My love letter to Hull

Rosie Millard chair of Hull City of Culture 2017.
Rosie Millard chair of Hull City of Culture 2017.
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Rosie Millard is on a mission to make the world fall in love with Hull. No change there then. She tells Sarah Freeman why she’s been banging the drum for the city for decades.

A little while ago Rosie Millard was asked to name her favourite piece of British architecture. She didn’t hesitate.

Ignoring both the historic grandeur of the Houses of Parliament and Norman Foster’s achingly modern Gherkin, the London-born journalist went instead for the Humber Bridge.

“It’s beautiful, absolutely beautiful,” she says. “People don’t seem to get what a triumph of engineering it is. If it was anywhere else, it would be raved about the world over. Honestly I have been banging on about Hull and the Humber Bridge for years, just ask my friends.”

Millard’s love affair with the city began when she went to university there in the 1980s, but she admits the passion had dwindled a little over the decades. However, it was rekindled last year when she returned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the drama department and found a very different Hull to the one she remembered.

“I was staying close to the marina and went for a run down the prom. I was amazed. Yes, you’ve got a landmark building like the Deep, but what really surprised me was the public art and the way that the architecture gives way to the sea and the sky. It felt like I was running out into the waves.

“It was unexpected, but it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise. Up and down the country dockside developments have been incredibly successful and Hull, partly I think because it’s out on a limb, has always had a wilful sense of independence.”

Spend a few minutes in Millard’s company as she waxes lyrical about everything from the Fruit Market to the city’s train station, she seems an obvious choice as chair of the company which will deliver Hull’s UK City of Culture programme in 2017. However, the appointment was down to a series of happy accidents rather than any meticulous planning on her part.

It was November last year, that the winning bid for the UK’s second City of Culture was revealed. On the morning the announcement was made, Millard was sat on a sofa in an ITV studio. She’d been recruited to put the case for Hull as other famous faces championed the other shortlisted cities - Leicester, Dundee and Swansea.

“We each had two minutes to talk about our city, but when I heard them say Hull had won, I couldn’t quite believe it, I just remember jumping out of my chair.” Millard’s passion for the place was obvious, so much so that the Daily Telegraph asked her to write a piece for the following day’s paper. It was that love letter to the city which turned out to be the game changer.

“It had a massive effect, more so than anything I’ve ever written before. It was tweeted and retweeted hundreds of times and I had so many people from Hull saying thank you for understanding our city, which was very humbling considering I’m not from there. When I got the call about the new chair of Hull City of Culture I honestly thought they just wanted to pick my brains about who might be suitable. When they said they wanted me to apply, well, for a moment I was speechless.”

You get the sense that’s probably not something which happens very often. However, while Millard does have a tendency to come over all poetic when talking about Hull - she has previously likened the Humber’s watery landscape to a Dutch painting - she’s also a realist and admits there is much work to do if the city is to make good on its ambitions.

“When I was a student in Hull it was 1984 and the city centre was almost out of bounds, no one went there and the odd time your parents came to visit there was just one restaurant by the marina and that’s where you went. There was no choice. I think there might have been a museum, but the rest of the city seemed dirty, dark and often closed. But no one went home, it was too difficult to get away, so we stayed and made the city our own.

“Back then there wasn’t the forensic approach to university applications there is now. I applied to Hull because my friend Jayne did and because everyone said it had a fantastic drama department. As it turned out Jayne never went, so I headed north on my own.

“While it might not have been the loveliest of cities, it had a great confidence about it. That’s very attractive and that same spirit exists now and I hope that being UK City of Culture will provide a focus for all that energy.”

The year-long programme of events will be funded by an £18m budget and early estimates suggest Hull’s economy could benefit to the tune of £60m and see the creation of 7,500 jobs.

These are refreshing statistics for a city which so often ends up at the wrong end of the league table when it comes to unemployment, crime and property prices and they are not the only ones. Having seen the decline of its fishing and shipping industries, for decades Hull struggled to find a new direction.

However, with Siemens and Associated British Ports investing £310m in a wind turbine facility on Alexandra Dock which will build and service the UK’s massive off-shore wind project, there finally looks to be good times ahead.

“You don’t give UK City of Culture status to places like Bath or York,” says Millard. “You give it to places that need it. However, when I look around now I see a city that is already coming into its own. When you walk around the Fruit Market area it’s impossible not to be buoyed by the fact that galleries and creative businesses have moved into the old wholesale premises.

“These are not ventures being funded by the state, these are private enterprises that are flourishing because they can satisfy a demand for inessential luxuries and that has to be a good sign.”

Millard will be working closely with recently appointed chief executive Martin Green, who was behind the various London 2012 Olympic ceremonies and the team presentation of Yorkshire’s Grand Depart at the First Direct Arena in Leeds. He officially takes up his post next month, but Millard needs no convincing of the long-term impact these high profile events can have on a place.

“I’ve seen first hand how much Stratford has benefitted from the Olympics and honestly I’ve been walking on air for the last few months, knowing that I’m part of Hull City of Culture. I came up to Yorkshire for the Grand Départ and watched it go past in Burley in Wharfedale. Years from now there will be people saying remember 2014, the year the Tour de France came to Yorkshire and I hope that they will remember 2017 as the year UK City of Culture came to Hull. There is something so exciting about being given a blank canvas, but it also brings a lot of responsibility.

“Philip Larkin once described Hull as “a city that is in the world, yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have a different resonance”. He was absolutely right, now our challenge is to capture that unique spirit and show it off to the rest of the world.”