City 18: Hull



It’s Saturday, Day 4 of my 6 day work cycle but Day 1 of my  9 day Hull walking cycle. 

I awaken early to the sound of the fan in the Travel Lodge Room. I have been sleeping naked on a bed without sheets or duvet but I’m already hot. It’s just before 8.00 and I have to get up to move the car so the Traffic Nazis don’t get me. It's ok though. Around the corner from the Lodge is cheap all day parking which lessens the pain in the stingray’s sting. I park, pay, collect my sunglasses and hit the street. It’s about a ten minute walk to the start of the Fish Trail whose pathway is delineated, at intervals, by a series of fish plaques embedded in the pavement. I have downloaded the map onto my phone and am keen to crack on, if only to escape the heat and get back to my room and douse myself in an ice-cold shower. The map is colourful and simple, something a child might enjoy, something a child could follow.

Day 1: The Fish Trail

The first fish listed on the itinerary/map are anchovies, small, common, forage fish of the family Engraulidae.The first venue is the Hull City Hall, a Grade II listed building in Queen Victoria Square. In Middlesbrough, just the day before, I was in Albert Park, reflecting on the English mania for naming streets and buildings after royalty, in this case a pair of Batternbergs, before the family had the sense to change their name to Windsor. In just about every major city and town there are monuments to Queen Vic and her Prince Albert and I wonder if they will be left up or pulled down when the QE II finally shrugs off her mortal coil. In other words will monarchy be something we will choose to forget in the future like so much else in the Age of Woke?

The City Hall, built between 1903 and 1909 in the style of baroque revival, doubles as a theatre venue and has a rather grand facade. A homeless guy has positioned himself  between the central pillars in the doorway and is just waking up, whilst his dog lies, apparently dead, but hopefully sleeping, in the morning sun. He has chosen a great location I reflect as I scout around for the anchovies. Damn but they are elusive. I recall Mike saying that the fish trail was something he only became aware of over time and that not all of the fish were easy to find. ‘They reveal themselves gradually to you, in often unexpected ways,’ he said.  Yes he really speaks like that.

After five minutes scouting, I cross the road cursing. Stomping by the Ferens Gallery I mentally file it away for future exploration and scour the pavement for signs of anything piscine. Another five minutes and I’m hot and sweaty and about ready to quit. I tell myself to calm down and then Oh Calcutta, joy of joys, there it is, my first fish. Only it isn’t a fish, it's a lobster. Nevermind it's on the list, Number 2, and reason enough to carry on. I snip snap away and search Carr Lane for  Cod and X-ray Fish. I can’t find them so swing down onto Prince’s Dock Street. The shopping centre and VUE cinema look like part of the lost city of Atlantis, albeit they are not made of marble but glass which sparkles like crystal. This I recall from before with Mike only it was a greyer day then, not so Mediterranean in outlook.

Patterngate, a cobbled conduit, delivers me to the Minster but fish numbers 5-8 prove more elusive than the lobster. Already I’m at war, as much with the sun as myself. It's like a duel fought with rapiers of light and darkness where I am always looking for shade, if only to read the map on my phone by. Outside the cathedral, a schizophrenic roars out abuse channelled from the chorus of voices at war inside his head. One phrase stays with me… ‘and I will destroy you with all my armies.’ Biblical mate, as Alphie Solomons might say.  

My first loop brings me back, by way of Dagger Lane, onto Princes Dock Street. Fish 9 and 10 are like 5-8 absent and I begin to wonder if its not all an elaborate ruse with only some of the fish in existence, the others being nought but spectres to torture the gullible with. Do I have sun stroke? I might. My worst case was in Morocco in 1994 and I was hallucinating for days. Come friendly bombs, rain on Hull. I soldier on down Humber Dock street, the Miami Vice style marina on my right and suddenly there it is, hope, in the form of a splendid Swordfish. Number 14. My inner fires of faith rekindled, I beat on and rounding the corner of Nelson Street am overjoyed at discovering the Vivacious Blenny. Various other fish fall in quick succession  before the trail again goes cold by Myton Bridge where the Docks loom large.

Turning onto Scale Lane and then right onto the High Street I find myself in a familiar quarter. Mike brought me here too and showed me his favourite pub, ‘Ye Olde Black Boy’, formerly the acidic-sounding Gastryck House, built sometime in the 1300s. The name first appears in the rolls in 1748 a coupla years after the calamity of Culloden and was much frequented by local merchants, no doubt discussing more than just the price of fish. Down the road a little is the Wilberforce Museum, closed for the installation of a new heating system. Oh irony of ironies on such a day as this. It reminds me of a show I did in 2008 with Crier Knowles and written by local playwright David Titley where he played Johnson and I Boswell. No less a personage than George Allagiah, the newsreader, was in attendance, as, in character, we discussed the relative merits and demerits of slavery. As Bozzy I was pro whilst Kenny’s Johnson was contra and I recall that we had a good crowd, no doubt thanks to George. I liked the piece because it was thorny and challenging but it revealed something worth knowing, namely that prejudice lives in every age. Good old Wilberforce. He chose to remember and not forget and he chose to act and in 1808 the Slave Trade, with all its attendant agonies, ended. In England, not in America, lest we forget.

The museum, which I visited with Mike in 2015 brought this home all too graphically. 

