Hull of a City

Hull of a City James Mulkeen
31 Jan
2017
For this month’s Discovering Britain Trail, Laura Cole takes a walk around Kingston-upon-Hull, the UK City of Culture for 2017

For more great walks, trails and viewpoints, be sure to check out the new Discovering Britain Facebook page by clicking here.

db logo jpeg large‘Why the Hull not?’ a poster demands as I arrive at the city’s train station. It’s one of many advertisements that exploit the infinitely punnable name of the northeastern metropolis. I also see ‘one Hull of a city’, ‘a Hull new world’ and ‘wonderfHull’. There is a slight air of defensiveness to these slogans. For decades the city has been the butt of the joke, long associated with decline and failed development. This year, however, Hullensians could be having the last laugh as Hull has been dubbed the UK City of Culture for 2017.

Fittingly it began the year with a fireworks display to rival that of London and Edinburgh. On this wintry morning, however, the place is having a different kind of light show, one unique to being an eastern city on the banks of an estuary. As I approach the harbour, where this month’s Discovering Britain trail begins, I am drawn to the buttercream glow of the sunlight as it bounces off the swirling water. Behind me, its blanching rays fan over the turquoise domes and white columns of City Hall. In front, it lights up the underwings of gulls – who are quite at home in this near-sea city. Philip Larkin, the country’s favourite post-war poet and celebrated Hull resident, wrote of the city and its surroundings at the end of his poem Here: ‘...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’. His uncertain language creates a sense of searching, perhaps for a more obvious purpose and identity.

However, the city once thrived off its waterside geography. It sits on the north bank of the Humber estuary, a confluence of five sizable river tributaries: the Ouse, the Trent, the Ancholme, the Freshney, and the Hull, the last of which the city was built around. The Humber’s meander towards the south makes a natural sea barrier out of its north bank and, for centuries, ships were provided shelter from North Sea storms as they came under its wing. ‘This was the ideal place to start a settlement which went on to become Britain’s third-largest port,’ explains Helen Rawling, writer of this trail. The connections of the estuary meant that boats could have access to the inner hinterlands of the Midlands, Lincolnshire and most of Yorkshire. But as a coastal city, it opened up the North Sea and thus trade with Europe and Scandinavia.

‘The first people who realised this location’s potential were the monks of Meaux Abbey,’ she explains. ‘They exported wool, which was shipped to Holland and Belgium for weaving. The main import was wine, but also wood, iron, tar and furs from Scandinavia.’

 

OLD HARBOUR

The trail leads away from the estuary and up the river Hull, as though following the route a ship would use to come in to dock. Upstream, I turn left into the mazy lanes of the Old Harbour. Its ‘high street’ is unconventional by modern standards. Narrow, cobbled and lined by tall, red brick buildings, it became the place for homes and warehouses of rich merchants. Above, some of the older buildings have strange windows – the height of a person – with large, wooden shelves suspended from chains to hang over the street. They are ‘taking in doorways’ and ‘taking in shelves’, which were lowered to allow traders to move goods in and out of warehouses. At street level, small arched passages called staithes run through the buildings to the river. The name comes from the Norse word for platforms to boats and these alleyways would have quickened access for transferring goods.

In total four docks opened in Hull in the 19th century, creating a complete network of waterways around the city, boosting its reputation as a major port, and securing its city status

These days, most of Hull’s commercial activity has moved up to the east of the city centre and the Old Harbour is quiet. There are neat little cafes and quirky stores, while some of the warehouses have been converted to student university accommodation. However, it’s not difficult to imagine this narrow street, a hodgepodge of Scandinavian and Victorian influence, bristling with early-morning activity. ‘By the late 17th century, Hull was the third-largest port in Britain,’ says Rawling, ‘exporting lead and cloth and importing flax, hemp, iron and tar. A century later, whaling and fishing industries had also grown up here because of the direct access to the North Sea.’

 

PROUD ABOLITIONISTS

While Hull had become a northeast outpost of maritime trade connected to the Baltic and Europe, there were other cities with a more sinister reach. In London, Bristol and Liverpool, the slave trade had let individuals and industries prosper. From the late 1600s to the early 1800s, the three cities used ships to send manufactured goods to Africa in exchange for slaves to take to the Caribbean – two sides of the trans-Atlantic slave trade triangle.

