Over the last several days I’ve been slowly travelling from Glasgow back towards London. One of the highlights of this trip has been the weekend I spent in the town of Kingston upon Hull on the mouth of the river Humber. In the past I never thought much about Hull and any previous notions I had of the town were unfavourable and extracted from the media. Noel Gallagher only added petrol to all the lazy stereotypes by branding Hull ‘a f***ing shithole’ at one of his gigs earlier this year. Ground-breaking statement Noel. Last year Hull was made the official UK City Of Culture. I’d also heard numerous stories about artists moving to the town. In the wake of all this it was only natural that if I ever had the opportunity, I should one day go and visit the Hull. With hindsight I am glad I made that decision.
The grand and historic station of Hull was my first taste of the city. My first links with Hull were via its musical history. The members of David Bowie’s backing band during his Ziggy Stardust days, the Spiders From Mars, were from Hull. The guitarist from that band, Mick Ronson, was a key Bowie collaborator and played a paramount role in shaping the sound of some of Bowie’s most important records. He was also a gifted producer. He produced one of Morrissey’s best solo albums, Your Arsenal, from 1992. During that time he developed cancer and sadly passed away a year later. The Beautiful South and Everything But The Girl are two other bands hailing from Hull. Yet its the counterculture history of Hull, which is of great interest to me centred around two founding members of the experimental 1970s group Throbbing Gristle; Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti. Cosey recently published her autobiography, Art Sex Music, which is a riveting and fascinating read. What’s more, an insightful slice of the history of Hull is featured in the book from the times of her upbringing through to the late 1960s when she first met Genesis until the early 1970s when they left Hull for London. During this time they were squatting in a disused industrial building in Hull living an unconventional life outside of mainstream society and setting up what would later manifest into the pre Throbbing Gristle avant-garde performance art collective, COUM Transmissions.
David Bowie with his Spiders From Mars backing band
When I arrived at the train station, there were numerous landmarks and tributes to the town’s history including a statue of the poet Philip Larkin who lived in Hull for many hears and a blue plaque dedicated to the Spiders From Mars. There were also numerous banners promoting the city’s UK City Of Culture status.
Hull train station
Blue plaque commemorating the members of David Bowie’s backing band from the early 1970s, The Spiders From Mars, who hailed from Hull
From the train station, I took a local bus to my accommodation outside of the city centre. My accommodation for the weekend was a family home full of character located on one of Hull’s notable avenues; wide leafy streets in a conservation area of handsome Victorian and Edwardian style houses. The interior of the house had many works of art and lots of original features. It was a real treat to stay here. My hosts were kind-hearted, cultured and generous, and took great care of me during my stay.
After settling in my room, I took a stroll towards the town centre. I walked the length of Westbourne Avenue, were I was staying, marvelling at all the houses. One of the houses had a small blue plaque stating that one of the main crew and survivors of the Titanic had lived there. Another blue plaque was dedicated to a poet or playwright. As I walked along Princes Avenue I encountered many Kurdish restaurants. I later learn that Hull is home to a sizable number of Kurds from Northern Iraq. The main high street is deserted. In fact there is not much life in the centre of town. At one point I enter a Weatherspoons bar situated in a grand Georgian building. It is one of the few bars in town that has at least a modicum of life. I find a table and order an IPA beer and a Veggie burger, before deciding to call it a night and return to my accommodation.
The next day I wake up early and walk back to the centre of town. On the way I make an early lunch stop at one of the numerous Kurdish restaurants. For only a fiver I am served a substantial tray of shredded strips of meat and cheap with a pile of salad and two large freshly baked disks of warm pitta bread along with an ayran yogurt drink, a traditional tea and a bottle of water. Similar establishments in London districts such as Stoke Newington, Dalston or Harringay don’t hold a candle. Gilbert and George would love this place. I just wish I could remember the name. But I’ll find it next time I am in Hull.
In town, I visit the Ferens Art Gallery, located in a Neo-Classical Grade II listed building. It has a modest but notable collection of art. Highlights include a painting by the Spanish Renaissance master Jusepe de Ribera, a painting featuring a ship entering Humber Dock after a long voyage from Calcutta by the 19th century Hull painter John Ward, and a group of more contemporary works including a couple of Leon Kossoff paintings, a Nan Goldin photograph and an imposing statue of a naked pot-bellied man holding a long fishing rod like spear by the Australian sculptor Ron Muerck.
Sculpture by the Australian contemporary artist Ron Muerck in the Ferens Art Gallery
Yet perhaps the most memorable works on display are the photographs by the American artist Spencer Tunick entitled Sea Of Hull from the summer of 2015. This was a monumental work which took place in Hull and featured over 3,200 naked participants painted blue; the biggest ever naked photo shoot in the UK. The event generated a lot of publicity and some argue that it was an important springboard for Hull being granted its prestigious UK City Of Culture title two years later in 2017.