 I shudder as I recall the ‘exhibits’ inside, which revealed some of the many horrors of the life of a slave aboard an eighteenth century sailing ship. Stolen from their homes and transported to far less forgiving climes they lived lives of endless and enduring misery.  If they survived the passage that is. More died than were saved and the dead were casually tossed overboard and entered in the inventory in the loss not the proffit column. Alas, the evils that men do. And all for profit. 

But back to the trail.

Fishes 28-32 are clustered together around the Museum Quarter and I’m most delighted by an electric eel that slivers down an alley towards me, out of the shadows and into the light. From here I am homeward bound via Silver Street and Whitefriars gate. I stop at a bakery for drinks and pastries, where I am irritated by a dithering middle class family, and then nip behind the Ferens Gallery to gaze at the shimmering waters of Princes Quay. It is with no small measure of joy that I see they are filled with fish, an odd selection of kois and common carp such as I used to dangle a bait for. The species indicate this is not sea but freshwater and I am overjoyed that the trail has delivered me from the merely symbolic to the flesh and blood reality.

Having turned full circle, I return to City Hall, the 41st and final fish having eluded me. The dog is still asleep,the city is waking up and the heat is steadily building. Two hours have passed, more spent in searching than walking but I am glad I persevered with this particular pathway, talking to no one but myself in the process. On a wall I find a plaque dedicated to The Seven Seas Fish Pavement to give it its full name. Conceived and executed by the artist Gordon Young in 1992, it is 30 years old this year. And it is a good thing, a great thing and I wished more cities had trails like these for us to follow. Fill the world with art said Yoko Ono and I can’t help but agree. 

And a sudden flicker of silver light temporarily blinds me and I blink and then look again to see a whole shoal of those elusive anchovies gleaming up at me from the pavement. I laugh at this final reveal. Seek and ye shall find, saith the Lord. Well there are more fish to find and I vow to return to the trail to look for them in the days ahead.

Day 2: The Ferens Gallery

Sunday, bloody sunday. Same ritual as Saturday. Up at 7.47 not to let out the dogs but to repark the car. Then back down and around the fish trail. The same steady pulse of heat as the day before but whilst continuing to joust with the sun I am freed from having to navigate as I have ‘learned’ the map and internalised the route. Same shit, different day? No. There’s so much richness in this city, so many nooks and crannies, so many alluring alleys and benches, so many fish still to find, it could never be boring.

Hull feels ancient, like a creaking ship that has circumnavigated the galaxy, not just the world and is full of all it that it has gathered down the ages. Old and yet not weary, lightened by its youthful enthusiasm and idealism as well as darkened by the shadows of empire. The statue in Victoria Square long to tower over us was paid for by public subscription I note. One tier down from Old Regina is a bare breasted woman clutching a trident with one hand and holding a ship in the other. Britannia as Mistress of the Seas, an allegorical figure who both conquers and protects. Perhaps it would have been more fitting to replace the trident with a cat-o-nine tales. 

Whilst the Square is open the Ferens gallery is shut, at least until 11.00 so I retrace that route, looking to add detail to the bare bones of my memories. I have a very associative mind, I like connecting things together with ideas and imagery, the more tenuous and fantastic the link the better. Back at the Minster I once more fail to find the fish and emerging from a Tesco Express stop an Asian cleric to ask if he knows where they are. He shakes his head dumbly and I suggest playfully he should know where they are what with the Fish being a symbol of Christianity and all. He chuckles at this, offering to find out and if  I return to the Minster in 30 minutes he’ll have the answer.  Great save. We smile and part and I head towards the harbour by way of the marina. En route I stop to drink a little lucozade and on a bench on a bridge check up on Salman Rushdie’s progress and dig for details about his attacker, a young man of 24. So far, so good, he’s alive, off the ventilator and talking and the would-be-butcher is in custody. 

The streets are quiet but for the imperious screeching of herring gulls. Those pale yellow glassy eyes are so distinctive and whilst fond of fish I love my birds. Even those strutting, arrogant, chip-thieving bandits of the air. The sea is a pane of glass, greenish grey and off in the distance I spy a sloping modernist structure that reminds me of a sand crawler in Star Wars. I head over and en route spy an amazing piece of graffiti on the gable end of a red brick building. It is seemingly surrounded by white vans and silver beer kegs  and I enter a yard to get as close to it as I can. I see or rather interpret it as containing a bald headed fisherman in a purple oilskin being shrieked at by the mechanical head of an orange gull. The bird’s head looks like a crab’s pincer and with its black eyeless sockets is oppressively menacing. It is a powerful and disquieting image full of disquieting ideas. I walk on musing.Around me stages are being taken down following an all night music evebnt in the city called the Sesh. I snip snap a map of the venues and check out what turns out to be the Deep, award winning aquarium. Online booking is required so I get a self with the statue of the Grey Reef  Shark in front of the venue and move on.

Back onto the fish trail, exploring, going where my nose takes me. At the end of one sunlit alley a beautiful young woman is reading her kindle wistfully. She gives out a do not disturb energy so I move on and find a sign about my favourite poet Phillip Larkin who was a librarian here and about whom Tom Courtney, of Billy Liar fame wrote a play called Pretending to be Me. To be good a writer one has to be memorable and Larkin, despite his deep and abiding racism is certainly that. Walking the streets, lines of his verse return to me over and over and I feel in some way like I am in conversation with him. 

