Monday, 30 November 2009

Hullness Debate 6.30 - 7.30pm 10th Dec: How do we preserve Hull’s historic cityscape when considering flood-risk?

When you think about flooding, do you think of this?

or this?

On the 10th of December, 6.30 - 7.30pm, Arc will be holding a Hullness debate exploring new approaches to living with the increased risk of flooding. Please come along, bring your flood photographs and tell us your flood stories!

The original aim of the Hullness debates were to inform the Hull City Council Area Action Plan about Hull's architecture and what makes the city a unique place to live.
The risk of flooding, and how we can live with water should be part of this ongoing discussion. The built environment will need to develop because of flood-risk. We would like to raise awareness of the approach that other countries have taken that the increase in water can be a cultural and economic opportunity.

To inform the RIBA Building Futures exhibition to be held at Arc in March 2010. The information that we provide in Hull will continue to tour Britain with the exhibition.
This local research will also inform the supplementary planning document that Arc is producing in partnership with Hull City Council.
We will also be presenting photographs from a recent flood research trip to Holland (see photo above), that show that providing space for water can actually improve public space. Speakers will be announced shortly.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Hullness: a global perspective.

Several places in the world are also called Hull and we want to know what their residents think hullness is too to make this a global debate. We have already made contact with Hull Massachusetts that has a coastal landscape very similar to Kingston Upon Hull. If you find any info on any of these places please let us know.

Kingston upon Hull (usually referred to as "Hull") UK.
Population: 257,000

Hull, Quebec (now part of the city of Gatineau), Canada.
Population: 66,246. Approximately 80% of the hullois or hulloise residents speak French as their first language.

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Hull, Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. USA.
Population: No information, it looks like there are just 3 houses there.

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Hull, Walker County, Alabama. USA.
Population: No information but it looks like an isolated school in open countryside with nearby villages.

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Hull, Florida, USA.
Population:150 apparently, not sure where they all are as it looks like a farm.

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Hull, Georgia, USA.

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Hull, Illinois, USA.

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Hull, Iowa, USA.
Population: 1960.

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Hull, Massachusetts, USA.
Population: 11050

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Hull, Minnesota, USA.
Population: No information, it looks uninhabited. Apparently it was once an important rail road route (now decomissioned) for the mining industry.

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Hull, North Dakota, USA.
Population: No information, it looks like 8 houses and a farm.

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Hull, Ohio, USA.
Population: No information. It looks like a few houses on a single road.

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Hull, Texas, USA.
Population: 1800.,_Texas

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Hull, Marathon County, Wisconsin, USA.
Population:773. It looks like a large sparsely populated area.,_Marathon_County,_Wisconsin

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Hull, Portage County, Wisconsin, USA.
Population: 5493.,_Portage_County,_Wisconsin

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Down Cemetery Road: Larkin on Hull 1964

In this 1964 BBC Monitor documentary John Betjeman interviews Philip Larkin. It includes excellent footage of Hull's sixties cityscape and surrounding countryside before regeneration.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

hullness - an early definition

While googling hullness I came across this 2007 public document about Hull's Fruit Market regeneration that credits Urban Kaleidics and Browne Smith Baker Architects.

The document includes a "definition" of hullness. We don't want to define it yet as the debate is only just beginning, but this is an interesting point of view:
Hullness - noun
1 the fact of quality (of a person) of being from Hull; resemblance of the city (of the place) : The Housemartins show the characteristic of Hullness | there is a real Hullness about the Fruit Market. See notes on Hull- [prefix] and Kingstonian.
2 slightly self-deprecating response, in particular to place : it’s their Hullness that criticizes their place before someone else does | there is a real Hullness with this quarter of Rotterdam.
3 under-rated and | or underperforming in competitive environments : which of the great Universities did you go to? Oxford, Cambridge or Hull? (Black Adder goes Forth). There is a Hullness about the disappointing final result.
4 avoidance of airs and graces : it’s their Hullness that makes them so down to earth.
5 opposite of Dullness : Hull is not Dull thus Hullness is not Dullness.
6 having a draw-bridge and defensive mentality : Hull is just different to Sheffield and much better than Doncaster in spite of what the current market rates suggest.
[ predic. ] (Hull on) having the visible appearance and predictable behaviour of a resident of Hull (occasionally damp footed) : Bob has a real Hull on today because of the rain.
Hull - proper noun
Kingston upon Hull |Kings:town | up:on hull�ulll| very proper
ORIGIN Old English - hull�ulluul, of Yorkshire origin.
Hull- a prefix city and port in north (subjective geography) of England, situated at the junction of the Hull and Humber rivers; pop. 252,000. Official name Kingston-upon-Hull.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Poetry by Gillian Dyson

Former Arc staff member, Gillian Dyson's creative practice includes the process of enabling communities and engaging others through formal or informal education. She is currently Senior Lecturer in Performance Arts, with The School of Film, TV & Performance, Leeds Metropolitan University. This is her take on hullness.

