“Behind her domes and cranes enormous skies/of gold and shadows build; a filigree/of wharves and wires, ricks and refineries,/her working skyline wanders to the sea.”
This week I spent whatever time was available outside meetings, wandering around Hull, Larkin’s “lonely northern daughter”, getting to know a city that has had much bad press. Hull is about to become the 2017 City of Culture, the second UK city after Derry/Londonderry (Glasgow and Liverpool were European Cities of Culture, a different programme altogether).
When I left the York train at Hull Station on Sunday night, I was greeted by a bronze statue of poet and former Hull librarian, Philip Larkin in full flight for a train at Whitsun, his words inscribed in slate circles in the paving and in the timber seats on which passengers waited for their trains.
Being on Turkish time after travelling straight to Hull from Antalya after sailing from Cyprus to Finike, I was up and out well before breakfast. With a very inadequate map from the hotel, I headed in what I hoped was the direction of the Hull River. Hull is somewhat lacking in street signs and as all of the streets in the centre are building sites, this wasn’t as easy as it sounds. With the help of a friendly man in hard hat and fluoro orange work gear (I think most of the population of Yorkshire is employed on digging up and repaving Hull at the moment), I worked out where I was and then stumbled with delight into the Land of Green Ginger – the mysterious and intriguing name of a street, the origin of which no one seems to know.
Instinctively I followed narrow cobbled streets and lanes until I saw a bridge ahead and then under my feet in an open space, the words mizzen, top gallant, royal, thwart … As anyone with a passion for maritime heritage will know, these are the names of sails and parts of sailing ships. A small open space had been landscaped to appear as a horizontal sailing ship with sailing language in bronze lettering in the order in which the parts of the sails or ship occur, from royal to keel. It was subtle – probably far too subtle for anyone who knew little of maritime language or heritage – and a couple sitting drinking coffee on a bench were astonished when I started photographing the ground! There was a garishly-coloured interpretation sign nearby, completely at odds with its surroundings, which did explain the space and its heritage but no one was stopping to read it except me.
I found myself on the River Hull in a space designated “The Museum Quarter” but apparently I was at the back entrance of the quarter as from the river, it looks like a series of empty buildings, a vision gone wrong.
Among surviving warehouses, now student accommodation with peeling woodwork and a planning application to replace wooden window frames with PVC in a listed building, was a typical late 20th century building, all dark brown bricks and large span empty V-shaped windows. The backdoor covered space provided night shelter for a bearded man and his black bin bags. Between two warehouses, behind a locked gate in a landscaped space and car park, stretched huge beams on iron columns; another warehouse, the charred black beams presumably indicating the building’s fate.
The River Hull itself at low tide is brown muddy like so many east coast tidal rivers and sticking out of the mud was a wellington boot, the remains of bicycles, traffic cones and shopping trolleys, a dead bird and quite a lot of other rubbish. Two mud-covered articles of clothing were lying on the boardwalk, an intriguing mystery possibly linked with the wellington boot! Across the river another building was being demolished while others still standing, were no doubt awaiting the same fate. Beyond the flood barrier, where the Hull meets the Humber, the shining silver walls of The Deep, Hull’s successful millennium aquarium, loomed up like the prow of a spaceship. In contrast the Arctic Corsair, tied up alongside the boardwalk, looked rather abandoned. A sidewinder trawler built in 1960 by Cook, Gemmel & Welton Ltd of Beverley, she broke the world record for the landing of cod and haddock from the White Sea in 1973. In 1999 she became a museum ship, the last survivor of Hull’s massive “Sidewinder” trawling fleet. She does look rather sad these days, possibly the inevitable result of becoming a museum ship and requiring more attention and money than most local museums can spare.
The man with the bin bags passed by me, moving out onto the river bank and stowing his bags beneath a footbridge. It was only when I passed Drypool Bridge that I discovered the High Street, the public face of the Museum Quarter with a series of museums including Wilberforce House, the Hull and East Riding Museum and Streetlife, the Transport Museum. The High St must be the quietest High St in the country – I seemed to be the only thing stirring at 8am. I would be in meetings during the museums’ opening hours so they will have to wait til my next visit.
I headed back through cobbled lanes towards my hotel near the station, passing through the Queen’s Gardens. Until 1930 this was the first mighty Victorian dock to be constructed in Hull. From the top of his column, Wilberforce looked down upon the gardens and I passed a sitting bronze figure, entitled “mankind under threat”, to which some local ‘artist’ had added features.
I passed Hull’s distinctive white phone booths and couldn’t help but notice the numbers of post WW2 commercial buildings standing empty with prominent For Sale, Redevelopment Opportunity signs – in some streets these were more numerous than any other signs. I wondered if the promises of the City of Culture project would make a real difference to Hull, its people and prosperity.