The shark appears once more in Whitefriars street, the White friars being Carmelite monks, Catholic mendicants no doubt condemned by the Vatican at some point in their history. Its still too early for the Ferens so I wend my way back to the Travel lodge en route passing HIP, the Hull Independent Photography Club and Gallery. Its looks interesting and its free but its opening hours are erratic due to a lack of volunteers. Past a tattoo parlour called the Ink House and to the steps of the public library. Pausing to check the opening times I find a poem by Larkin in the window, the appropriately named Solar, and also the tantalising titbit that there is a Larkin trail. Another pathway to pursue. 

For now I return to my room for a cooling shower and to do the first part of this writeup, then I take a wonderful snooze and drift in a sea of soupy lust until my socks have dried and my energy levels have returned to something approaching normal. I’m not good in the heat me but when I descend to the street once more I find the heat has lightened and there is a cooling breeze. I float through stopping at a wonderful Barnados for 65 cheap books and a chat with the pleasant lady behind the till.

After that I enter the Ferens expecting to be underwhelmed but am not. First off the security officer is not like a member of the Stasi like the thug at Tesco Express, more of a meet and greeter, with the bedside manner of a good doctor. He furnishes me with intel about the space and says its okay to take photographs as long as I don’t use a flash. There are twelve galleries and the inevitable cafe and I counsel myself to be careful. Museums like zoos can be oh so draining; something about the energy of the noisy, chaotic people who pass through them so its best to limit your time and focus. There are twelve galleries so I limit myself to twelve paintings and about as many minutes.

First up is a baroque rendition of a formal garden, painted I like to imagine from the top of the surrounding wall. An earlier building was said to be baroque revival and I wonder at the allure of this era. Painting 2, Jouvenet’s Sacrifice of Iphigenia is a case in point. Its all ecstatic poses, floating clothing and ridiculous spotlights on the stars of the show. Iphigenia’s for the chop, sacrificed so that her daddy Agamemnon  might succeed in the Trojan Wars but you wouldn’t know. She might as well be shooting a video for MTV. Painting 3 is a Greek style icon. Whilst Christ genuflects, a bald headed nutter caresses his sword and ponders his options. Painting 4 takes as its subject the Road to Emmaus where the resurrected Christ was glimpsed. If you believe such things. The subjects look stoned with shock and somewhat candlelit. Painting 5 reveals haggling merchants and a fish seller carving the heads offa cod. Painting 6 by Cormelia Burch of the Dutch school depicts the ugliest baby I have ever seen committed to canvas. It looks like a cross between a cabbage patch doll and a lobster. Painting 7 is not a painting as such but a play space where adults and kids alike can doodle or play with lego on the designated lego wall. The lego reminds me of my trip to Coventry in 2015 where the seven wonders of the world had been rendered in lego. Here its the beetles in painting 8 who fly across the abbey road zebra crossing as lego bees. Painting 9 is a Canelletto scene of Venice, Painting 10 a rather demure Salome presenting the head of Baptist John to the viewer. Would that it were Boris Johnson’s or Putins… Painting 11 is a rather twee statue of a Swedish looking shepherdess tending to her lambs and painting 12 Spencer Tunick’s  portrait of the Humber featuring 3200 naked people reclining. The works title is Sea of Hull. Its kinda trashy but it makes me laugh so it makes the cut.

And that’s it. Job done. I exit this temple to art without stopping to empty my wallet into the cafe till. It’s a free space and I feel free, free whenever I want to return and peruse some more.

10/10. And the day is still young.

Day 3: Skidby Mill

Today is Monday, a transit day, where I make like a migrating bird and head for northern climes. Or at least as far as Newcastle. The rigours of the week have finally caught up with me, so after feeding the meter I retire to bed for a few hours of R and R before surfacing at 11.30 in time for a midday checkout. 

Today should be in a minor key I decide and let my mind drift in the fog, in the hope that inspiration will dive down from on high. And in a way it does. In the drone of heat, on the way out of Hull, on the road to Skipsea I passed a beautiful windmill, fully intact, its four sails in tact but drooping and idle. Now redundant it has become the backdrop for a pub and hotel where drinkers sit at wooden tables making up for lost time. 

It's a beautiful thing to behold and makes me wistful for a vanished age. The windmill has been replaced by the factory alas but these relics still dot the landscape, especially on the east coast. Driving up from Lowestoft, three weeks ago, chugging through Suffolk and then Norfolk villages I saw many and was reminded of my father’s tales of cutting corn and building ricks on a farm  to the south of Birmingham in the 1950s. For him it was a golden time, a rural idyll where farmers worked and worked hard and his Uncle Arthur could still cut a field of corn with a scythe. In my own way I left my own record of these tales in my musical Hamelin, written with Alan Rowe. Here we adapted  numerous sea shanties for our Harvest song where the children exort the scythe wielding reaper to ‘heave it high and swing it low.’ Shanties are wonderful things, songs to work to establish a rhythm which helps with the timing of one's repetitive activities, be that pulling on an oar, raising a sail or cutting corn.

When I drove up at the end of July, the fields were still ripening and full of bristling stalks of corn reaching like outstretched arms for the sun but now the fields have been shorn and the wheat lies piled in neat bails. Over the weeks I have seen fleets of combine harvesters  devouring field after field like voracious dragons till now, when the work is done, and the harvest gathered. It has been a true summer, a sun-drenched August that has dried and scorched the grasses reminding me of my travels through California where the grass in summer looks like sand and the only green in the land is supplied by the sessile oaks that rise up like lost prophets crying in sun-baked wilderness or ever-rising temperatures.  