Big Sky

The sky is mostly blue. Or grey.

It is mostly grey.

And when it is blue there are Cirrus – long streaks of white like broad, wet brush strokes. Easily mistaken for the vapour trails of planes. Or the streaked droppings of gulls.

High winds. South Westerly, rushing from the backbone across the chest and out to sea.

A flat, steel, calming grey that melds land to heaven.

Since Howard’s classification – Altostratus, middle grey cloud that cover the entire sky.

Battle of Britain skies – from the boxes of Airfix, or the pub walls of Lincolnshire.

With fierce, East Coast light that bleaches the dining table and puts the sun visors down on every lorry cab as they motor East to the shipping lines.

It is mostly blue.

In summer it is warm, in the lea of the wind, huddled in gardens, on patios and decking.

The sound of mowing always droning like some lost bumble bee searching for it’s burrow.

The smell of barbeque coals and dripping pork fat, so determinedly resisting the chilling breezes, wind against tide.

It is mostly grey. The buildings, the cars, all become grey. Without reflected light the definition is lost, and sea becomes land, and city becomes water, and water becomes sky.

Just as Aesop described coats are drawn closer, hoods pulled up – the wind has no chance of stripping to naked the people. Only the night can do that, when men and women and children are drawn in semi-naked pilgrimage to drink and party in shirt sleeves and bare legs and breasts and cold blue skin, stained only by the even bluer ink of the tattoo needle, or the temporary gravy staining of fake tan.

But it is mostly blue.

Flat lands

The land flattens to the east, allowing great vents of South Westerly wind to prevail uninterrupted, unchecked until they exhaust somewhere in the North Sea.

The City is edged by the great estuary. Not a coastal edging/ border with infinite longing over a churning foam of breaking waves. Instead, a near-to view of South bank neighbors, with equally (or greater) flat expanses in the distance.

This edging is over a breach of water – breaking through and leaching out, hemouraging nitrogen enriched clay into the cold sea water.

It is as if the city was washed up with the clay, caught in the matting of reeds and flotsum and sheeps wool.

Underlying chalk has little or no influence on the topography.

It grows like a boil/ seed against the undulating line of the estuary. Blistering out into the surrounding earth, to grow wheat, and rape, and linseed.

That estuary line itself peaters out with a florish, a serif, and upstroke that becomes the Spurn. Just a meter or two. Head above the waves. That is all of that city to resist the tide and keep from becoming drift wood.

Spurn, to reject, scorn, refuse.

A refusal to sit still. Shifting sands. Transient. Vagrant. Un-named.


The Hull in tributary to the estuary cuts north. The naming of the city weds it to the body of the vessels upon which it becomes to reliant. The bulk of the ship, the bulging belly of it, fat with grain or salt or mutton or men to be carried out on the tide. Becoming invisible to the naked eye, to tip over the horizon. Or off loading, on the dockside, fish spewed from sea-sick stomachs when they become static on shore. Sick of the constant churning, but not-allowing to become part of the land, forced to keep returning – to be the hull of the ship, the cargo hold, the ballast.

The hulls of ships lie in their hundreds out, east from the city. Splintered and lost their plates fall open with great moans, to be sought out, unseen, by day fishermen, canny to the activity of guillemot and gannets over wrecks that shelter Pollack and whiting, ling and codling. Or found, seen, by divers who covet metals and trinkets but even more cherish their histories. Or worst of all swept aside by great dredgers and salvage vessels, with the disinterest and distain of an abusive parent who knock aside a wimpering child.

Un naming

Our friends in the north. Five percent remained. Five percent of the city left untouched by bombing raids and the subsequent and necessary bull dozers to render rubble safe, to sweep aside unfound bodies and bury family treasures. Never named. Too important to be named. The foundling babe that unchristened is left in limbo. Resistance.

