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