Doing a little research on line I find evidence of a still working mill out on the Beverley Road in Cottingham. It is in a village called Skidby where there have been windmills since 1316. Its about 6 miles out of town but en route to the M62 and then the Al which will transport me, like coal, back to Newcastle.  I drive out glad that the sky has faded from a bright cloudless blue to a pale, if somewhat grizzled gray. Arriving at the mill I find it closed but nevermind, I park up and follow the sign past a children’s play area, under oak leaves to the courtyard and vaunted still-working and original outbuildings. The vanished age reappears and I peer up at the black painted tower with its large white sails removed. It isn’t working at present, nor is the site open, but the image on the website reveals the windmill in all its glory.  I would have loved to peer upon the inner workings of the mill, to see the flour bagged and driven away by horse and cart but for now the imagination will have to suffice. 

Owned since 1854, a year into the Crimean War, by the Thompson family the Mill has charted the changing times and technological developments of the industrial age.  In 1878 it was converted to the production of animal feed and in 1954, on the centenary of its purchase by the Thompson’s the machinery was adapted to the use of electricity and the sails fell idle. In 1962 the family were forced to sell the mill that had been in their family for 108 years. But happily for us it was bought by the council for a pound and restored to full working glory in 1974 becoming in the process part of the vast museum to the past that is England.

Day 4: The Deep

I’m back in Hull for my fourth day and the continuation of my fourth week of Movie Under the Stars. Last night I was in Barmston where I booked today’s activity online. The Deep. Not the actual deep which shares the name of a novel, and later film, written by Peter Benchley as a follow up to Jaws. No, the Deep, is Hull’s premier tourist attraction and it is a state of the art Aquarium. 

I saw it on Day 1 as I walked the Fish trail and associated it with the Jawa’s sandcrawler in Star Wars. It had an irresistible draw as a building even though I was ignorant of its contents, namely glass tanks, sea water and a veritable smorgasbord of marine life. The biggest tank contains a whopping 2.5 million litres of seawater and has to be seen to be believed. 

Designed by Terry Farrell and aided by the Fiscal Saints of the National Lottery the building opened, after a 17 month build  in 2002. As well as being an attraction and collection of note it also carries out research on marine life and the oceans that sustain it, with a particular focus on pollution and what we can do about it. Well situated on Sammy’s point, at the confluence of two rivers, on the site of an old shipyard built by Martin Samuelson in 1857, it looks out to the sea from which it draws its life and inspiration.   

 As a practised guide I know it’s best to go early or late to popular exhibits to avoid the herd. I’m first through the door, joining the tide of over 8 million people who have already visited the venue since its opening in 2002. The ticket is £17.50, which seems steep, until you realise this covers you for a whole year of visits. That’s amazing. The staff are ultra friendly, young and zippy and clearly happy in the space they work in. I follow the signs and ascend the required three flights of steps to begin my self guided tour.

Immediately I’m happy I came early as the place is as quiet as an undiscovered tomb. The interior is a veritable labyrinth and Aladdin’s cave of watery wonders. It’s more like a stage set than an aquarium and it triggers an amusing set of associations. It reminds me of the Crystal Maze , a space station and Stromberg’s underwater lair in the Bond Movie, the Spy Who Loved Me. Its also a little bit Austin Powers. The first tank I look into contains a beautiful blue and yellow butterfly fish and an attendant host of seahouses wafted about by the simulated tide. As always in these places I’m wowed by the brilliance of the lighting and how each creation is shown off to maximal effect.

I move on past the  turnstile and into the exhibition proper, through a room containing a suspended globe, past a scooped out relief showing the earth emptied of oceans to reveal their great depths, gashes and hollows and onto walkways which contain a potted history of the earth’s story, from its ‘birth’ 4.6 billion years ago to now. En route the narrative takes in the main thrust of the geological ages, the creation of the waters that fill our oceans, the emergence of life and the toll taken by evolution and the mass extinctions of millions of already vanished species. I reflect that evolution, the blind watchmaker, isn’t kind and doesn’t appear to care who or what survives. To date, we have, so have the crocs and orca,s for hundreds of thousands of years ,but that doesn’t mean we can’t be wiped out tomorrow. And this is the sole thought and preoccupation that dogs my steps as I move from room to gallery to walkway to lift.

It’s all so wonderful but the memento mori, like the death’s head in all those Renaissance paintings are the fossilised remains of all those lives that have come before and rain down through the depths to the ocean floor. Covered by sand and eventually entombed by layers of sediment they become rock. Then we dig them up and put them in museums. 

As always there is an embarrassment of riches on display and as with the Feren’s gallery I have to choose just a few delights on which to focus. Firstly I’m wowed by the Megadon’s jaws; the Meagadon, a prehistoric gigantic shark about 20 metres in length could finish off a whale in a few bites and makes the Great White, at 4.5 metres look like a mere minnow. The lagoon-like swamps with branching mangroves are wonderful too but my eye is drawn away to the penguins who huddle like refugees on an artificial shelf whilst a worker hoses down their regular crag with a high-pressure jet. And its this, as always that saddens me. There’s a phrase that comes repeatedly to mind when I visit spaces where animals are displayed for proffit: the infinite sadness of zoos. Out in the arctic the birds stand on frozen icebergs and endure some of the most hostile conditions on earth, but at least there they are free to roam the oceans and fish where they will. Here thgey drift around listlessly to be fed from a bucket.

