Matt Woodcock: Chance to peal the bells for our under-rated city

Reverend Matt Woodcock is looking forward to Hull's year in the international spotlight.
Reverend Matt Woodcock is looking forward to Hull's year in the international spotlight.
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I HAVE a bold prophecy: by the end of next year Hull will emerge as one of the most under-rated cities in Europe. Yes, really.

At precisely 8.17pm tomorrow night an epic firework display will explode and blaze into the sky above Hull Marina.

It will herald the start of the City of Culture year, Hull 2017. Economically, socially, culturally and in terms of its national and international reputation, it is probably the biggest, most significant 12 months in the city’s history. An extra one million visitors are expected to explore Hull’s cultural offerings. No pressure then.

Like many residents of Kingston-upon-Hull, I am genuinely optimistic about what can be accomplished in 2017 and beyond. Since arriving here six years ago to minister at Holy Trinity Church, I’ve become a shameless advocate – evangelist, even – for the city.

I arrived in Hull worried about what to expect given its less than glorious reputation. I noted that Hull always seemed to be top of most lists it wanted to be bottom of and bottom of most lists it wanted to be top of.

What I actually found was a swaggering, pioneering city with a positive attitude and some big dreams. It captivated me. I found entrepreneurs, chancers, and people having a go. I found a city trying mad ideas. They were welcomed, encouraged even. Mine included hosting CAMRA’s annual real ale and cider festival in Holy Trinity and hiring real camels to walk down Whitefriargate at Christmas. Others, like Mark Page, thought up the Humber Street Sesh music festival. Now 30,000 people go every summer to see local unsigned bands. This kind of pioneering spirit and creative attitude laid the groundwork for City of Culture.

Now, since the bid was secured in 2013, the dreams have grown and the vision is bolder. Hull City Council must take much credit. They set out to create 7,500 new jobs and a more sustainable economy by focusing on the twin ambitions of making Hull a world-class visitor destination and a hub for renewable energy industries.

Hosting Hull 2017 and securing the £310m Siemens deal were milestones on that journey. Since 2013, investments of more than £1bn, creating thousands of jobs, have flowed into the city. Developments include a £90m spend at the University of Hull and the £100m ‘Destination Hull’ programme which will enhance facilities at two of Hull’s cultural gems, the soon to be reopened Ferens Art Gallery and Hull New Theatre. The 3,500-seater Hull Venue has also been built. Alongside this work has been the revitalising of key parts of the city centre, including the Old Town, Fruit Market and waterfront.

The run up to Hull 2017 has not been without its mistakes and critics. Some local cultural groups and performers have felt alienated and sidelined from the process. Many missed out on grants that were awarded for 2017 arts projects. Then there was the debacle over people failing to secure tickets to the first flurry of events via the shambolic Hull 2017 website. Several city centre businesses have also been left out of pocket because of all the building work being done

My own frustration is that religious faith is being neglected. Martin Green, who has the task of delivering the Hull 2017 programme, won’t seem to touch it. For instance, the programme rightly trumpets the anti-slavery achievements of William Wilberforce – who was baptised at Holy Trinity – but I’ve seen no reference to the Christian faith that drove and inspired him. However, like other groups and interests feeling marginalised by Hull 2017, we will do stuff anyway. At Holy Trinity we are planning a range of cultural events and performances. Other churches are doing likewise under the banner Believe in Hull.

For me, the true success of Hull 2017 will be whether it manages to convert enough of two types of people: firstly, those long in the tooth, cynical residents of Hull itself. There are many of them – my chip shop owner being one. He seems full of suspicion and derision about the whole thing. Perhaps this is born out of previous false dawns or being told negative things about his city for so long. I suspect it won’t be the Francis Bacon Screaming Popes art exhibition at the Ferens that will win him over. It will be if he has sold more chips and patties by this time next year.

Then there are the sniffy, snobby, misinformed out-of-towners who believe Hull is a dump – but have never been. The tricky task is to get them here in the first place. Hull will do the rest to send them away with a positive attitude, I’m sure. If it can happen for Liverpool it can happen here – even without The Beatles.

A specially-commissioned poem, The City Speaks, written by local writer and publisher, Shane Rhodes, articulates something of the essence of our much-maligned city. What it was, what it is, and what it could become. The poem – set to be carved into Queen Victoria Square – challenges readers to ‘peel away’ until ‘something resonates’. Rhodes concludes with a contrasting line about our bells at Holy Trinity pealing out. For me, it’s an image to sum up one of Hull 2017’s straplines: ‘Tell the world’.

For this year to achieve all it should and could – and I’m praying very hard – Hull needs peelers and pealers. Lots of them.

The Rev Matt Woodcock is Pioneer Minister at Holy Trinity Church, Hull. His new book, Becoming Reverend, is out now.