Saturday, June 28th 2014
We had not visited this northern city before and so it seemed worth the longish journey there and back. You have probably decoded my title but, if not, bear with me while I explain. In the late 12th century, the monks of Meaux Abbey (‘Meaux’ is apparently pronounced ‘muce’) needed a port from which to export the wool on which they depended for a living. What better place to build such a port than a site at the junction of two rivers, the Humber and the Hull? In these early days, the town was called Wyke, which is the Anglo-Saxon work meaning ‘settlement’ or just ‘place’.
A century or so later, King Edward I was embroiled in wars with Scotland and needed a port from which to supply his army. He appropriated Wyke (some say he bought it) in 1293 and it became known as Kyngeston (‘King’s Town’). The King went on to form the borough of Kingston upon Hull and this also became the formal name of the town, remaining so up to the present. However, the town – now a city – is universally known simply as Hull, despite this being the name of its river.
Hull’s first station was built in 1848 but there was a major rebuilding in the early 20th century which included construction of the rather impressive arched roof. More recently, the adjacent 1930s bus station and the railway station has been brought together and renamed the Paragon Interchange. If you are interested in the details of this, you will find more information here.
An item of more immediate appeal, perhaps, is the station’s sculpture of the poet Philip Larkin (1922-85). Though born in Coventry and a graduate of St John’s College, Oxford, Larkin spent his working life in Hull as librarian of the University’s Brynmor Jones Library, and there wrote most of the poetry for which he is famous. The oddly posed sculpture (to my eyes, he looks as though he is about to leave the ground and float away) is supposed to represent Larkin hurrying for a train. It is by Martin Jennings who also made the much loved sculpture of John Betjeman on St Pancras Station. (For example, see here.)
Because of the time taken travelling, it was already a little late so we looked for somewhere to have lunch. There wasn’t a lot of choice in the area where we found ourselves so we tried the Orchard Cafe. This turned out to be quite a popular place, especially with people at the top end of the age spectrum. Apart from that, nothing about the experience was memorable.
We set out to do a little exploring before heading for our prime destination (more of that later). We soon discovered the first of our Victorian shopping arcades, Paragon Arcade. It was built in 1891 to the design of a local architect, A. Gelder, and though it has suffered transformations in the 20th century, is still a good enough example of its kind to be awarded a Grade II listing by English Heritage.
We found our way to Queen Victoria Square where there are a number of interesting buildings. Unfortunately, there was some sort of “event” in progress, one of those that requires giant screens showing the stage where a group of people are yelling to overloud music. What might have been a pleasant square at other times was crowded and obstructed with all sorts of temporary installations.
We spotted the City Hall and decided to take a look inside. The statue is one of a pair beside the entrance. This one, a female figure holding a pair of masks representing drama, is appropriate as the City Hall is no longer an administrative building but hosts events of various kinds. A banner proudly proclaims that Hull has been elected UK City of Culture for the year 2017.
The Baroque Revival style City Hall has been given a Grade II* listing and when we entered and looked around, we could see why. We were given permission to take photos. It was designed by the City Architect Joseph Hirst and built between 1903 and 1909. The statue, in case you are wondering, shows Anthony Bannister (1817-78), JP and at various times Alderman, Mayor and Sheriff, whose effigy was financed by subscription in recognition of his years of service to the City of Hull.
Other sights around the square include the elaborately styled Victorian (1898) pub, Punch Hotel (Grade II listed) and
and the Maritime Museum. Unfortunately, because of the aforementioned clutter, I was unable to get an unobstructed view of this rather fine structure. The museum was founded in 1912, as the Museum of Fisheries and Shipping and moved here in 1974. This beautiful building dates from 1872 when it was opened as the Dock Offices, the headquarters of the Hull Dock Company. We did not go inside but perhaps we will on a subsequent visit to Hull.
Hull started as a port and grew to prominence through its maritime trade. It still has a trading port and runs ferry services. The Princes Dock is a branch of the old docks that reaches into the centre of the town but is no longer used. Sadly, city planners have allowed it to be partially obscured by a shopping centre on stilts, spoiling it visually and as an amenity. I often wonder how people, who supposedly have the interests of their town at heart, can show such appalling bad taste. Money talks, I suppose.