I move on, ambiguous as ever, through a glowing tunnel of rainbow lights, to my favourite exhibition. Its the big tank and it contains a plethora of  sharks and two glorious turtles that swim in slow motion, whilst the light dapples their bodies and shells. They are so so beautiful and I wonder a/ why anyone would want to kill them and b/ why we aren’t doing more to save them. Next to catch my eye are tanks filled with UV illuminated jellyfish, called Japanese Sea Nettles, and then gloriously pale cod-like fish, then ropes of mussels, then banks of screens showing piranhas eating a pelican… and on and on through a whole host of wonders and horrors.

I take the lift and then the exit avoiding the gift shop with its ceiling-suspended octopus and head outside, just to breathe and savour what I’ve seen. 

Just by chance a text message arrives from friends in Western Australia who are taking a week long vacation on an island near a town called Denham. They have been on a sea safari and seen whales and other wonders, amongst them dolphins, rays and  sharks and then on the way out, on a seaplane, dugongs in the ocean. The pictures they send are stunning, of sunsets and coastlines and free-swimming marine life and I realise this is how it should be done. As wonderful as the aquarium is, it’s an artificial experience and a poor second to the lived reality of seeing creatures in their natural and unspoiled habitat. There, as Shirley says, the whole place is an aquarium.

Looking forward I realise I want to take away the glass, to swim, if at all possible with those creatures. Leonie, as a divers says that this is a possibility. She has written a book, soon to be published, called Come Dive with Me and I may just take her up on her invitation.     

Day 5: St Stephens

Sunday and the heatwave drones on. I sleep in and then watch Arronofsky’s ‘Requiem for a Dream.’ Its a masterpiece, gruelling and horrific, but like Pi, it’s essential and visionary. It’s the best Anti Drugs movie you’ll ever see because its isn’t trying to be that. It just documents the lives and terminal decline of four people who are, each in their own way addicts. The score was provided by no less a personage than Clint Mansell of PWEI fame, one fo my favourite bands when growing up. I remember watching them back in the mid and late 90s at the Digbeth Institute and then at the Aston Villa Leisure Centre. But that was Brum and that was then and this is now and I’m in Hull. 

The band the Housemartins recorded a great album called Hull 4: London 0, in the 1980s and lived in the city. Like Phillip Larkin who was born in Coventry but lived and worked in Hull they were blow-ins. Which is just how I feel at the moment.

Day 4 was a big day in a major key and I want to take it down a notch. Into a minor key. The Travelodge is a haven of sorts. The same room in every town and city the country over. Its like that Radiohead Song, ‘No alarms and no surprises.’ but it has a great shower which blasts hot or cold, whatever your preference, day or night.

I take the lift down two floors and hit the street, the A1079, without a plan. Like I wrote in my initial mission statement I was greatly influenced by the writing of Iain Sinclair and his notion of psychogeography. Part of the Sinclairian  ethos is drifting around urban spaces and just going where the currents take you.  Today I drift past the Truck Theatre where John Godber has been Artistic Director for ever and continues to make dramatic waves. He’s kind of like, to Hull, what Acykbourne is to Scarborough. More than just a  resident playwright, he’s also a cheerleader and rallying point; an icon and celebrant. Everyone who knows theatre knows Godber and everyone who knows Godber knows Bouncers. It’s a classic; funny and beautifully observed. Then there is Two which I saw in Pitlochry about 7 years ago and on the Piste around the same time. If life is all about the work, then the legacy is in the traces you leave behind.

I walk past the theatre and enter St Stephen’s shopping centre. More popular than church on a Sunday, the Shopping Centre is a glass menagerie full of types. Stephen was martyred for denouncing the Jewish authorities and stoned to death. Not unlike a lot of the kids drifting by me I reflect. The truth of their world is to be found in their bloodshot eyes and the casual violence that simmers there.  I sit in Coffee and Donuts and order tea and a lemon donut, and start writing on my Chromebook. A worker comes over clucking around like a busybody hen looking for scraps. She says, ‘a lot of kids come in here, plug in and stay all day.’ ‘Can’t say as I blame them,’ I reply. She gives me a funny look as though she cannot understand the world and the behaviour of the people who live in it and moves away. I type on in my own timeless world of words and pictures. When finished I move through the glasshouse amongst all the other grazing animals in the zoo. The shops are the same shops you’ll see in any well to do English City. It's the same idea repeated ad nauseum and it is perhaps a vision of where we’re all headed. Into a corporate hell of endless repetition where shoplifting will not be tolerated and there will be no more alarms and no more surprises. Just the watching eyes of the overhead cameras recording everything.  

Outside again, it's only the graffiti that gives me hope.

Day 6: Get Off The Bridge!

It’s my Second Monday in transit and I’m ready for the road and new adventures. Some 7.30 slop at the Travelodge and then on the road again by 8.00, crawling through the rush hour traffic with my eyes recording everything. This is a vision of England they don’t show you in the adverts. Bored or irritable drivers gridlocked into oblivion, many doing the same journey over and over, day after day, year in, year out, crawling along or staring at nothing. Hell is circular, its repetition and I guess that’s the war we all fight. The war against boredom and the war against sleep. 

I’m really beginning to like Hull though.Ok the Travelodge reminds me of the prison cells in the Dana in Shrewsbury but the overall vibe is great. Wide streets and plenty of benches. Places to lounge in the heatwave. Lots of cafes and barbers and charity shops with welcoming staff and bargains aplenty. The homeless here seem pretty chilled too, like they got a better deal than some and they know it. 

