In the Land of Green Ginger

PIC: Mike Cowling
PIC: Mike Cowling
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In the latest of her coastal adventures, Sheena Hastings takes a walk around Hull’s historic and charming Old Town.

IN 2003, some wag dubbed Hull a “crap town” in a book of that name. Did Hull wince? Certainly. Did the city and its people then shrug and laugh it off? Well, maybe not that easily.

People who were not even familiar with Hull’s geographical position were suddenly aware of this grim, flippantly coined tag. Hull was too far north and east for many of them to bother finding out for themselves whether the city lived up (or down) to the label.

Even for those who live in the North, Hull does feel far away – stuck, as it is, at the end of a long and boring stretch of motorway that cuts through relatively featureless flat lands.

If you didn’t have family or friends in the city you might well consider there’s no earthly reason to visit – despite the fact that Hull has drier weather than anywhere else in Yorkshire, a magnificent suspension bridge over the mighty Humber and an impressive collection of museums.

It also has The Deep, an appositely positioned aquarium evocative of the city’s proud maritime history. And then there’s the Old Town – a compact and delightfully atmospheric place so very different to pretty much everything around it.

Whatever the misconceptions about what Hull is today, talk to anyone who has studied at its university or lived there for any substantial amount of time and a misty nostalgia may well shine from their eyes.

Hull has had its ups and downs, particularly in the second half of the 20th century, but she inspires a lifetime of fondness and fierce loyalty in many of those who know her well.

The announcement last year that the city was to be UK City of Culture 2017, beating off competition from shortlisted rivals including Leicester, Dundee and Swansea, made the naysayers sit up.

Since then, a sea change in how the city is (mis)judged has gathered pace. The place that inspired poet and former university librarian Philip Larkin to call it “a city that is in the world yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have a different resonance” has been considered to be worth a second glance – or a first look from those who were too hasty in ignorantly writing it off.

“Suddenly journalists were getting on trains and coming up from London,” says Paul Schofield, who was born and bred in east Hull, the son of a docker. For more than 25 years he has led guided tours of Hull and Beverley. “You could see that they were amazed by what they found,” he says.

Paul left Hull once, to go to university in Warwick. Warwick was great, but it wasn’t Hull – and he’s stayed put ever since, winning awards for his work, which includes giving talks on Hull and district around the region.

After a few years of temporary jobs punctuated by spells of unemployment, he did a course at Hull Uni that would allow him to indulge his love of history and pride in his home city. An English Heritage-accredited tour guide qualification gave him a career. At 26 he became Hull’s only full-time tour guide.

Those joining his £3.50-a-head group tours of the Old Town are as likely to be from across the North Sea as from other points of the UK. We set off for a stroll around the cobbled streets that bear the marks of medieval and Georgian Hull. Passing ruins of the original city walls, King’s Town (so named in the 13th century by Edward I, who bought the port as a supply base for his military campaigns in Scotland) lay where the rivers Hull and Humber met.

Later it was the home of anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, whose house is a museum in the Old Town. And, although its fishing industry came and more or less went, it is still a thriving container port. The Old Town has been spruced up in recent times, and it is a marked contrast to the largely late 20th century architecture that surrounds it.

“That’s because of the worst chapter in Hull’s history – during the Second World War – when it was bombarded over several years and became the worst-hit place outside London,” says Paul. “It suffered much more than Coventry.

“Around 90 per cent of the buildings in the city were affected and 150,000 people were made homeless – that’s over half of the population. Around 1,500 people died. The city was smashed and that was never acknowledged officially by the Government. After the war Coventry was given a lot of government help to get back on its feet, but Hull got very little.”

One of the most admirable qualities about Hull and its people is self-sufficiency, says Paul. “People didn’t know where to start with rebuilding the city, but they got our heads down and got on with it. The Old Town wasn’t so badly damaged, and so we were left with a time warp.”

Paul’s two-hour tour takes in medieval red brick walkways, docks, ruins of original city walls and the entrance through the walls at Posterngate as well as beautiful Georgian civic buildings and streets of well-appointed merchants’ houses.

One of the most instantly remarkable characteristics is a modern addition, though. Hull has what’s thought to be the country’s first urban trail. Installed 22 years ago, artist Gordon Young’s witty and beautiful 41-part Fish Trail comprises an A-Z of life-sized fish sculptures set into the pavements that wind through the Old Town.

The oft-painted and photographed Prince Street curves up towards an ancient archway that opens out into the very beautiful Trinity Square, whose buildings span 700 years of Hull’s history. They include Holy Trinity Church, which is the UK’s largest parish church by area. Its marble font dating from 1380 was used to baptise Wilberforce.

The old Grammar School (1585) is now the Hands On History Museum, and a statue of Hull’s legendary metaphysical poet and MP Andrew Marvell (1621-1678, an old boy of the school) dominates the centre of the square. The plaque calls him a “patriot and wise man”. Nearby Trinity House, with its magnificent white Georgian facade, pediment and carvings of Britannia and Neptune, houses organisations that look after the welfare of seafarers and deal with the commercial business of the port.

We cut through Trinity indoor market, resisting the urge to linger at Spirit Records, with its tantalising boxes of vinyl and frieze of famous sons and daughters of Hull, among them Ebenezer Cobb Morley, co-founder of the FA; Cuthbert Broderick who was the Victorian architect of Leeds Town Hall; Alan Plater and Winifred Holtby.

The most evocatively named street is Land of Green Ginger – but no-one knows how or why it got the name, which has inspired several writers including Holtby, who borrowed it as the title of a novel. There’s an old coaching inn or smaller ancient hostelry at almost every turn here, and Paul diplomatically admits to having “at least 10 favourites”.

The 18th century George Hotel boasts the world’s smallest window (13in by 1in), which the stable lad would peep through to see if a carriage was coming. Ye Olde White Harte and its dark “plotting parlour” had a small part in the Civil War, as it was apparently here that, in 1642, it was decided to turn King Charles I away from the city gates when he came calling in the hope of taking control of the arsenal.

We take a breather atop the recently built Scale Lane pedestrian swing bridge with its strange audio installation of birdsong. There’s a view of the River Hull in one direction, and the Humber in the other, taking in jutting “beak” of The Deep.

“A few industries still use the River Hull,” says Paul. “But it’s more for leisure craft now. On the Humber the docks are still busy. A recent success was the securing of the Siemens contract to build wind turbines for use in the North Sea. Hull sees itself as being in the forefront of green energy.”

We saunter past the Wilberforce House and pass a beautifully behaved group of children from a Sheffield primary school. “It was a choice between York and here,” says their teacher. “We’re so glad we came here – the museums are fantastic.”

Now that Hull has been designated City of Culture, it will host at least 1,500 events, 7,500 jobs are expected to be created and it’s projected that £60m extra will flow into the local economy. Paul says more guides and ambassadors for Hull will be needed. He hopes a budget will be found to enable him to train others in how to inform the many thousands of visitors about the richness of the city.

“I love this city, and the biggest thing about City of Culture status is that it will give me and everyone else here the chance to come together and show it off. The bookies’ odds were 16/1 at the start of the process, but we were confident. Outsiders called us the joke candidate, but that only galvanised the people of Hull even more. The judges said we were a very united city, and we are.

“On the day of the announcement I was in bed when it came on the radio. I had a little cry – tears of joy. As I did my tour that day, everyone I saw was grinning.”

Paul Schofield leads walks around Hull’s historic Old Town on Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 2pm and on Sundays at 11am between April and October, or at other times on request. He also leads a variety of special interest walks. 01484 878535 or email schopaul@hotmail.com