‘Sea Of Hull’ by the American photographer Spencer Tunick
I then walk to the old town and along the Hull Marina before approaching the Fruit Market district, reminiscent of a micro Shoreditch. Its principle street, Humber street, features chic arty boutiques and pop up art spaces. One of the town’s core art spaces and an integral part of the contemporary art scene of Hull, the Humber Street Gallery, is located here. It is set over three levels including a rooftop terrace. When I visited a performance art event was in the process of being set up.
The Fruit Market district
The Humber Street Gallery
From the Fruit Market I strolled towards the Hull Minster; an enormous parish church and the largest in the country. It is a masterpiece of ornate architecture dating back to 1300. It is just as impressive inside; a loving work of art. It is a delight exploring the interior of this church. At one point I sit down on a wooden seat at the back of the church and a full service commences. It is a hypnotic experience and I take it all in for some time falling into an almost deep meditation; carried away just as much by my surroundings as the service itself.
The Hull Minster
Inside the Hull Minster
Next I amble around the attractive old town of Hull to find the Lion and Key pub, which was recommended to me by my hosts. It’s a good choice. An old school tavern with tasteful aesthetics and character located on the old High Street. All the ceilings of the pub are covered in beermats and its a popular place. I am lucky to have found a corner to sit down. On tap are the usual well known lagers and ales plus a few locally brewed ales. I go for a half of one of the latter. There are a number of traditional taverns dotted around the old town.
Inside The Lion and Key pub
My next destination is one of the jewels of Hull; the Ye Olde Black Boy pub dating back to 1779. This is the kind of place I came to Hull for. The outside and interior is untouched. Surprisingly, there are less people there than at the Lion and Key and I have no trouble finding somewhere to sit. I have a pint of some nondescript ale. For me it’s not about sourcing the best craft beers and everything about finding and being somewhere authentic.
The Ye Olde Black Boy pub
A few blocks away in the old town, I pay The George Hotel pub a visit; another classic old pub located via a narrow alley way, similar in some ways to the historic Ye Olde Mitre pub in Holborn, London. This tavern is pulsating with life. Like the last pub I am perhaps the only outsider in the building. I order a half of a delicious stout and crash here for a while.
Inside The George Hotel pub
After my jaunt visiting some of the old pubs of Hull, I head back towards my accommodation via one of the local city buses. En route I make a stop to visit the Hull Fair, which has been in full swing since the start of the weekend. It is a huge event and the biggest fair in Europe. The main thoroughfare is bursting with people and its sometimes a struggle to make any movements.
It is also louder than a Motorhead concert. A myriad of piercing sounds and bright flashing lights thunder at me from all directions. If I were on acid, it would be the worst trip imaginable. It is a fascinating experience and sight though. The lyrics of The Smiths song Rusholme Ruffians whirl around my head, ‘the last night at the fair, by the big wheel generator, a boy is stabbed and his money is grabbed, and the air hangs heavy like a dulling wine’. Yet I don’t sense any menacing danger. Just an overwhelming overload of sensations. I am not tempted to hop on any of the rides nor am I swayed by the fluorescent coloured Slush Puppy like beverages. After some time I decide to walk back to my accommodation located not so far away from the site.
On Sunday morning, I order and pack all my things. My host Ruth kindly allows me to leave my luggage at her home so I can have another day to explore Hull before heading to my next destination. I take the local bus into the centre of town. Around the modern part of town I find a chippy and have a brunch consisting of battered haddock, chips and mushy peas with a can of Cherry Coke. It goes down a treat.
On the edge of the old town and opposite the Ferens Art Gallery is the town’s Maritime museum, located in a lovely historic Grade II listed building. The museum contains information, artefacts, paintings and documents related to the maritime history of the town. One of the most visible objects in the collection is the entire skeletal structure of a North Atlantic Right Whale, which was killed off Long Island, New York in 1907. Nearby is a large cabinet containing a collection of whale teeth and tusks including a few of the sword-like tusks found on narwhales in the Arctic.
Whale teeth and tusks inside the Maritime museum
One of the most important, if not the most important, figures to come from Hull is the English politician and anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce. His drive to abolish slavery led to the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, which ended slavery within the British Empire paving the way for other Empires and nations to follow suit. There is a tall and prominent column monument entitled the Wilberforce Monument dedicated to him in town identical to the famous Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London.
William Wilberforce monument
Located in the Museums Quarter of the old town is the Wilberforce House where he was born on 24th August 1759. The house is now a museum dedicated not only to his life and work, but also to the history of slavery. It is a real education and an eye opener to the inhumanities, injustices and brutality of the slave trade. In the outside Wilberforce House Gardens there is a white marble statue of the man himself.
Entrance to the Wilberforce House Museum
My time in Hull subsequently comes to a close. I go for an aimless stroll by the River Hull before taking a bus back to my accommodation to pick up my luggage and then take another bus to the train station where I await my train to Leeds.
By Nicholas Peart
(c)All Rights Reserved
*All photographs are my own except the main article photograph at the top of the article and the photographs featuring The Spiders From Mars and COUM Transmissions