I head south down the A1079 and then west on the Hessle Road. The Hull Royal infirmary looms up at me and I think about how the NHS appears to be being crashed in slow motion. Everyone stepped outside to applaud on a Friday Night during the height of the pandemic but a few thank banners aside that’s forgotten now. The politicians rewarded themself with a pay rise but not so the heroes who kept the show running in the time of crisis. No bonuses for them. Just inflation and exhaustion. 

I coast past an Asda and down the A63, the Humber Estuary to the south and a little further westwards that glorious suspension bridge opened in the same year that they caught the Yorkshire Ripper. 1981. Its impressive wee beastie, actually more of a dinosaur and very much an icon of Hull as Spencer Tunick’s Masterpiece the Tide of Hull reveals. It’s 2.22km long for those who’ve gone metric and 1.38 miles for those stuck on the old imperial weights and measures. Its grade one listed and you can walk or bike it for free but if you go in a car, lorry or van you pay the toll. Fair enough, it cost about £150,000,000 to build and it is supposed to last 120 years. I’m just glad the bridges in Scotland such as those over the Forth of Firth, the Moray Firth and the Cromarty Firth are free.   

The bridge can be viewed from miles around, even miles out to sea and like the Clifton suspension bridge is a sure fire way to end your life if you're unhappy. Of 200 jumpers only five have survived. I drive beneath it and carry on my journey westwards towards Bradford. Apparently it was opened by the Queen…

Day 7: Of Broomsticks and Fitba

Back into Hull for my fifth and final week and my third cycle of walking the city. Endings are in the air but so too a sense of fulfilment. These past five weeks of cities have re-energised me, have sharpened my method and my gaze. I live in a near state of perpetual excitement, searching for the new, for the opportunistic drama of the moment. August is about to take its curtain call so that September might take centre stage and I look towards my 51st birthday, one eye on the present, one eye on the past and my third eye on the future.

 I spring out of bed still buzzing about Leeds which I walked yesterday. The Universe, or at least my version of it, seems like a giant Rorschach Test where what you see there is what you project into it from your unconscious. As Li, my teacher friend says, put up a display in a classroom and for the first few days everyone looks and comments, after that no one notices. We are perhaps what we let in and what we filter out. 

In that wonderful stretched moment between waking and sleeping our unconscious parades ideas, thoughts and impressions before us and I find myself thinking about Mike, Mr Simpson, with whom I walked this city 7 years ago. I called him yesterday but there was no answer. Or he didn’t pick up. Still he is not a ghost to me but a living presence and an echo of our walk comes to mind. He took me to Hull City football stadium to see where he whiled away many a hopeful, if ultimately disappointed Saturday. Its a good link but there’s something else too.

Walking and writing in Leeds Central Library I became aware that all of the cities I’d entered were beginning to chatter away inside of me, arguing with one another, comparing and contrasting their jewels and their scars, finding similarities and differences in their forms and spaces. I began to think too of the people I’d walked with, friends and acquaintances, odd bedfellows and significant others all. From there my thoughts circled back to Bath circa 1992 and the New Age shops I used to frequent there. I’m back with that penny I used to roll down the zig-zag shoot into the charity box in Buxton and Bonnets. Feeling the clunk and chatter of coins when the penny finally drops. 

And there it is, my next link. I’m not so sure we have thoughts, its more like they have us, travel to us and through us, directing all our endeavours. I descend into google maps from on high, like diving falcon, and find what I’m looking for. Perfect. It’s by the stadium to, about a mile and a half from where I’m staying. I set off, just after 9.20 barreling westwards along Spring Bank, past Hall street and its patterned wall, past Disc Discovery with its glittering shoal of album covers and past the intersecting side streets lined with red brick buildings and covered with graffiti and murals and what passes for art.

It reminds me of my first Yorkshire city, Sheffield, which I walked with Matt Collins, like the Swede, a brilliant photographer. I’m not a photographer, I’m just a happy snapper. If this blog becomes a book I’d like to use my snaps but with no great claims as to their status as art. In my world photography is just too passive, too throwaway and there are so many millions of people better at it and more dedicated than I am, it can never be  any more than an aide de memoire. Anyway I’m more interested in analysing and interpreting the messages that the city flashes before my eyes than I am in swooning over the framing or composition of any given shot.

Yum Yum welcomes me and there is a fish portrait that captures my attention for about five seconds before being superseded by the international food store with its echo of the rainbow spangled mural that projects an image and message of unity. The side streets are long and straight and lined with trees. They seem to vanish into some distant point that may or may not be in a black hole, like the one at the centre of our galaxy, whose frequencies have been recorded and exist as sound, like a creaking, groaning haunted house. Such as Ozzy Osbourne’s Mansion. A cream phone box says hi before I cut across Spring Bank West. Conkers line the pavement and somewhere a Ukrainian flag drips out of an upstairs window of a house the colour of blood. 