© G. Dyson 2009

Friday, 31 July 2009

hullness stickers

Visit the Arc exhibition stand at various events over the summer for a hullness sticker.
The stickers feature the King Billy statue and the classic hull corporation white telephone box. Interestingly this iconic style of telephone box called the K6 was designed by a bastion of the architectural establishment in the early 20th century Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960) who also designed Battersea Power Station. Giles' father George Gilbert Scott junior (1839 -1897) designed the large victorian 'villas' on Salisbury Street here in Hull. George Gilbert Scott senior (1811 - 1878) also left an impressive legacy of buildings including St Pancras Station and hotel, London.

Thinking through Hullness by David Atkinson

Thinking through Hullness: a geographical perspective

David Atkinson, Department of Geography, University of Hull

I am an academic geographer working at the University of Hull. I’ve lived in and around the city since early 1998, and have written several papers on the ways that various heritage and memory issues have been articulated, contested and debated through space and landscapes such as Victoria Dock, St. Andrew’s Dock and the city centre. I was asked to comment on these three essays on Hullness, and I’m delighted to contribute to the important business of exploring our city’s distinctive yet elusive sense of place.

Responses to the essayists

Given my profession, I naturally notice the geographical aspects of Hullness. Indeed, I’d argue that the identities of all cities are informed and inflected by geographies: by morphology and form, by a city’s size and dimensions, and also by its location relative to other major centres, to mountains or the sea, or to foreign countries. Not everyone appreciates such nuance, however, and I was therefore delighted to see the provocative geographies that were employed by the three essayists as they pursued a sense of Hullness.

I was pleased to see the emphasis in David Neave’s deft essay upon the wider circuits of commerce, commodities, migrants, and cultural and political influence that have constituted Hull over the ages. This kind of fluid emphasis upon the ‘routes’ of various influences upon place -rather than the imagined stability of fixed, authentic ‘roots’- resonates with what geographer Doreen Massey called a ‘Global sense of place’. Like all cities, Hull is constituted from the myriad interconnecting flows of different peoples and cultures across time. Whether these influences shape architectural style or political leanings, changing industries or dialects and accents, this is the stuff that constitutes our modern cities and if we ignore these impacts, our understandings of Hullness will suffer. David also contributed an elegant history that emphasised Hull’s longstanding independence due to its relative isolation from other centres of political power. He also noted the city’s extroverted perspective that saw it connected to Europe more than other parts of England in times past. Such are the characteristic historical geographies of Hull, and all of these help to shape Hullness.

Richard Scott also responded to the geographies of the city in his attempts to express Hullness. His images and the enthusiasm of his accompanying narrative communicated his sense of the city as an exiled Hullonian. I was particularly struck by the way that his images engaged the esturine mud and waters of the Humber, the city-skyline and the broader horizons of the waterfront, the meanders of the river Hull as it bisects the city, and the highly-defined shape of the Old Town, buried at the heart of the city and offering something unique to Hull’s identity. Richard also spoke of the proud elegance of the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian centre (always startling, I think, for a first time visitor), and the pervasive presence of water and the clarity this lends the city’s air. For me, Hullness also extends to the flat, comfortable suburbs of West Hull, and to the avenues and estates stretching eastwards and northwards along the arterial roads to Hedon, Holderness and Beverley. All of this is the particular, characteristic urbanism all makes up modern Hull, and all of this inevitably informs Hullness too.

I also enjoyed the psychogeographies of the Caravan Gallery and the photographs of their journeys around our city. Their pictures peered into the niches of quotidian Hull, the everyday corners that some of us frequent or pass regularly but that are exposed anew by the perspectives of visitors. Psychogeography is a broad and disparate practice, but in essence it encompasses a sense of drifting through the city and being open to its unique geographies and histories. It is about engaging places, about seeing and listening to the landscape without pre-judging it. What does it tell us of life and living here? When I moved to Hull I took a flat in High Street. I wanted to be in the middle of the city and I walked it routinely to get to know it: up Wincomlee, out across Witham, around the Old Town, across to the ferries, and endlessly back and forth across the city centre and the Marina. Caravan Gallery captured this same kind of wandering –that of the flâneur, some call it- who observes and comes to know space as s/he walks it. They encounter the familiar, but also the unexpected: like oil seed mills that look like they have been transplanted from nineteenth-century Pittsburgh, or long waits at level-crossings, or the scent of chocolate drifting across the rooftops. And interestingly, as outsiders, they didn’t buy the East/West division of the city. Although a favoured and fervent element of the city’s rhetoric (and therefore important in itself as a statement of self-identity), I think the East/West fracture is rather more stated than demonstrated in Hull. In practice does anybody really avoid the other half of the city? Would anyone refuse to cross the river if they had good reason? Arguably, in approaching the city without prior-knowledge of this divide, Caravan Gallery saw straight through this supposed division. In sum, the stories partially unfolded by Caravan Gallery’s fleeting portraits are many: all kinds of histories and identities swirl beneath these images. They did us a great service presenting a perspective from new pairs of eyes. They help us to see our city anew.

