

Importantly, the city’s own have done this. This wasn’t a revolution borne by outside influence or investment; it was created and sculpted by people who have been here all their lives. It was as self-propelled as the city itself. And it was in this atmosphere that City of Culture status was awarded. As such it feels less like a chance for the city to show what it can do, but the opportunity for the rest of the world to take notice of what we’ve been doing for years. So 2017 is definitely our party, but you’re all very welcome
to gatecrash.

That said, on the back of winning City of Culture, welcome investment has also reappeared. Don’t miss the long-ignored but magnificent Fruit Market area of the city, currently being transformed at a dizzying rate. Hull has also become a leading green port, with wind turbine production bringing major industry back to the docks in the east of the city. The folk with the money have seen the self-generated energy of this city and its surroundings and they want to harness its natural resources to create a cleaner, greener future. On the subject of which, if you’re looking for scenic splendour, Hull is a 15-minute drive from the spectacular Yorkshire Wolds: the 80-odd mile stretch of fields, rolling hills and woods that inspired David Hockney’s internationally celebrated Royal Academy show. Starting at Hessle (just to the west of the city, where the Humber Bridge is planted) and sweeping in an arc around to Flamborough on the North Yorkshire coast, The Wolds cuddle the outskirts of Hull, meaning that it’s impossible to enter the city without travelling through gorgeous countryside, or along the mighty River Humber.

To borrow from Larkin again: “Hull has it’s own sudden elegancies”. Architecturally, this is a quality created by some injudicious post-war building decisions; the best of the city is often tucked away. But this could be said of the people too. On the surface we look like normal, workaday Yorkshire folk, but speak to us and you’ll soon find a deep friendliness, humour, sharpness and smartness that is quite unique, unexpected and, in it’s own no-nonsense way, elegant. City of Culture status has given the whole world the opportunity to reappraise Hull and, take it from me, the whole world is in for a very pleasant surprise.

INSIDER TIPS

It’s not all about The Deep; here are our Top 10 insider tips for a trip to Hull.

1. The Humber Bridge
The great glass elevator that will lift you to the top may not be in place yet, but a trip out to Hessle Foreshore to stand under this 2,220-metre single-span suspension bridge will give you the best idea of just how vast it really is. There’s a great country park known to locals as Little Switzerland to explore too.

2. Hull Pierhead, Marina and Fruit Market
All next to each other and located at the confluence of the rivers Hull and Humber, the Pierhead was where boats carrying fruit from exotic places used to dock. Alongside the Oss Wash was a slipway where traders washed their horses. These remnants of industry blend with a transforming cultural quarter featuring bars, restaurants, galleries and the brilliant Fruit theatre in the Fruit Market. Expect cracking views and details from days gone by.
 
3. Furley & Co
Although a relative newcomer, Furleys has become very popular, very quickly. Real ales and ciders wash down tasty street-style grub in an old shipping office with a solid live music scene.

4. Museums Quarter
Most of the city’s museums are clustered together up the beautiful High Street in the Old Town. You can learn all about transport over the years as well as the history of the East Riding, board a trawler or visit the house of slavery abolitionist William Wilberforce. Not far away is the Maritime museum, and Ferens art gallery.

5. Pipe & Glass
Michelin’s “Dining Pub of the Year” has held a star for many years, and for good reason. They turn the very best local ingredients into wonderfully imaginative British dishes. A couple of miles outside the city, but worth the effort.

6. Butler Whites
A new kid on the block, this formal-yet-relaxed offering recently opened in the Fruit Market where a trio of long standing Hull restaurateurs create daily specials. A great taste of Hull’s bright, new culinary scene.

7. Minerva
Sat in the centre of the Pierhead and Marina, the Minerva was always one of the most popular pubs with sailors returning from the sea. A great place to enjoy views of the Humber and experience the smallest pub room in the country.

8. Ye Olde White Harte
Only one pub can claim to be the place where the English Civil War started and it’s this one. The Plotting Parlour, where plans were laid to refuse Charles I entry to the city can still be visited upstairs. Downstairs, you can snuggle into a seat in the inglenook fireplace and drink in the history.

9. The Pattie Butty
Hull’s greatest culinary contribution to the world isn’t so much a delicacy as an in-delicacy. It’s mashed potato and sage, battered and shoved in a bread bun. They’re available from every chippy in the city and should be soaked in vinegar before ingestion. Magnificent.

10. Patrick Macarons & Patisserie
So good are the “Macaron Man’s” wares that he sells his macarons to pretty much every high-end restaurant in Yorkshire. Don’t leave Hull without one.

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