Tour de force: A Hull of a Time

Yorkshire Blue Badge Guide Sarah Milne-Day invites us to go to Hull.

One day last summer Sarah Milne-Day found a mysterious trail of blue marks in her house. “They were all over the floor, the furniture, kitchen and bathroom,” she explains. “I was convinced someone had broken in – until my boyfriend walked in covered in body paint. His ‘explanation’ was that he had been walking around town all night naked.”

Sarah’s partner – along with several thousand Hull residents – had stripped off for a night-time photo series by the celebrated American artist Spencer Tunick. The images will be part of a celebration of everything Hull as it steps into the spotlight as the 2017 UK City of Culture. “It’s a fitting way to commemorate the city,” says Sarah. “Hullhas a long history of being unconventional. It refuses to be typecast and defies the cliché of being a run-down end of the line place where all trains terminate. A visit here will reward you for the effort.

“Hull’s contrarian outlook is best summed up by its phone boxes. While in the rest of the UK they were all red, Hull – which was never part of the national network – went it alone with Yorkshire white cabins. These beacons of independence are proudly maintained. When local boxer Luke Campbell won a medal at the 2012 Olympics, they celebrated him by painting both a post box and phone cabin gold.

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“This rebellious spirit is reflected in the city’s politics. During the Civil War Yorkshire was a Royalist county, firmly behind Charles I. But when the king’s forces tried to enter Hull they were blocked by Parliamentarians. The leader of the rebels was Sir John Hotham, the five-times-married governor of Hull. He called a meeting at his residence; now called Ye Olde White Hart Inn – in Hotham’s time it was known as ‘The Plotting Parlour’. Following a majority vote, the gates of Hull were closed and the town besieged.

Sir John escaped the siege, but was arrested and taken to London where he was executed in 1645. Today the old inn is one of the city’s best-loved buildings, celebrating Hull’s republican sympathies – rather ironic in a city originally named Kingston-on-Hull in 1293 for King Edward I. “Nobody sums up this rebellious politics more than the man behind the abolition of the slave trade. William Wilberforce was born in Hull in 1759 and rose to become the city’s MP. He fought for years to abolish slavery and continued the struggle after resigning from parliament due to failing health. In 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act was passed; Wilberforce died three days after the legislation passed into law. “The city felt so warmly to him that just five days after his death the mayor petitioned for a memorial to be built, a 102-foot high column, with his statue at the top – a Nelson’s Column for Hull. Today his birth house is one of the city’s museums.

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“But perhaps the ultimate symbol of independence is Britain’s greatest aviatrix. Amy Johnson was born in Hull, the daughter of a wealthy fish factory owner. She learned to fly in 1928 and her hobby soon became an all-consuming mission to prove that women could be top-class aviators.

“In 1930, Amy set off alone from Croydon and flew 11,000 miles to Darwin. She was the first woman to fly alone to Australia and returned home to a hero’s welcome, greeted by a million people. She died 75 years ago; flying for the Air Transport Auxiliary her plane crashed into the Thames estuary – Amy’s body was never recovered and her death remains a mystery.

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“Another of Hull’s contrarians is Phillip Larkin. He took a job as a Hull University librarian, but spent his working hours writing poetry. He had a great affinity with the city, remarking ‘I never thought about Hull until I was here. Having got here, it suits me in many ways. It is a little on the edge of things’. Larkin chronicled the mundane details of daily life in verse, as one observer put it, ‘deprivation for him was what daffodils were to Wordsworth’”.

Hull’s ‘modern poet’ is Paul Heaton. The musician arrived in the city over 30 years ago, made it his home and created two of its biggest cultural exports – The Housemartins and The Beautiful South. His first album was titled London 0 Hull 4. Heaton is excited about the City of Culture, noting that ‘people from Hull aren’t used to selling themselves and this accolade will give them a boost in self-confidence. I’ve spent years explaining to people where Hull is – at least now people will know’.

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“When the fireworks are launched above the Humber Bridge on 1 January at 20.17pm to mark the start of Hull’s year as City of Culture, it will signal the start of 365 days of events – one for every day of the year,” says Sarah.

“It’s a great moment to welcome people to a city most people have never thought of visiting. For me it’s an opportunity to introduce visitors to the city’s maritime history, the revitalised dock area where HMS Bounty was built and from where Robinson Crusoe set sail. Everyone should take the train to the ‘city at the end of the line’”.

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