There were once huge docks in and around the centre of Hull – The Dock (built between 1775-8) was the largest dock in the country. Renamed Queen’s Dock in 1854, it closed in 1930, and was filled in and grassed over as Queen’s Gardens. Junction Dock (1829) was renamed Prince’s Dock in 1854 and closed to shipping in 1968. Since 1991 it has housed a futuristic shopping centre. Humber Dock (1807-09) closed in 1967 and with Railway Dock (1846) later became part of Hull’s marina where at least boats can still float and enter and leave from and to the mighty Humber River.
A day’s meetings focussing on City of Culture partnerships, programmes and priorities over, I headed for the former 18th and 19th century docks, retracing my steps through building works, following a maze of orange cones, past the ornate Italianate Maritime Museum and Civic Hall and the classic facade of the Ferens Art Gallery, alongside the former Queen’s Dock, now Gardens.
The painted facade of the pub was inviting but I wanted to get to the Humber before it was too dark. I found the Prince’s Dock, now the Princes Shopping Centre, a huge silver building apparently floating in the dock. Hull does seem to have an awful lot of shopping centres, despite the huge number of closed and empty traditional street fronting shops. No doubt this is connected!
I spied masts ahead and like a homing pigeon, drawn to boats and water, I crossed a very busy main road and found myself at the marina, the former Dock and still attached to the Humber. The black lightship was moored alongside and barges, yachts and motor boats of all shapes and sizes sat quietly at pontoons inside the mighty walls of the dock. Captured in a glass case, a single beam engine sat quietly contemplating its fate like a stuffed bird under glass, its immense unmoving wheel an exhibit rather than a living breathing engine.
The inevitable maze of cones, dug up streets and fenced off footpaths appeared again as I walked past bars, a few eateries and mostly empty umbrella covered tables towards the river. The entrance to the brown sluggish Humber from the dock was lined in curving mud banks. I walked along the river towards where the Hull flows into the Humber, the huge silver prow of The Deep dominating the east bank.
An elegant verdigris sculpture by an Icelandic sculptor gazed up into the sky from the west bank and empty pontoons reached out into the river. As the Hull rushed into the Humber, the mud-stained rivers mingled created disturbance on the surface and a sense of conflicting movement.
An A4 sheet of paper in a plastic sleeve attached to the railing caught my attention and I stopped to read it. Entitled The Lincoln Castle docking at Minerva Pier in 1977, it depicted the same docks I could see from the promenade in 1977 with a paddle steamer coming alongside. The text explained that the writer, a newcomer in 1977, had not realized that this was one of her last voyages, the ferry being replaced with the new bridge. Despite a campaign to save her, the beautiful and elegant steamer which used to connect the two shores was dismantled in Grimsby as recently as 2010. So much for maritime heritage. The page ended with a web address and a note to the reader, to leave the image there for others to see or an invitation to take it home and the lines “Our streets, our public spaces, are there to daily celebrate that we are not alone in this world, a place where we talk, we laugh, we enjoy, we cry, we joke with strangers … Let (sic) keep them out of private and corporate control.” I was heartened to see and share this unsolicited fragment of “visitor generated content” as it is known in the museum and gallery world and the small piece of Hull’s lost heritage which I had stumbled upon. Someone cared enough to display this and share it and I appreciated that. I later looked up Pablo Luis Gonzalez and he is a Hull-based photographer http://www.pablo-luis-gonzalez.uk/about/
I turned to follow the West Bank of the Hull River back towards the building sites that dominated the surroundings and again discovered something wonderful – a huge stone and brick-lined dry dock reminiscent of the ones at Garden Island in Sydney Harbour.
But inside the remains of rusting lock gates, a huge new concrete wall shut it off from the waters of the Hull. And upon new pillars rising out of the dirty water lying in the bottom of the dock, an enormous timber stage with rising tiered seating levels was being constructed. Artist’s impressions on a developers’ sign showed the entertainment and performance space surrounded by green planting in the dock and I consoled myself with the thought that at least the dock would still be there and had not been destroyed. A new Digital Quarter was being built all around, a symbol of Hull’s hopes for a more prosperous future.
Skirting more cones, piled paving and rubbish, I walked through a small street of what looked like former interesting shops and galleries back to the marina dock. A restaurant 1842 in a Victorian warehouse caught my eye and the menu appealed and again I had found serendipitously another of Hull’s maritime treasures. A quirky restaurant and wine bar was in the former Ropery built in 1884 to serve Hull’s shipping industry, humming with groups of people enjoying excellent food and good wine. Under its chandeliers and huge black and white industrial photographs, I reflected on the day’s meetings, and the programme of contemporary cutting edge art, performance and cultural spectacles being planned for 2017. Was there room in all this culture, national and international, for Hull’s past, for the shadows and stories of defiance, war, fishing and maritime tragedies, for white telephone boxes and whaling, for activists and merchants, philanthropists and dockers, Hanseatic and Baltic connections, for buried Tudor military installations and lost Victorian splendour? For language and dialect, secret places and community, for local stories, for “Hullness”? I hope so.