A passing bus tells me that the railway children are set to return but what about the dead in the nearby Western Cemetery whose name reminds me of the Giza Necropolis on the West bank of the Nile? Are they set to rise too? Or are they already about us? My sixth sense says yes!!!!!! But who cares… Chanterlands Avenue is a busy shop-lined road. I visit Sainsburys then enter Broomsticks, the New Age store that Google located for me and buy some joss sticks. Its all a far cry from Bath and the 90s when New Age, following its triumphant rebirthing at Harmonic Convergence in 1987 was gloriously bonkers. Where the books were about conspiracy theories and alien channelings and lights bodies and ascension and crystal healing and a return to the source.  Rave was around and the music was directing you to both inner and outer space.  It was all so exciting, an invitation to quest and adventure but this store by comparison is dull and dowdy, hopelessly middle-aged and middle class with absurdly priced books and crystals on display. It signifies how respectable and safe the New Age has become. The crazed voices of whacked out prophets have been cancelled and silenced and been replaced by the serious and silent business of making money. The two women at the counter, chattering incessantly about the price of everything and the value of nothing ignore me and so I leave, dragging my joss sticks behind me,  and head for the footie stadium which rises up like a temple into the sun-lanced sky.

On the corner of Wharncliffe Street I spot a mural dedicated to VC decorated war hero and top scorer for Hull FC John ‘Jack’ Harrison. Two Legends, One Man proclaims the banner. It's a beautiful link. My Grandmother's people, on my father’s side of the family, were Harrisons and they were farmers s=and some of them, like dad, talented footballers. Jack points the way to the hallowed turf which is ten minutes away. Its match day and the stewards are preparing the ground for the Hull Tigers to hopefully give Coventry a drubbing.  I head back into the city centre, to spend Time with Saint Stephen, dunking donuts and writing up today’s report. A tall young man and his mini me son pass me en route and I ask if they are going to the game. The man says that they are, that 17,000 are expected and that hope is with them since the new gaffer took over. I wish them luck and wonder if Mr S still follows the Tigers or whether they have disappeared into the jungle of his past never to be seen again.

Day 8: Unusual Business

It’s a new day and I’m running a new plan. I’m tired so after brekkie I go back to bed, lie in till midday, shower and finally hit the street around 12.30. Today I’m taking my orbit out that little bit wider, moving from station to station, only they’re not actual stations but something entirely different. Its a new strategy, obvious really but only actioned today. I type in Business Park and create a loop with approximately 1.5 mile intervals. 

The first park is just down the road from the Prim Street Travelodge where I’ve lodged for the past five weeks. It’s called Worx Hull and is kind of embedded into the fabric of the street. I walk past it unaware that its a thing, despite google maps showing me I’m already there. It has good reviews but its kind of bijou and anyway my eye is drawn to other things. The streets are thronged with evangelical africans who have just been to church and about to meet their missionary beats. They are beautifully dressed, polite and immaculately groomed and they glow with an inner light of certainty about who they are and their place in the Universe.  Their van is logoed up and they evince a quiet energy of steady purpose. 

The Trafalgar street church is fenced off and would not look out of place in Spain, but of course with global warning, England is the New Spain and Spain the New Sahara. Deny it at your peril. Roughly northwards I peregrinate up the A1079 towards my next station, the K3 Business Park via Sculcoates. The avenue is broad and shop-lined, basking in the glow of its diverse ethnicity and I love that.I don’t want to live in a monoculture but I at least want to live in a culture where all those ethnicities talk or at least communicate in positive ways. Bed World passes on my left, sprawling and radiant with a big parking bay, the key to happy shopping. The Masonic Hall is less welcoming behind its gold-tipped spear fence and threatening note that maximum parking terms apply. The divine dividers on the fence do not spread a message of unity but of division and I’d rather not. 

Great graffiti outside the Ping Pong club and on the corner of Cave Street, next to the taste of China. Like Bristol and Sheffield, Hull is a graffiti city and this energises untold spaces and the people who move through them. The Hong Lok Senior Association is a little too red brick and conservative for my taste but I like the bas relief of vertically descending kanji. Hull is not really a vertical city, not in the same way that Leeds is. It does big buildings but also seems to luxuriate in its space. Twin Hotels catch my eye. Park Lane and then Mayfair, Mayfair being the more opulent of the two. Its as the whole city is on a monopoly board but is Hull a monopolised space.  An online article reveals that 17 of Yorkshire’s top companies reside in Hull, specialising in everything from engineering, to pork packing to fibre optics. Its a healthy, wealthy, industrious city is Hull and its interests appear spread out and not uni-focused.

Boczek’s, the Polish Bitchers pushes the ethnic mix out still further and I particularly like the derelict and spray daubed trains beside it. This city doesn’t just do art, it is art. I pleasant chap and I fall into step and when he sees me snap the trains we begin a brief chat. I tell him what I’m doing and he suggests a tour of the pubs and asserts that Hull is both  a happy and a friendly place. I can’t help but agree as I make my second station, The K3 Business Park out on the Clough Road. Its a busy driveway and I feel myself leaving the centre proper and moving out into the Hinter land,  the land between centres that is less occupied and less tourist friendly.

It is a zone of business and light industry. The afore mentioned railings and razor wire establish a perimeter that you are not always invited to enter, These spaces are security patrolled and cameras record your every movement. Fair enough; they have property and machines to protect, theives and vandals to keep out. Everything everything is under threat. K3 is more noticeably a Business Park than the Worx, bigger, more sprawling, yet self contained and more identifiably a separate entity. There an RSPCA, a no-contract fitness gym, a Dunelm and a big Mecca bingo, a million miles from the crumbling hulk of Sunderland’s Mecca. Timber Angel is here and there are K3 Office Trade Units to let. 