And what of Hullness?

So, the city council wants to know what Hullness is? What is the distinctive nature of this place? What is its genius loci and how can this be captured (if it can be represented conventionally)?

Place is undoubtedly an important element in our geographical imaginaries - and by this I mean the individual and collective ways that we make sense of the world around us. Place is also central to identities: many of us nurture subjective and emotional attachments to places where we feel rooted and connected. We often want to feel pride in our place too: think of the elation surrounding Hull City’s promotion to the Premiership as evidence of this. Further, and increasingly in post-industrial economies, the selling of place through place-promotion is also crucial to cities and regions that are competing to attract inwards investment, wealthy migrants and tourist spending. The requirements of place-promotion demand a clear and credible sense of place that the city can buy into and support. For all these reasons, and despite being notoriously ephemeral and amorphous, place remains a crucial concept for our modern world. All three essayists tried to convey a sense of Hullness, and I think all three contributed significantly.

For my part, I’ll admit that despite my years here, and despite writing about the city repeatedly, I’m not sure I know what Hullness is either. So perhaps it may be easier to first assert what it is not? I am certain that Hull is not a ‘non-place’ as described by the French anthropologist Marc Augé. For Augé, airports, shopping malls, and identikit high-streets are non-places; they are all fleeting, transient meaningless locales that could be anywhere and remind us of nowhere. His theory chimes with the frequent observation that idiosyncratic places are increasingly eroded by our accelerating world, its mass-communications and the increased mobility of people and ideas. Some of the homogenised places that result are non-places; Hull certainly isn’t one of these. It does have character; it does have a distinct genius loci. And while I can’t define this identity precisely, I’ll add mention of some elements that I think do contribute to Hullness.

First, Hull is an under-bounded city. That is, it is locked within boundaries that don’t reflect its natural scale and reach across the surrounding region. The revised mosaic of unitary authorities established in 1996 isolated the city from its natural hinterland. Beverley, Cottingham, Hessle and the villages around the city –Hull’s functioning conurbation- are mired in East Yorkshire and many of the wealthy professionals who work in Hull take their salaries and much of their spending beyond the city boundary at the end of each working day. Meanwhile the city centre, some of the poorer districts, and the bulk of the social problems are concentrated into a relatively small core-areal. This is a problem in socio-economic terms, but it also shapes a collective sense of the city.

Hull is distinctive in other ways too. As David Neave noted, it developed thanks to an extroverted trading past –as much connected to Flanders as to other English regions- but I suspect that some of this wider, outward-looking perspective has been eroded through the economically-difficult years of the late Twentieth century. Rebuilding this confidence and Hull’s European profile is a further challenge for the city. That said, Hull is not a backwards looking place. It does not wallow in nostalgia like some cities with glorious pasts, nor has it become consumed by the pursuit of heritage like some ‘historic’ towns. Despite healthy interest in local history, local perspectives tend to focus on the present.

Hull also defies easy categorisation in comparison to some other Northern cities. As manufacturing industry contracts further, Hull is gradually becoming a post-industrial city. I hear that the University is now the biggest employer, for example. Yet this change has not been as rapid as in some other Northern English cities. Leeds and Manchester have consciously presented themselves as modern, post-industrial places, for example; Hull, by contrast, has a slower but steadier evolutionary trajectory. Similarly, Hull remains a very White city in ethnic terms, and its slow progression towards the multiculturalism evident in many other comparable British cities also marks the city’s difference from rivals along the M62 and elsewhere in the North.

And what to do with Hullness?

