So Kingston-Upon-Hull has been named the UK City of Culture 2017. I should imagine there has been a lot of surprise about that decision – not least from residents of Hull itself. We don’t expect a lot here, frankly. Hull has been the butt of so many jokes and so much derision over the years that to receive such a massive compliment takes some getting used to.
Where is Hull? Someone once asked a friend of mine, on hearing where she was from, ‘Hull? Isn’t that a fishing village in Yorkshire?’ There’s no escape from the jokes and derogatory comments. Even watching a programme about Dr Who brings no relief. In an episode called “Blink”, a girl is touched by a weeping angel and transported back to 1920s Hull. ‘And if you want to know what that’s like,’ said the oh-so-witty presenter, ‘go to Hull now.’
Wrong! Hull has a wonderful history and one that we are very proud of, but it is also a very forward-looking place, moving on in the face of adversity. Dear old Hull hasn’t had it easy, make no mistake about that.
It started as a little settlement called Wyke, where the mighty Humber meets the River Hull, used by the monks of Meaux Abbey as a base for transporting wool. First mentioned in the twelfth century it rapidly grew in importance and stature. In 1299 Edward I bestowed a royal charter upon it and it became King’s Town Upon Hull and in Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee year of 1897 it finally achieved city status.
Hull is the largest settlement in the East Riding of Yorkshire, so we Hullensians are Yorkshire born and proud of it, but we are also a little apart. There’s something “on the edge” about Hull. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been here, but geographically it is so remote that it feels like it’s just that little bit outside of things. We’re the end of the road, the end of the railway line. Hull is just twenty minutes from the North Sea. Head east and marvel at the flat, sweeping plains and bleak beauty of Holderness. Head in the other direction to the glorious, rolling Yorkshire wolds. Visit the Humber Bridge at nearby Hessle and look across the Humber to Lincolnshire. You can be in Whitby within an hour and a half, Scarborough or the Yorkshire Moors within the hour.
But what about Hull itself? Look, I’m from Hull. I was born here. Not so long ago, and for a very long time, I was almost embarrassed to admit that. Endless digs about this city took its toll. Being named the worst place to live in the UK by Phil and Kirstie didn’t help, nor did being featured in a list of “crap towns”. But I challenge anyone who thinks it’s fun to look down their nose at this place to actually come here and take a look round.
Hull has struggled, make no mistake about it. But Hull is good at fighting back. Good at fighting for what it believes in. It was one of the first places to take action during the Civil War when, in 1642, the town refused entry to the king. Hull became a Parliamentary outpost surrounded by royalist strongholds. During the Second World War it was the most badly-bombed city outside London. Easy to spot, set on the banks of the huge Humber, it became a regular target. Not only that, but failed bombing missions by the Germans would result in their planes dropping their bombs on Hull before heading out to sea towards home.
Known only as a ‘Northern coastal town’ Hull’s suffering was largely kept quiet, but there was hardly a street that wasn’t affected. Even in the late 1960s I remember the piles of brick and rubble at the back of my grandparents’ house that used to be a terrace – a wartime bomb site that was just one of many to be cleared all those years later.
Hull was once a thriving fishing port, and there are few families who didn’t have someone who went to sea or worked on the docks. In the 1970s the Cod War brought untold misery to the fishing families. The industry declined rapidly and brought Hull almost to its knees. The communities built around fishing were broken up, the houses pulled down, families moved to other, newer areas of the city.
Researching my family tree, it struck me that I wouldn’t be here if the city hadn’t attracted so many people to it from other places. I have ancestors from Ireland, who found sanctuary here after fleeing from the famine in the mid nineteenth century. I have a Prussian fisherman ancestor who came here with his ship, met a local girl and married and settled here. I have ancestors whose work brought them from Manchester, Scotland, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire and Shropshire, who chose to stay here and make a life for themselves in Hull. The city took them in and gave them work and because of that, I am here. Today, Hull gives shelter and work to a variety of people from many countries. There are people from Poland, India, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, China and many other countries who are happy to call Hull home.
Hull is the birthplace of William Wilberforce, the MP who fought to abolish slavery. It’s the home of Amy Johnson, the pioneer aviator. Andrew Marvell was born here. Other famous Hullensians include Maureen Lipman, John Alderton, Tom Courtenay, Stevie Smith, Olympic boxing champion Luke Campbell, Benidorm creator Derren Litten, novelist Russ Litten, and Mick Ronson. People who have lived and worked in Hull include Philip Larkin, John Prescott, Anthony Minghella, Andrew Motion, The Housemartins. Writer Valerie Wood lives near Hull and her marvellous novels are set in the Hull and Holderness of a past century.
We have literary festivals, jazz festivals, the Freedom Festival…we have a huge annual fair which people travel to from all over England to visit or take part in. We have a fabulous museum quarter with free admission to all, an amazing art gallery, three great shopping centres, a beautiful marina, the famous Hull Truck Theatre as well as the New Theatre in Kingston Square, the beautiful Holy Trinity Church – soon to be Hull Minster – an old town with cobbled streets and ancient pubs, a train station that boasts a life-size statue of poet Philip Larkin, an award winning aquarium, The Deep, restaurants, shops, cinemas, an ice arena, a great cafe culture, a popular university, a medical school, colleges, an attractive city centre that is largely pedestrianised, a premier football club, hugely successful and fanatically-supported rugby teams, the UK’s only independent telephone exchange and our unique cream telephone boxes.
We have an accent that is just that bit different to the rest of Yorkshire, and a population that laughs, loves, and keeps smiling, no matter what life throws at it. We have a fish pavement. Yes, really! How many people can say that? Oh, and as you journey around Hull you may notice that we also have a collection of toads. Large toads. It’s quite surprising where you find them!
So, yes, I’m from Hull. Kingston-Upon-Hull, the UK City of Culture 2017. And I’m very proud of that fact.
Why don’t you pop by one day and take a look for yourself? You may be surprised.
Have a great week xx