Saturday, 30 November 2013

In the City of Culture: Hull's Old Town

Hull’s success in securing the nomination for UK City of Culture 2017 surprised some people, but it was well-deserved. The city put together an excellent, imaginative bid and, though Hull hasn’t always had a reputation for good governance, everyone pulled together to support to support the campaign. Hull has spent decades trapped at the wrong end of every available league table of city performance, and was one of the cities affected most severely by the financial crash; the devastating floods of 2007 seemed to confirm its reputation as an unlucky city. So winning the prize is a big deal and hopes are high that it will soon be matched by additional investment in offshore renewables: Hull is the preferred location for Siemens’ Green Port – a planned facility for the assembly and export of wind turbines.

The City of Culture will attract hundreds of thousands of extra visitors. They will encounter a city with some major issues to tackle: a struggling economy, weak demand, a low-skilled workforce and, from a placemaking perspective, the disastrous impact of the A63, a dual carriageway that serves the port, but separates the heart of the city from the magnificent river Humber – the place (to quote Larkin) “Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet”.  But visitors will also discover many pleasures and surprises in a city with a strong and distinctive personality, not least the remarkable but little known Old Town.

From top: Scale Lane bridge, Scale Lane park, Fruit Market, Parliament Street

The historic pattern of streets, alleys, courtyards and staithes is preserved largely intact: and there is a rich diversity of building types and styles. The Old Town is still a centre for financial, legal and professional services, although these sectors have declined in the modern era; there is a cluster of museums, dozens of pubs, a great market – as well as some encouraging signs that the area is being populated by start-ups, technology businesses and the rest. The Old Town, and especially a proposed new public space by Holy Trinity church, will be a focal point for events and celebrations in 2017. If the city can find a way to tackle the severance caused by the A63, the benefits should flow into the atmospheric but very decayed Fruit Market quarter and on to the waterfront.

What’s so nice about the Old Town? With a few unhappy exceptions, it has evolved organically and by small increments. The fabric of the area bears traces of Hull’s maritime and trading history. It hasn’t had its rough edges smoothed away by the dead hand of regeneration. When Hull’s 19th century docks system was completed, the Old Town was an island and it still has that quality of containment, even though it is no longer (Larkin again) “a terminate and fishy-smelling/Pastoral of ships up streets”.

I'm afraid it may not last.  The urge to “improve” the Old Town might be irresistible, and the quirks and eccentricities that make it special could be the first to go. The right bank of the river Hull has already been trashed to make way for a failed development, The Boom (“the noise in the city”). It is hard to do justice to the banality and cynicism of this atrocious project, only two elements of which were completed: a hideous lump of a budget hotel perched on top of a multi-storey car park, and McDowell + Benedetti’s Scale Lane Bridge. I’m not sure about the latter: some people love it, but its stealth bomber aesthetic and all-round tricksiness don’t do much for me. It may come into its own if the on-board café/shop finds an occupier between now and 2017. But at least there’s some ambition and creativity on show, and the pocket park that’s been created on the approach to the bridge is a delight.

For now, Hull is unmissable: visit the Old Town, the fragmented but still enjoyable Northern Quarter, the University with its Leslie Martin-planned campus, the spectacular Humber Bridge and go down to the wonderful tidal river. There's a football club with the mandatory oddball owner, rugby league, the Hull Truck Theatre Company, a fine local history centre, a brilliant museum of Humber cars - which, despite their name, have no connection with Hull - and plenty more. Beverley, one of England's finest small towns is just up the road.

You'll find some more images of Hull here:

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