We found our way along Silver Street (one of my favourite street names!) where we found our second Victorian shopping destination, Hepworth’s Arcade. This pretty complex was built in 1894 and was designed by A. Gelder who was responsible also for the Paragon Arcade.
Silver Street leads into Scale Lane. Here we are approaching the river and the oldest part of town. These narrow streets are quiet today but were probably livelier in times past. Here, at number 5, we find a small but venerable building dating from the 15th century and reputed to be Hull’s “oldest domestic building” (from the adjacent blue plaque). It has suffered alteration several times, being “modernized” in the 18th and 19th centuries and then restored to its 19th century appearance in the 1980s. However, something of merit must still remain because those arbiters of historical worthiness, English Heritage, have awarded it a Grade II listing.
We turned northish along the High Street and thus came to Wilberforce House and Nelson Mandela Gardens. The gardens are enclosed by walls and this gives them a pleasant domestic feel.
I did not see any sign of Nelson Mandela but did encounter Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, otherwise known as Mahatma Gandhi, or rather, a bust of him made by Mumbai sculptor Jaiprakash Shirgaoankar, unveiled in 2004.
Also present in the garden was this fine fellow, a mosaic toad. The information panel seems to indicate that this has something to do with the project Larkin with Toads, which was part of the Larkin 25 programme, commemorating the quarter century since the death of Hull’s most famous poet.
Adjacent to the gardens are not one but two museums. The first is the Streetlife Museum which, as the name suggests, shows exhibits and tableaux of life in Hull in times past. Some of the more interesting items on show are vehicles and mock-ups of once typical scenes and of shops. The exhibit above taught me that in addition to the traditional Victorian two-wheeled Hansom cab, there also existed a three-wheeled version. These were introduced in the 1900s with a view to increasing the cab’s carrying capacity. They were designed to carry 4 people with luggage on the roof and, unlike the traditional Hansom, the driver sat in front. They proved not to be very stable and few were made.
Then there was Britain’s oldest surviving tramcar. This was built in 1867 for the Ryde Pier Company and is made of mahogany with beautiful carving work. It continued in service until 1935 – then being the oldest tramcar in service – but was damaged beyond repair in a collision with the buffers. No longer fit for service it found new life as a museum exhibit.
The chemist’s shop run my Mr Castelow at 159 Woodhouse Lane had existed for 133 years before it came under threat of demolition. Mr Castelow realized its historic interest and left provision in his will for it to be preserved by being transferred to a museum. In 1976, Mr Castelow died and the work of measuring, photographing and recreating the shop could begin. Standing in the recreated establishment and looking at the stock on the shelves and in glass-fronted cabinets, one can imagine people coming here for headache powders – or something a little stronger – while Charles Dickens was still a lad.
I must admit to enjoying exhibits such as these where you can almost imagine yourself wafted back to some earlier age.
Virtually next door to the Streetlife Museum is the Hull & East Riding Museum. Admission to both of these museums is free and, as you can see, photography is allowed. This museum outlines the history of the area from ancient times.
“From ancient times”, indeed: I was captivated by this lively reconstruction of a woolly mammoth, a species which roamed our then desolate land during the last Ice Age, 250,000 years ago. If there is one extinct animal that I would choose to see brought back to life, I think it would be a mammoth.
The genuine article this time but more difficult to photograph behind its protective screens, the Hasholme boat was found buried in silt and thus preserved. Dating from the Iron Age, the hull was hollowed out from a massive oak tree. Removed from its burial place, the boat would soon have dried out and disintegrated and so techniques similar to those used in the preservation of the Marie Rose have been employed to prevent it deteriorating. The boat would have been used for transporting people and perhaps cargoes, probably by crew members who plied their paddles from a standing position.
The Romans were active in this area as in the rest of Britain, and Roman remains abound, though it is still exceptional to find something like a room-sized mosaic in near perfect condition. The Hull & East Riding Museum has several examples and this one has been displayed in a schematic room setting the better to help us imagine how it might have looked in use.