In sum, the city is distinct. It has character and a sense of place. Consequently, the city authorities bear a responsibility to address and promote this unique and valuable resource. I’d argue that doing so presents various challenges, and I’ll outline two here.

First, we need planning, architecture, spaces and districts that respond to the city, its history, and its individuality. Such ambition is stated repeatedly by architects and planners everywhere, of course, but less frequently do we see these objectives fulfilled successfully. Key hallmark buildings, like the Maritime Museum which is a constant shadow in Richard Scott’s images, need to be celebrated as pivotal in the city’s landscape. I’d argue that the city should also invest in further high-quality architecture and urbanism to avoid the danger of becoming a non-place full of identikit retail estates, hotels and car-showrooms. This means new buildings that resonate with Hull’s inimitable traditions and locale. It means maintaining extant high-quality urban fabric, and not diluting it with uninspiring new building (or, and I echo Richard Scott here, oversized public TV sets). All of this is a central and pressing challenge for the city.

Second, if we derive a better sense of Hull’s genius loci from this nascent debate, we then need to practice and perform this Hullness. Again, places are not fixed and stable; they are not inert and simply there forever. Rather, they are made and re-made each day by mundane, quotidian practice and by the animation of people performing a place’s identity. Therefore, if Hull can establish the contours of Hullness, it has to then perform this identity publically. If, for example, we decide that our core identity is as a maritime city –a port reaching out overseas and a conduit for migrants, commerce, commodities and ideas- then we need to perform this identity by reiterating it through all kinds of media. In the maritime case, this might mean via more museums and galleries locked into maritime themes, further monuments and walking trails, and a sustained programme of festivals, historic ships visits and the like. Some maritime initiatives are already in place, and events like the Tall Ships of Sea-Trek in 2001 demonstrate the surprising levels of popular support for such initiatives. Yet the city’s investment in its maritime identity is intermittent and patchy: we find little in the city remembering whaling, shipbuilding, fishing or Hull’s role in the flows of migrants en route to the new world, for example. Whatever genius loci is identified for Hull, the city should then support and invest in it consistently. This is crucial to realising the full potential of Hull’s distinctive character.

Finally, as noted above, inevitably Hullness is a slippery, fluid concept: however well-intentioned they are, most attempts to define a discrete, bounded, essentialised city identity are partial. Officially-sanctioned city brands and identities (like the hull cog) often stir considerable debate because such representation is fraught with difficulties. Indeed, I doubt that anyone can represent Hullness definitively at the moment. And for a decent period at least, no-one should try. Instead, we need to think about Hullness, debate it, discuss and argue about it; then we need to reflect and ruminate some more. Also, the debate needs to spread to all interested parties and all corners of the community – this shouldn’t happen in a closed room amongst those (like myself) who claim a special expertise and insight. We need a wider, more democratic engagement with all kinds of voices from all sections of the city. Otherwise there is a danger that these various groups won’t all be encompassed by, or feel ownership of, the sense of Hullness that emerges.

But while it may take time to evolve, it is important that this debate starts now and that it gathers momentum and allies. It needs to be championed by those in the city who are charged with ensuring Hull’s future social and economic development. This means the city council, Hull Forward, Yorkshire Forward and others. But we also need the local and regional media to engage; ditto, it requires the input of industry, commerce, the arts and the public sector. We also need input from academic experts on these questions and other informed voices. As I said, this needs to be a broad and inclusive debate. So, I’ve said my bit for now. I invite others to follow. Let’s think about Hullness and see where it takes us…

Mobile Arc

Mobile Arc is our exhibition stand that, with the help of our fantastic volunteers, is currently on the road at the summer festivals and events in the city. Last weekend we were at Hull Pride in West Park. This weekend we will be at Veterans Day in East Park. Publicised with some new postcards, the subject of Hullness is proving to be a hot topic with the public.

