Poking fun at Hull needs to stop. Having spent a fabulous weekend by the Humber estuary I can safely say that the tired old cliché that heads this piece can be retired. It’s time to celebrate the 2017 City of Culture…
My visit to Hull ticked several boxes. It was a mini-break, some work, plus an opportunity to catch some culture in and around a proud old city that has taken some serious knocks over the years. And before we start, let’s be honest: hands up anyone that chuckled, scoffed or rolled their eyes when Hull was announced as this year’s city of culture?
Well, read on and weep…
Hull is a tough, working class place; there is no masking that. You see it on the faces of locals going about their business. Hull and its people are independent and resourceful, determined and proud; they are grafters. It’s a world away from other UK city locations that carry the ‘cosmopolitan’ label, and yet change is afoot.
Developed several hundred years ago to export wool, the port became a bustling trade point and later a carried military supplies. It was perfect for North Sea shipping routes. That, plus its other strategic advantages, saw Hull extensively bombed during WW2 and the city then suffered decline for many post-war decades.
But enough of that. Much of the architectural grandeur still stands, there’s been considerable investment, the university has blossomed, and there’s new retail and employment zones in the heart of the city and scattered around the outskirts. There are, I was surprised to learn, over one quarter of a million inhabitants. It’s a growing city.
Arriving by rail, the train station has been super-charged in the last decade to its current incarnation as the Hull Paragon Interchange. Okay, so it’s trains and buses, but look above the station hustle and bustle and you’ll even see a plane suspended up high. Just don’t expect handy flights abroad! Still, the transport hub is an impressive space, and who doesn’t love classic station features like those irresistible arches that greet travellers?
Before I ventured out into the city core, I was distracted by delicate notes that mixed with the harsh clink of coffee cups and garbled mobile phone conversations of busy commuters. Outside the Royal Hotel that adjoins the main station building, a young mum was sat with her child at a piano. It was there for the public to tinkle the ivories, make music, have fun, engage with culture. A few feet away a statue of Philip Larkin (Hull’s famed poet) looked on, surely delighting in the beautiful sounds that a mother created for her captivated youngster and those lucky enough to be passing by.
There’s a comprehensive commercial offering in easy reach for those who enjoy the art of shopping, mostly pedestrianised and peppered with elegant street furniture and abstract art installations. You even get cream-coloured telephone boxes! The retail therapy is not for me, but thankfully the high street giants and growing array of local independent traders are complimented by some inviting coffee shops and a fine selection of bars and restaurants.
Indeed, the craft beer revolution has arrived with a bang, and across the city there are hidden gems waiting to be discovered. You don’t need to venture far. One of the first sights to greet visitors leaving the station is Stanley’s Bourbon Craft. What’s not to like about a huge range of speciality whiskeys, artisan beers and carefully selected wines? Down by the marina, do try the Minerva with its many fabulous rooms, or the Head of Steam that serves sumptuous burgers in sight of the Minster.
For lunch, if a full-on restaurant meal seems too much, then pop by the Hull Pie Company (kiosk shop currently opposite the Maritime museum) that offers a tasty range of hearty but arty pastry creations that come with all manner of fillings. Being a veggie, it was refreshing to see some wacky combos aside from the usual fillings offered by traditional pie producers. There’s a great vibe about this set-up, run by passionate and innovative locals. I chose the Moroccan Spiced Vegetable & Falafel and sat down to eat in the nearby flowered public gardens by the regional BBC buildings.
Sometimes, it’s better not packing too much into a short visit. Just walk, watch, look up, listen, and enjoy the built environment all around. Hull is easily covered by foot, with the ‘New’ and ‘Truck’ theatres central, the Guildhall and Marina all accessible within twenty minutes… perhaps with the odd stop-off for more refreshments en route!
One must-do is an hour (or more) in the Ferens Art Gallery. From bold and modern to old masters, there’s something for everyone (and free entry) throughout its many rooms and spaces. My visit coincided with a couple of lads scratching their heads in the gallery’s foyer. “What’s the point in a pile of pebbles?” one asked the other. It was a fair question, but closer inspection revealed a carefully constructed structure of polyurethane and polystyrene pieces that have been reclaimed from the sea by artist Alexander Duncan. It set the tone, with many other challenging works displayed throughout the centre.
As a keen snapper myself (inside the gallery I was advised that I shouldn’t be taking pictures, oops), the prints of Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Hull images are jaw-dropping. Over 3000 people stripped naked and were painted various shades of blue before filling streets and spaces around the city. Truly amazing; a river of humanity flowing through the city’s veins. You can vote for your favourite and join guides for tours of the locations used around Hull.
For the purists there is also a treat. A Rembrandt (The Ship Builder and his Wife, 1633) is one of five works of art that have been loaned to the Ferens as part of the city’s cultural celebrations. So enjoy them while you can. There’s even a cheeky rumour that suggests Rembrandt lived and worked in Hull for a short period. True or not, it’s a great talking point and adds a dash of mystique when you venture back into the city’s streets to progress your journey.
It’s no surprise that water dominates the city, a continued nod to the city’s heritage. In Hull, you’re never far from a drop of the wet stuff. Take Princes Quay, which has a bit of everything – cinema, bowling, shops, eateries and events – especially across the 2017 year of culture. On a fine day you enjoy great vistas, with outdoor seating affording views of life on the water surrounding the original dock that dates back to 1829.
There’s no city wall as such, but visitors are treated to a city within a city. A short walk from Princes Quay, you stumble into what’s known as the Old Town. There’s a wonderful atmosphere, huddled buildings, alleyways, fabulous features, bags of character and allure. Hidden markets, refurbished warehouses and oodles of history at each turn.
When you add street performers, the many themed museums, markets, music and dance, well, you could easily fill a few weeks trying to cram it all in.
So, yes, I left Hull with a warm glow, impressed by so many aspects of a fast-changing city, and I will be back. Soon.