Hull: A Tale of Freedom and the Sea
Here is the Humber from the Victorian pier; an estuary where river becomes sea and the water is at once both gun-metal grey and
brown. Birefringent, apparently lifeless, a slurry of mud washing at the skeleton of the pier or the jutting piece of land which once held a garrison but now holds the deepest marine tank in Europe. So someone said...
Elsewhere buildings reach onto reclaimed land like stretched-out fingers
while into the town the old marine barely retains its loosening hold with spurting fountains and a domed Museum.
During the second world war Hull was bombed and 95% of the buildings were damaged or destroyed and two-thirds of the population made homeless. However, some of the old streets remain, at least in part; both the endearingly humble - the sort of scene I love because it seems to promise so much -
and the more grandiose with rather splendid ornaments half hidden-away aloft.
Much of the natural history collection of the Hull Literary and Philosophical Society is still buried underground in the rubble but the some of it is on display at the Maritime Museum and includes several Narwhal horns made into poles for four poster beds or the central spoke of hat stands. Some were mounted in a doorwell and, to the accompaniment of the mournful bellowings of a school of whales from loud speakers above my head, I traced their smooth spirals with my fingers. Like white barley sugar they always twist the same way; an extension of a tooth and always on the same side of the jaw - except for those rare and highly prized specimens that grow two.
The French started persecuting the tragic beasts in the fourteenth century but soon several other nationalities joined in. They started with the Right Whale (called thus because it floated when dead and hence was the right whale to catch and strip in the waves) but then went on to other species. As the whales became more scarce men went to further and further extremes into the pack ice and then to the west coast of Greenland. Sometimes they became entrapped in the ice and many must have become lost.
There was a section of whaler's boat - each component labelled and their function in the killing described. First the harpoon would be launched and upon being struck the whale would dive - and the whalers would wait knowing that it would have to resurface within half an hour for air. Then there would be a stabbing with some sort of spear until the whale's blow hole blew red. Once dead the whalers would drill holes through the animal's tail to drag it to the ship and then, climbing aboard this harmless intelligent monster, would start to disassemble it where it lay. It is a sad story with an even sadder ending. Many whales are close to extinction now and yet they are still hunted down and still made to suffer - although no longer at Hull.
But Hull has at least one reason for pride; William Wilberforce - the great campaigner for the abolition of slavery - was born here in 1728. His statue towers very high above the town outside the Hull College of Art. He is also on MySpace (!) and a film based on his life AMAZING GRACE is due to be released later this month.
Unfortunately his house was closed for renovation until March,
when, on the 25th is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire - the result of a campaign that William Wilberforce had waged in parliament for over 20 years. However his school, which used to be Hull Grammar School, is now open as a 'Hands-On Museum'
and the church in which he was baptised, Hull's 'cathedral' the Holy Trinity Church is also open most days, but alas not on the day I was there.
However, I think my favourite building in Hull is this - a beautiful little church called St Mary's.
It is quiet here and if you sit on the wall outside for a minute or two there is a peace that creeps up through the toes of your shoes and gathers in your head - and if you walk slowly you can take it with you for several hours. It is just a few paces from William Wilberforce's house and I like to think of him sitting here too.