Hullness Postcards at Mobile Arc

We have used Hull's iconic white telephone box as a theme for the Hullness postcard. If you have ideas for future publicity materials please let us know. Watch out for a range of stickers - coming soon.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Characteristics of Hull

John Netherwood from Hull Civic Society has sent Arc the following text from a document produced by the Civic Society in January this year:

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Characteristics of Hull:

  • Human Scale
  • Low rise
  • Completely flat – therefore nearly all views are “man made”
  • Outstanding water fronts
  • Unusually hard edges for a major city – but this helps to make it feel compact
  • Being split in half by River Hull creates sense of place and identity
  • By being largely cut off from the rest of the country, historically, it has the feeling of a “city state”. Very self sufficient place.
  • Still has a strong villagy feel
  • Rich architectural detail in centre/ high quality old buildings
  • Intact medieval Old Town
  • Seven radial roads – getting about is easy
  • Rich historical heritage – but under exploited (Civil War/ Pilgrim Fathers/ Bounty etc)
  • Centre is a set of linked distinct areas – as per CCAAP
  • Large pedestrian areas
  • Wide tree-lined boulevards on outskirts
  • Major central park- but looking neglected and needs opening up
  • Outstanding museums – but one or two more major attractions required on scale of the Deep
  • Some good public art but needs more – e.g. Newcastle
  • Own train set – Hull Trains
  • Lovely indoor market – but heavy under investment compared with, say, Barcelona
  • Old industrial area – Wincolmlee – needs exploiting and renovating
  • Plenty of parking round city centre for shoppers
  • Water into the heart of the city
  • Very “quirky" place
  • Many good old historic pubs
  • Very close to beautiful countryside and some of the best coastline in the country
  • Humber Bridge
  • Its own ferry service
  • Very close links to continental Europe
  • Overall the city is like a collection of linked villages and this could be exploited more – smaller units of locality need to be emphasised. The concept of eight regional centres each serving 30,000 residents, seems two big – needs emphasis on neighbourhood - centres of amenity within walking distance , serving, say, 10,000 people.

  • Poor quality and attractiveness of paving out of city centre
  • Many parts of the city still have a downtrodden feel.
  • Too few street trees
  • Needs more of a “continental feel”
  • Lack of views over the city (being flat) – needs a viewing tower
  • Twenty derelict railway bridges ring the city – a great eyesore
  • Large proportion of private property has derelict looking boundary walls, making streets look tatty – needs public intervention, like in St. Georges Rd.
  • Lack of residents pride in their city and lack of appreciation of how good it is compared with very many places.
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What do you think about the above? Leave your comment below!

Hullness - starting the debate

On Thursday 24th June at Arc, the debate was initiated with the help of PanelistsCatherine Ackroyd, Dave Windass, Dr David Neave and chair John Holmes - and of course the 50 invited guests and members that attended.

Presentations came from Dr David Neave...

... Architect Richard Scott

...and photographers The Caravan Gallery.

Watch this space for a further write-up - and of course don't forget to post your comments and responses to the event if you were here!

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Hullness Pictures by Richard Scott

Richard Scott. Copyright 2009. All rights reserved
arc commissioned Hull-born architect Richard Scott to create artwork that reflects his feelings of Hullness. Richard concieved these images by walking the city and drawing a route that takes in the urban grain of Hull. The strong black vertical line represents the curve of the river Hull as a landmark that perhaps signifies the east/west divide in the city. This artwork is currently on display in the arc building.

Monday, 22 June 2009

RICHARD SCOTT'S - HULLNESS Assisted by Rahul Vishwakarma

Photography by The Caravan Gallery

The Caravan Gallery is, like the name suggests, a caravan. It is a visual arts project run by artists and psycho-geographers Jan Williams and Chris Teasdale who are on a mission to record the ordinary and extraordinary details of life. They are particularly drawn to absurd anomalies and curious juxtapositions, typical of places in transition and in the process of reinventing themselves.

arc commissioned Jan and Chris to get to know Hull, wander around, get lost a bit and photograph their findings. As newcomers to the city, many of us locals would probably agree with some of their observations of what makes Hull unique, but they have also captured interesting and witty idiosyncracies. The full collection of their findings is now on display in the arc building.

Saturday, 13 June 2009


‘A KINGDOM OF ITS OWN’ - HULLNESS – A historian’s perspective

What is special about Hull? In what ways is Hull distinct from other great English cities? What are the ‘identifiers’, although not necessarily unique in themselves, that when combined make up the unique city of Kingston upon Hull.

Underlying everything else is the city’s location. When people, both residents and outsiders, write and talk about Hull they invariably refer to the city as ‘remote’, ‘isolated’, ‘cut off’, ‘end of the line’ and ‘a backwater’. As a Financial Times columnist recently commented: ‘Hull sits at the end of a motorway, staring out to sea with its back turned to the United Kingdom, isolated from the rest of the country by the muddy Humber Estuary, 200 miles from London, 200 miles from Edinburgh and some 100 miles from anywhere half-way decent.’

