Ok, I agree. Even though I had never visited, I was one of those who was cynical when the city of Hull (full name Kingston upon Hull) was crowned UK Capital of Culture 2017. I was that incredulous that all I could think was – who did they bribe?
As recently as 2015, a survey by the City Council found that over half the population lived in the most deprived areas of the country. Before that Hull had not achieved that many column inches in the newspapers beyond the cod wars with Iceland in 1970’s which all but ruined its fishing industry. And during the World War years poor Hull was the second most-bombed city in England, thanks to its docks.
So, you can understand why it took me four months to find the impetus to do my job and check it out.
Boarding Hull trains from Kings Cross it was a direct three-hour whizz and before I knew it I was face-to-face with a huge, unmissable smile-inducing pink poster saying “Welcome to Hull, where have you been all our lives?”
A few steps away there was a stand with half a dozen (of 4,000 dotted around the city) sky-blue-jacketed people smiling and giving out leaflets about the city. “Who is paying you to do this” I asked. “We are volunteers, we want to tell you about our fabulous city” they said as they handed me some blurb.
I picked up a taxi outside the station: “Are you visiting?” asked the eagle-eyed driver spotting the leaflets I was still holding. “It’s a great time to be here – the city has spent £25 million on the pavements alone and £30 million on the New Theatre”, he said pointing to an unfinished building. “Oh and over there” he said nodding his head in the direction of a huge board with the words Fruit Market, “is the new regenerated trendy area where the old fruit market used to be”. Was everyone here secretly working for the press office I wondered.
A 90-minute walk around Hull that changed my views
To find out more I hooked up with effervescent local guide Paul Schofield. We started out at the beautifully revamped marina (formerly Humber Dock) where the free-to-enter trawler museum is moored, on his fact-packed 90-minute walking tour on shiny newly paved and cobbled streets, around this compact city.
Paul led the way into the Old Town’s twisty, narrow alleyways that with elegant Georgian architecture looked surprisingly lovely in the morning sun. Cosy eateries and homely pubs appear every now then, and old shops whose decor looked like time had stopped, were beckoning.
Phone boxes are coloured cream not the usual red. Turns out it’s because Hull, a city with secret ambitions to be independent, had its own phone system while the rest of the country had BT.
We walked into the Victorian Hepworth shopping arcade with its magnificent glass dome roof sheltering a clutch of independent shops including Beasley miliner (with a hat for every occasion) and Dinsdales that opened in the 1930s. It is the oldest joke shop in the UK and with its faded price tags in its prank-packed windows it looks it too. It’s claim to fame is that it inspired Reece Shearsmith’s sketch show League of Gentlemen. John Dinsdale, the owner, was a bit of a joke-a-minute laugh who was more than a little partial to high-jinx.
There’s also a hall of fame with images of Hull’s greatest sons and daughters. Hundreds of biographies hang on the wall showing off Maureen Lipman (no intro needed), Amy Johnson (first female pilot to fly a plane from England to Australia), Barbara Buttrick the world’s first female boxer, Phil Larkin (novellist and poet) and former MP Lord Prescott.
On the street absurdly named Land of Green Ginger (no-one knows why) there is a hard-to-find window, thought to be the smallest in the world. It’s less than an inch wide yet if you peer in you will be rewarded by the shocking sight of a monster face.
We took time to look around Museum quarter and I made a note to return. The same with the Fruit Market that revolves around Humber Street, an urban village that will have had £80 million spent on it once all the brand new restaurants, independent shops and homes are complete.
The walk ended on the very spot that the English Civil War started when Hull refused to let King Charles into the then walled city. Workmen are busy excavating the spot in the shadow of the 700-year-old Holy Trinity Church, as I write.