Hull and High Water

16th June 2017

Kingston-upon-Hull was designated UK City of Culture 2017 based on its bid as ‘a city coming out of the shadows’. As the year approaches the half-way mark, Deborah Mulhearn visited to find out more…

An impressive if intimidating raft of Hullonians has been corralled to celebrate the city’s 2017 City of Culture accolade, and when I step off the train at Hull’s Paragon Transport Interchange (a name to raise expectations if ever there was one) I half expect them to be crowding the platform. Aviator Amy Johnson, abolitionist William Wilberforce, mathematician John Venn (remember Venn diagrams from your schooldays?) and poet Philip Larkin are just a few cited in the promotional literature.

Larkin has a statue on the station concourse – he was from Coventry originally but is rightly claimed by Hull because he spent thirty years as the University of Hull Librarian. Hull is good at recognising its daughters and (adopted) sons, and public statues of historic and contemporary figures abound in the city’s streets and squares.

The sense of history is potent throughout the city centre and the old dock area. But that history has been chequered, of course – from whaling capital of Britain in the nineteenth century to declining fishing port over the past fifty years, particularly after the Icelandic ‘cod wars’ badly affected its fishing industry. Arctic Corsair, Hull’s last sidewinder trawler, moored in the River Hull in the Old Town, is just one of the many remnants and reminders of the city’s maritime past.

The wide streets and squares seem to emulate the wide Humber estuary and low-slung skies, and the City of Culture’s yearlong celebrations mark Hull’s relationship with the sea with inventive art installations, theatre productions and street performances.

Hull has a relaxed feel, but there’s also an air of quiet resistance about the place. Why, for example, are the phone boxes cream and not red? And, hang on a minute, how come there are so many of them? In every other place in the UK, the classic Giles Gilbert Scott K6 phone box is pretty much a heritage item. Here they proliferate.

Could they be a cheeky City of Culture artwork? But no; it’s because the city council resisted BT and ran its own telecoms company, KCOM, and although this is now privatised, woe betide anyone who suggests a cull of Hull’s signature cream phone boxes.

Taking my cue from the friendly City of Culture volunteers, easily recognisable in their bright turquoise and pink jackets, I head to the spacious Queen Victoria Square, where the Look Up art installation programme opened with Blade, a huge wind turbine blade stretched across the square. I find it unexpectedly beautiful and it reminds me of a much-magnified strand of DNA.

People are photographing themselves under it, arms upstretched as if harnessing for themselves the raw power of the Humber estuary, or of life itself. The wind turbine blades are hand-built at Siemens’ new facility at the port, so the artwork is a nod to Hull’s future as well as its past.

In the square, it’s easy to lose yourself in the Maritime Museum beneath the whale skeletons and figureheads. There is also a fascinating collection of scrimshaw, the sailor’s art of fine-grained carving on ivory and bone. A City of Culture addition to the permanent collections is Bowhead, a mesmerising nine-minute film of a bowhead whale gliding darkly through the water like an underwater Zeppelin.

Across the square is the Ferens Art Gallery, which has seen visitor numbers increase a thousandfold since its refurbishment for 2017, probably due to the presence of a new golden jewel in the crown: Christ between Saint Paul and Saint Peter by Pietro Lorenzetti.

This gold leaf painting on a wooden panel – the only Lorenzetti in a UK public art gallery – was acquired in 2013 and restored after a four-year conservation project. It dates from 1320 but the seven-hundred year old facial expressions tell as recognisable and intimate a story of human relationships as if they had been painted yesterday.

This is an exquisite addition to the early Renaissance collection that also includes works by Giotto, Cimabue, and Simone Martini. I’m glad I listened to one of the volunteers who told me not to miss the maritime paintings in the upstairs gallery, because these too are wonderful.

From the Ferens I follow Whitefriargate to the Old Town with its narrow cobbled lanes and alleys that lead down to the river wharves known as staiths. Hull seems to have retained many of its traditional pubs, and their names tell of its maritime history: The Sailmaker’s Arms, The Bonny Boat and Ye Olde Black Boy.

The oldest pub is reputed to be the Olde White Hart, where the English Civil War was allegedly provoked in the upstairs ‘plotting room’, when King Charles I was refused entrance – to the city, not the pub – after the Siege of Hull in 1642. The room certainly exudes the atmosphere of plots and counter plots with its dark carved wood panels carved and peephole windows. It’s worth noting that two of the conspirators in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot also came from nearby Welwick – a large metal sculpture marks the entrance to the village.

From here it’s a short walk to the old dock area where I have arranged to meet artist Adele Howitt in the old Fruit Market, now buzzing not with traders but trendy cafés, art galleries, smart restaurants and that staple of hipsterdom, a microbrewery.

The benefits of the City of Culture are trickling through to smaller cultural organisations too, Adele tells me. She is a ceramicist who has opened an international art gallery in the Fruit Market, which has seen a healthy influx of visitors this year. Adele is also designing a pottery trail to celebrate Hornsea Pottery, the distinctive geometric earthenware that was made in the nearby coastal market town for over fifty years until its closure in 2000, a loss that hit the town badly as it was its largest employer.

Beyond Hull to the east, the Holderness Plain stretches to the North Sea coast, and the road dips and curves through arable farmland (and now wind farmland – the turbines are ubiquitous on the skyline here). We head south from Hornsea through the scattered villages that dot the plain towards Spurn Point. These are characterised by Dutch-style stepped gables, cobbles and pantiled roofs that reflect the area’s trading links with the Low Countries over the centuries. But what really distinguishes them is the array of steeples and spires, sometimes known as navigation towers.

The village of Patrington has the beautiful St Patrick’s church, also known as the Queen of Holderness. Simon Jenkins, author of England’s Thousand Best Churches, calls it ‘a harmonious work of Decorated Gothic and one of the loveliest parish churches in England.’ Its soft grey limestone spire and delicate corona can be seen long before we reach it and the interior, when we get there, fulfills the promise.

This coastline has always suffered coastal erosion and at Spurn Point, a narrow and shifting ‘spit’ of land, the unforgiving waves where the Humber meets the North Sea wash the land mercilessly. The unstable stony sand and scrub is swept round the head of the spit, occupied solely by a lighthouse and the only permanently manned lifeboat station in the UK. Over decades the teardrop-shaped spit shifts first one way, then imperceptibly back, replenishing itself as it goes.

From the car park it takes around four hours to walk to the end and back – you can’t drive the length any more because in 2015 a tidal surge swept a section of the road into the sea and so there is a very real danger of being cut off at high tide. It’s essential to check the times at the car park information board or at the Bluebell cafe, surely one of Britain’s loneliest cafes.

Owner Yorkshire Wildlife Trust plans a new visitor centre for the spit, a controversial development that has prompted fierce local resistance by those who believe Spurn should be left wild. “You felt like you were at the end of the world when you came here,” says Adele. “Sometimes it’s best to leave a place wild and not try to manage it too much.”

This ghostly landscape draws not only artists and photographers but also anglers and birdwatchers, and on rougher days, surfers and wild swimmers. As we get closer to the lighthouse the sense of stillness and eerie remoteness intensifies. Grimsby and the Port of
Immingham are barely visible across the misty water and only the lapping of the water, the sounds of birds and the occasional thrum of a ship’s engine can be heard.

A solitary roe deer leaps from the eelgrass, noses around ahead of us and darts back. We couldn’t be further away from the busy streets of Hull and that crowded station platform. It’s no wonder that the final plaque on the Larkin trail quotes from his poem Here:

Here silence stands
Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken,
Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,
Luminously-peopled air ascends;
And past the poppies bluish neutral distance
Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.

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