But this so-called isolation has given the city an independence that makes a positive rather than negative contribution to Hull’s distinctive character. The ‘isolate city’ of Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Bridge for the Living’ has ‘through centuries [held] her separate place’. Hull is not lost in some greater conurbation like most northern or midland cities where undistinguished urban areas merge one into another. The city is surrounded on the three sides by the East Riding, one of the most purely agricultural areas in England, and to the south is the Humber where in Larkin’s words ‘sky and Lincolnshire and water meet’. There is no matching built-up area on the south side of the estuary, as at Liverpool and Newcastle. Hull stands alone; its boundaries are distinct.

Hull’s ‘separateness’ was recognised in 1440 when the borough was taken out of the jurisdiction of the county of York and, with its ‘precinct’, created a county of its own. This independence was demonstrated in 1642 when King Charles I was turned away from the gates of Hull, and again throughout the Civil Wars when the town was at times the only Parliamentarian stronghold in Yorkshire. In the 20th century Hull’s determination to retain its own telephone service was another expression of individuality.

Although ‘a separate place’ Hull, as a leading port since the 13th century, cannot be considered insular or parochial. Its residents came into daily contact with merchants, seamen and settlers from continental Europe and from all over Britain who made a lasting impact on the trade, buildings and cultural mix of the town. Traders and sailors from Hull would spend much time in Baltic, Dutch and French ports, as did their counterparts from these ports in Hull. Merchants in particular would establish close links abroad, often opening agencies in continental ports run by sons or younger brothers who on their return would introduce new ideas to Hull. In the 17th and 18th centuries members of the Maister family were at times resident at Stockholm, Riga, St Petersburg, Helsingore, Dantzig and Gothenburg. At the last place the second son of Thomas Wilson of Hull, founder of what became the largest private steamship company in the world, settled as the company’s agent in 1843 and later established a firm in the Swedish port that still exists today.

Similarly the Dutch-born Joseph Pease, who came to Hull in 1708 as representative of his family’s Amsterdam merchant house, was founder of Hull’s first bank and did much to develop the port’s oil-seed crushing industry. Many others from the continent settled here and by the mid-late 19th century Hull was the most cosmopolitan town in Yorkshire, with proportionately far more residents born abroad than in the case of the larger towns of Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield. The ‘foreign’ settlers came chiefly from Russia, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Poland, Denmark and Italy. To serve the migrant communities, and visiting seamen, vice-consulates were opened, social clubs founded and churches established which have their legacy today. From these communities came businessmen, industrialists and city leaders as well as personalities such as the celebrated art dealer and benefactor Lord Duveen and, more recently, the actress Maureen Lipman.

It is to the continent, especially the Low Countries, that we owe Hull’s particularly distinctive early architecture. The city’s two finest early buildings, the 14th-century Holy Trinity church, by area the largest parish church in England, and the 17th-century Wilberforce House, both reflect strong Dutch influence. In the case of Holy Trinity church the influence comes in the use of brick for the chancel, transepts and lower part of the tower. The bricks would have been made in a brickyard established by c.1300 on the site of Prince’s Dock. The making and use of brick which had ended in the Roman period was underway by the 12th century in the Low Countries from where no doubt it was introduced into Hull. Over 4 million bricks were used in the early 14th century to construct the town walls, which with numerous other brick buildings made Hull ‘the one brick-built town of the Middle Ages in England’.

Wilberforce House built c. 1660 is also of brick, but here it is used in a far more original way and enriched with stone decoration. The style, referred to as ‘artisan mannerist’ because of the crude use of classical details, echoes contemporary buildings found in Holland and Belgium, and we do know that the builder, Hugh Lister, a wealthy merchant, probably spent some time in Holland. His ‘architect’ William Catlyn was also responsible for other ‘artisan mannerist’ buildings on either sides of the Humber, including Crowle House, further south along High Street, and the Master’s House at Charterhouse, which has a Dutch-style shaped gable and the earliest recorded use of pantiles in Hull. Pantiles, the curved clay roofing tiles, were imported into Hull from Holland in large numbers, as were the small yellowy clinker bricks, used for flooring, and Delft tiles, to be seen at Wilberforce House, and the black ledger gravestones that line the floor of the east end of Holy Trinity Church.

