I’m visiting every city in the UK and Ireland. Here’s the first: Hull. Except, not really.
Hull is where Britain cracks. Looking down from space, you’d see a split in the island’s ancient curved back – and the city of Hull (formally Kingston Upon Hull) is tucked into the nook of it.
If you were a local medieval wool merchant, you’d applaud. It’s perfectly positioned for trade. The river Humber – more correctly a tidal estuary* – winds deep inland all the way up to York (although by then it’s the river Ouse), making a natural thoroughfare for bringing goods to the coast, to Hull and from there to all the major ports of Europe. That’s why it was built. Before Hull intervened, European traders would have to sail all the way up to York to get their wool. When Hull became a major English port, York’s economy crashed – and took centuries to recover. Hull 1, York 0.
To the north of Hull, it’s mostly boulder clay. Welcome to one of the fastest-eroding coastlines in Europe. East Yorkshire is spectacularly low and flat – not good news for its inhabitants. Left to the unchecked ravages of rising sea levels, Hull might be underwater in less than a century, turning it into “England’s Venice“.
That’s OK. Hull loves a good fight. Hull’s tough, Hull’s up for it, and Hull knows how to get back on its feet after receiving a good kicking. Which is a good job, really. If Hull could talk, it might sound like one of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen, but without the self-deluding pompousness. When Hull says it’s had it hard, lad – it isn’t kidding.
This is Hull’s City Hall. It was built at the turn of the last century, and it’s lucky to still be standing. 74 years ago, Hull took the worst beating of its life. It was the target of Nazi Germany’s first daylight bombing raid on Britain, and the recipient of its last. After over a thousand hours of air-raids, half of its wartime population of 300,000 had been made homeless. 95% of Hull, including the City Hall, had been damaged by bombs. Just one-twentieth of the city left unscathed – a truly insane battering. Barring London, it was the most severely damaged British city of the whole war.
Then came attempts to rebuild and redevelop, some of them successful, others over-enamoured with concrete. Hull tried to get up, and tried again. The city’s shipping industry dwindled in the 1970s; the deep sea fishing industry (formerly whaling) collapsed soon after. These were tough, dangerous occupations: fishing and whaling have been described as “an amazing carnage…an industry that had a mortality rate 17 times higher than coal mining.” But, they were jobs. What could replace them? Short-term answer: nothing. For a long, long time, Hull languished, fell into poverty and neglect. Sometimes it’s too much, and you just have the wind knocked out of you.
Now it’s getting upright once more. Hull has a lot to prove before it becomes the UK’s City of Culture in 2017. It’s going to be fun watching what it does.
Is That All There Is To Hull?
Hah. No. Not even close. But I’m stopping here, and here’s why.
I’ve begun my write-up of all the cities of the UK and Ireland because I’m finding Hull the hardest to write about
Other than York, this is the city I know best. I spent my teenage years out in East Yorkshire, with Hull as my nearest city. I retook my A-levels in Hull as a mature student at the age of 30, sat in classrooms with 17 year olds (I’m not making this up) and for a year being the resident “Grandpa Mike”. I’ve been entertainingly / pathetically drunk at Spiders, and I’ve thrown someone over a hedge in Orchard Park, after he punched me in the face and broke my glasses.
More recently, Hull has been my gateway to the rest of the world. It’s where I go when I need to catch the train, or the Megabus, or the first part of my route to any airport. I’ve been through Paragon train station maybe a hundred times, and tried to stay in it overnight exactly once. (Never again.) I’ve used the city’s port to catch ferries to Belgium, and I’ve slept in one of its bus-shelters (my first microadventure?) after a night out that I never want to fully remember…
I thought York, my home for the 12 years up to 2012, would be harder to write about – but Hull seems to be a special case. The highs are higher, the lows are way lower. There’s a lot to process here – and a lot to tune out.
Thinking about Hull has forced me to confront exactly what I’m trying to achieve with this series. I could turn it into a kind of travel diary (probably involving regrettable stupidity and self-inflicted misery, which seems to be a pattern in my travel writing). I could spill my opinions and half-baked impressions over everything I write – and hey, I probably will, but that’s not really the aim here. Why should you give a flying buggeration about the bad sandwich I had somewhere, the surly bartender who short-changed me, or the unusually foul weather that put me in a grumpy mood the whole day? Where do those experiences belong? Do they belong anywhere at all? Where do you draw the line between subjective and objective, and label it “fair”?
So here’s my line. I’m not going to tell you to not go to any of the cities I’m visiting. I firmly believe that everywhere is interesting if you look hard enough. If somewhere is stressful to walk around, well, how did it get like that and why? If everyone agrees that the prevailing architecture is vomitously awful, why would architects and designers willingly design it that way? (Answer: they wouldn’t, not willingly – so no doubt there’s a story there.)
This is a series about how the UK & Ireland’s cities got the way they are, about how they work today, and about what makes them all excitingly different. It’s not about my Top 10 Worst Travel Experiences.
Now: to illustrate the problem I’m having, here are my top 10 worst travel experiences.
- Drinking a cup of coffee in Hull’s Paragon station cafe, around 1995. This isn’t hyperbole. Not only did it taste like battery acid, burning the back of my throat and making my teeth unbearably itchy, it gave me crippling indigestion and one of the worst headaches I’ve ever suffered, the El Niño of migraines, which I had to endure while waiting two hours in the bitter cold for a bus home because it was Christmas and the buses get a bit iffy around that time. I have never been in so much mental agony, and that includes going to see The Phantom Menace.
- Getting off the bus at Paragon station at 2am, finding the station locked, and spending the next two hours trying to not get lynched. Full story here.
- Being robbed in Germany. Here. Obviously this isn’t Hull’s fault – but it’s not Germany’s fault either. “Fault” is a stupid word when it comes to places.
- Hull again. But this one’s personal, so I’m keeping my lip buttoned. Again, Hull’s not to blame. Stop blaming Hull – what’s wrong with you?
- More Hull.
In short, Hull features six times in my own top ten of worst travel experiences. It also ranks highly in my list of places I’ve had a terrific time in. I just have…a lot of history with Hull. And I’d like to say I can rise about that, stand back, adopt a professional air and do a fair job of writing about the place.
I’d like to, but I can’t right now.
So I’m not going to. Today, I’ll cut this short – and I’ll circle back round after covering every other city in the UK and Ireland, and finish this series by writing about Hull in a way I’m clearly incapable of doing right now, using everything those intervening 74 cities have taught me.
In the meantime – Hull? Keep up the good fight.
* Thanks for the correction to Darren Bell.
“To Hull And Back: The Rebirth Of Britain’s Poorest City” – The Guardian, September 2014
Images: Mike Sowden, Darren Flinders.