Hull, however, might be the only place with a proud history around the slave trade in that it was a local Hullensian who helped to get rid of it. William Wilberforce, once an MP for Kingston-upon-Hull, himself from a local family of wealthy sea-merchants, made it his life’s ambition to abolish the slave trade within the British Empire. His home and birthplace was in the Old Harbour, at the end of high street. Though his overwhelming feat has been celebrated with statues and portraits all over the city, the column beyond the house is the most prominent. His likeness overlooks Queen’s Gardens, a large, green rectangle of short-cropped grass around a central lane of trees. When Wilberforce was alive, this would have been a pool of water – another port built to take pressure off the Old Harbour.

Back then, the city was flourishing. ‘In total four docks opened in Hull in the 19th century,’ says Rawling, ‘creating a complete network of waterways around the city, boosting its reputation as a major port, and securing its city status.’ The dock was filled in and transformed into a garden during the 1930s as trade moved to the city’s bigger ports. However, Hull’s fortune didn’t last. The Second World War, deindustrialisation and strict quotas on the fishing industry dried up commerce and began Hull’s decline.

Completing the circle route of the walk back to the estuary, I turn into Humber Street. Since the 1800s, this area had hosted a wholesale fruit market. However, after a failed redevelopment plan during the 2008 recession, it became a symbol of the city’s dilapidation. Not anymore. I am faced with an army of construction workers spraying the street with power hoses. Over the past few months, crumbling asphalt has been removed to reveal some of the older cobblestones beneath, moulding original elements of the market’s history to a newer bohemian look. Meanwhile, road barriers have gradually been lifted allowing the city’s street artists, independent restaurants and small galleries to move back in.

Looking eastwards, the long, low line of rejuvenated buildings frame the striking shape of the River Hull Tidal Barrier. This year could put both the new culture and the rich history of this city back on the map. Why the Hull not indeed? 

TRAIL Details
• Location: Yorkshire and the Humber
• Type: Urban
• Duration: 1 hour
Click here for more details

Unearth more of our nation’s history and find more great walks, trails and viewpoints around the UK at discoveringbritain.org or via the new Discovering Britain Facebook page.

This was published in the February 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

LATEST DISCOVERING BRITAIN

Subscribe Today

Target Ovarian Cancer

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in UK...

Discovering Britain

For this month’s Discovering Britain trail, Laura Cole travels to…

Discovering Britain

For this month’s Discovering Britain viewpoint, Laura Cole visits a glacier’s graveyard in…

Discovering Britain

In this month’s Discovering Britain trail, Laura Cole explores Coed…

AONB

Although the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB is home to…

Discovering Britain

For this month’s Discovering Britain viewpoint, Laura Cole heads to…

Discovering Britain

For this month’s Discovering Britain, Laura Cole travels to Sheffield, which…

UK

As it celebrates turning 50-years-old, Milton Keynes is bracing for…

UK

Last year’s EU referendum revealed a divided country. Could genuine…

Discovering Britain

In this month’s Discovering Britain viewpoint, Laura Cole visits the…

AONB

The Tamar Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty has a…

Discovering Britain

For this month’s Discovering Britain Trail, Laura Cole takes a walk…

UK

Twelve months on from Storm Desmond and one in five…

AONB

High Weald, UK’s fourth-largest AONB, is often described as a…

Discovering Britain

For this month’s Discovering Britain viewpoint, Laura Cole travels to…

Discovering Britain

In this month’s Discovering Britain, Laura Cole visits Rannoch Moor,…

Discovering Britain

For this month’s Discovering Britain viewpoint, Laura Cole explores Birmingham’s…

AONB

The Lincolnshire Wolds still bear the indelible impressions of numerous…

AONB

Riven with river valleys and dotted with Iron Age hillforts,…

Discovering Britain

For centuries, crowds have descended – or ascended – on…

AONB

A look at the UK’s smallest mainland AONB, which encompasses…