Hull in the 17th century would have looked very much like a Dutch town, surrounded as it was with brick walls and gates, with the River Hull to the east, the Humber to the south and wide water-filled ditches to the north and west. It is a unique feature of Hull that it has retained so much of its medieval topography, not only in the street pattern of the Old Town but also in the clear definition of its boundaries through the building of the early docks along the line of the medieval walls. In no other great industrial or port city is the historic core so well defined.

Following the demolition of the town walls the built up area spread rapidly north and west and the docks, once located on the edge, were soon at the heart of the town. William Cobbett noted in 1830 that ‘as you walk round the town, you walk by the side of the docks and ships’. A hundred years later the popular travel writer H.V. Morton, in a piece very much in praise of the city, commented: ‘Ships sail right into the heart of Hull. They saunter casually across the main streets, their masts become mixed up with the electric cable poles. Trawlers steam in from the North Sea across roads and nestle their smoke stacks against the chimneys of Hull. Barges roll in casually, with the skipper smoking his pipe and looking up pleasantly at the long line of taxicabs, oil-cake wagons, cement carts, and tram-cars which wait respectfully for the bridge to swing back.’ Ships no longer sail into the centre of Hull, but the presence of Humber, Railway and Prince’s Docks and the filled in Queen’s Dock give the city a unique flavour. The Marina has been a great success and the setting of Prince’s Quay is so much better than any other shopping centre in Britain.

It is not only the new uses of the former docks, but also the greatly improved setting of, and access to, the Humber foreshore, that have highlighted Hull’s distinctive maritime townscape.
The open spaces that have been retained or created give the centre of Hull a sense of spaciousness rarely found in other cities. This spaciousness is enhanced by comparatively wide roads and the lack of tall office and apartment blocks which now dominate city centres elsewhere. Hull is a city on a human scale, a city for the people; long may it remain so.

Finally what of the people of Hull? Are they distinctive? J.B. Priestley writing in 1933 found the people of Hull ‘pleasant but queer. They are queer because they are not quite Yorkshire and yet not quite anything else’. Many Hull residents will dispute this view, but they must accept that they differ from the people of the West, North and, to some extent, the East Ridings. Most noticeable about the people of Hull is their dominant Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian origin and their distinctive speech which will have been modified by those who flocked into the expanding port in the 19th and early 20th century. In 1871 only 70% of the residents had been born in Yorkshire; of this group those not from Hull largely came from Holderness and along the river and canal network in the West Riding, some 8.5 % (over 15,000) had been born in Lincolnshire, and the rest from all over Britain and abroad. The rhythm of the Hull dialect is said to have similarities to that of Lincolnshire but the source of the particularly individual use of the long ‘er’ as in ‘fern’ for ‘phone’ or ‘er nerr’ for ‘oh no’ is unknown.

Within Hull there were distinct communities linked to locations and particular industries. The decline of the industries and clearance of most of the working-class housing, particularly the cul-de-sac courts that were distinctive to Hull, and the dispersal of the residents to large estates on the periphery of the city, has not totally destroyed the traditions and loyalties of these areas. The main divide was, and to some extent still is, between those who live to the East and West of the River Hull and the rivalry between the two sides of the city is displayed in support for Hull FC or Hull Kingston Rovers, the two Rugby League teams. Dominating the east side was Hull’s close-knit fishing community off Hessle Road. Here originating with migrants from Devon, Kent and Norfolk, the city’s most distinctive culture developed. As well as the use of particular words and phrases, many linked to the fishing industry, the hardships faced by the trawlermen and their families gave rise to a whole host of superstitions and traditional activities that have been recorded by Alec Gill. The fishing industry lasted for little more than a century from the mid-19th century but its impact on the life and image of the city has been immense. Thirty years since the virtual end of fishing, outsiders still refer to Hull as a fishing port.

Hull is still one of Britain’s leading ports, a position held for more than 700 years. This and its particular location have determined Hull’s distinctive economy, social grouping, cultural life, architecture and topography and made it a unique city. As Herbert Morrison, onetime Foreign Secretary, commented some fifty years ago, Hull ‘seems to be a sort of kingdom of its own, with an identity of its own. It is a remarkable place with an individual character’.

David Neave June 2009