I progress, in my thinking and my understanding of the city works. Hull is clean and prosperous. It is a place of opportunities and high employment. Fretwell’s my third station is takes me out over the river Hull towards the city outskirts. It is quiet, and there are few people here. The avenues are long and broad and tree lined; there are willows here in profusion and ash trees too. There is a zen like peace to be found in this space and I take a call from my Swedish photographer friend who is doing walking tours in Norway now.  Chatting from beneath the shade of a willow tree we compare our recent experiences and then ring off. At the T junction that leads me back towards the centre I find I have been walking on Oslo road. My favourite building was the Mad Dog Garage with a fake plastic bulldog standing guard in the lobby.

The fourth station is the Base industrial space but it is closed and has the air of an internment camp. I follow a tree-shaded cycle route, passing rows of terraced houses and beneath an underpass two graffiti artists at work. I stop to chat and they are friendly and open telling me that now that its legal to do graffiti the quality of the wall work has improved. Its smart and enlightened thinking says the newby of eight months and the master of eight years agrees. Better to channel your energies into creation and not destruction. Of self or other peoples property. They seem very chilled and like the guy by the railway carriages, friendly and chatty. 

The walk to my fifth and final station takes me more into the realms of the concentration camp with hundreds of metres of well appointed fencing and spiralling strands of barbed wire. The inevitable buddleia grows between the railings and I note how the industrial and the domestic are placed side by side. The homeless guerrilla camp in parks and concealed nooks watched by the all seeing eye in the sky. I cross another bridge over the River hull and enter the Old City once more. Venture Business Park, in the museum quarter  is closed but its activities are made evident by the numerous signs and prohibitions its makes public. I head for what passes as home, passing a magenta sign at the end of a street with the legend, Regeneration Projects. 

Back at Victoria Square I find I’ve come full circle. Outside teh Empress pub the locals and tourists sip and swill in the dimming heat. Everyone is chilled and happy. An Asian cabbie gives me the thumbs up and I smile back at him. With a little sun the English seem happier and more open. Maybe a little warming is a good thing, but joking aside I find myself content. From the polythene-clad Maritime Museum the name Simpson is broadcast, the first and final guide to this wonderful city. My time here is coming to an end and I’ve stuck to my plan. At least so far. Eight walks in eight walks and in each day something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

The something blue is the sky as well as the blue in the angel earrings of my Swedish friend gifted to her by an American client. The future can only be an age of, not just tolerance, but loving acceptance. On the first night I arrived the city was on fire with its celebration of the rainbow clad Pride Brigade that is the LGBT community. And today I find a cream Hull phonebox similarly patterned with the rainbow that marked the end of Noah’s flood.

Day 9: Sea

I try to locate a final fitting image of Hull that is both poetic and worthy and perhaps, I fail, because all I keep seeing in my mind’s eye, is the Sea. The brown turbulent waters glimpsed in the Humber which flow past Hull and Grimsby and then spill out into the North Sea. The muddy trickle of the Hull oozing through the land and out into the harbour. That is where I position the city I have walked, between those two flowing bodies of water. In my hurryings and scurryings of the last five weeks on foot, or in the car, I have crossed and recrossed the river by various means, at various times. I have seen its dawns and its evenings and I have admired its bridges and sunsets as well as the buildings which throng its teeming banks. 

 The New City with its business parks and burgeoning industry is located on the outskirts, by and large, but the Old City grows out of the River Hull which becomes the Sea.  And its business, at least in days of yore was fish. There are still 6500 involved in the industry but it is a shadow of its former self. The Cod Wars of the 1960s and the 1970s fought between Britain and Iceland heralded the end of an age, with overfishing leading to decommissioning and the loss of craft and men to the industry. It is a far cry from the age of ships and perilous adventures on turbulent waters celebrated in galleries like the Ferens.  Between 1808 and 1970, 400 ships were lost at sea and you don’t have to dig particularly hard or deep to find mention of the triple trawler tragedy of 1908 in which 58 men drowned. It is still remembered in books and museums and on monuments.  Yes, the city remembers, remembers too the five men of Hull who sailed with Shackleton in the Endurance , which sank off the coast of Antarctica in 1915.

 And so as I drive from the city one last time, I remember the Fish Trail and the Deep, the view from the harbour wall, the docks, the trawlers, the streets and squares, the murals and parks, the windmills and the great turbines, the smoking stacks and the terraced houses. I recall them with pleasure  as one last image flashes past the car window. It’s a mural which features a sailor in oilskins gripping a great ship’s wheel whilst a bearded figure, who looks certifiably Christlike whispers what could be advice or could be comfort in his open ear as he heads out to sea to fish. 



14.09.2022 02:52

A joy to read Stu. Not only an expert tour guide (I have walked the Scottish Highlands with you twice) but a masterful storyteller who merges time and place into a kaleidoscope of imagery & metaphor.

Latest comments

14.10 | 16:13

I know. I see that it's all over but concealed. Not part of a cities authorised biography or daily propaganda.

14.10 | 16:09

Ah thia latter letter reminds me of a man Iknew in Lichfield - now departed totally - he too was being hounded and oppressed and taken to court for nothing. See it isn't just Leeds!!

14.09 | 02:52

A joy to read Stu. Not only an expert tour guide (I have walked the Scottish Highlands with you twice) but a masterful storyteller who merges time and place into a kaleidoscope of imagery & metaphor.

13.09 | 17:29

Its so lovely to hear from you Mike and Jan. Your offer is very kind as are your memories of the trip we shared.

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