We began making our way back to Queen Victoria Square as there was an establishment there that we wished to visit. On the way we passed and photographed the Guildhall. It is this, not the City Hall, that serves as the administrative centre for the Council. In Baroque Revival style, it was built between 1906 and 1914, though restoration work was necessary in 1948 to repair war damage. By Sir Edwin Cooper, it has been described as a “tour de force” (Pevsner). English Heritage agrees and gives it a Grade II* listing.
We had come to visit the art gallery shown above, whose sober classical lines suit the character and life of the philanthropist who gifted it to the city. T.R. Ferens was a remarkable man who lived through some of the most momentous years of our history and literally worked his way up from the bottom, starting at 13 as a clerk and becoming an industrialist, MP and philanthropist, in the service of his adopted city. (See more on T.R. Ferens here.)
The foundation stone was laid in 1926 and the Ferens Art Gallery opened to the public in 1927. Admission is free and photography is allowed in the permanent collection but may be restricted in visiting exhibitions.
The gallery holds a broad range of art works and also has practical sections where people are encouraged to try out techniques and make their own art. It is not possible to do full justice to it and so I will show you just three items that caught my attention.
I was caught and held by the narrow and authoritative gaze of this Elizabethan lady painted by William Segar. The sitter remains unidentified but was obviously a person of wealth, power and privilege. Her rich clothing is deliberately designed to be ostentatious, a challenge to other would-be high-ranking courtiers, a “Match this!” in fabric and jewels. Looking into those eyes, you known she would brook no interference with her designs and would be quite ruthless in seeking her ends.
This painting of a family of lions is by Rosa Bonheur (1822-99) and was painted in 1881. Bonheur was an extraordinary person. A declared lesbian, she wore men’s cloths, smoked cigars and was the first woman to be awarded France’s Légion d’Honneur. The daughter of a painter father, Oscar-Raymond Bonheur, she soon outshone him in reputation as an artist. Though Bonheur worked with a range of themes and subjects, she remains best known as an “animalière”, a (female) painter and sculptor of animals. Clearly fascinated by animals, especially the larger wild species, Bonheur kept her own menagerie which included a lion. She made several paintings of lions, including a portrait of a pair belonging to the lion tamer, François Bidel (Portrait de Sultan et Saïda, 1888). This painting Lion at Home (Le Lion Chex Lui) is perhaps a touch sentimental, portraying the male and female as a caring couple relaxing en famille with their cubs, but the details are accurate and the poses charmingly natural. Bonheur no doubt spent time observing her and other people’s big cats.
Much as I love good paintings, I must admit to a particular interest in sculpture. A sculpture such as the above, by Henry Moore, has a presence that a painting cannot quite achieve. You can (in principle, at least) walk all around it and see it from different angles, each of which will be a new experience and will express something about the work as a whole. There is a challenge to photographing a sculpture and therefore the greater satisfaction when you manage to get it right. Lighting in galleries often works against you. This piece by Moore is entitled Working Model for a Seated Woman, so it is a sort of preliminary sketch for the finished work that is to come, though it looks pretty accomplished to me.
Our visit to the Ferens Gallery concluded, we stepped out into Queen Victoria Square again. You would expect that in a square thus named there would be a statue of that Queen and, in this case at least, you would be right. I was only partially successful in my attempts to photograph it because of the crush of people attending the event in the square. The sculpture, with the Queen at the top and two allegorical figures at the base, is by Henry Charles Fehr, known for his many war memorials, and was made in 1903. Statues of Queen Victoria are not rare in town centres but there is something slightly odd about this one: beneath the monument are public toilets which were added in 1929. Not that I disapprove of public toilets – quite the contrary, as I have often been grateful for their presence. It just seems odd to join them to a monument to Queen Victoria, something of which that lady would no doubt disapprove.
We rounded off our visit to Hull with a walk to the station – or Paragon Interchange – where we caught a train back to London. We covered a lot of ground on this, our first trip to Kingston upon Hull, and thus spread ourselves a little thinly. We discovered that there is a lot to see in Hull and will no doubt return one day to continue our explorations.