‘I don’t see the point. When it’s an emergency you can’t go talking to a bloody computer!’ – Two women, on proposed changes to local policing, Hull.
It’s a blessed sunny day, so I brave wearing shorts and apply sun cream for the first time on this trip, and discreetly pack away my tent. The previous night I had struggled a little to find a good spot, tramping about in flooded fields and pondering whether to sleep behind a construction site. The loud movements of trucks and tractors in the distance remind me of why this would have been a bad idea.
I’m getting pretty grubby from all this cycling in the country, and my knees and behind are starting to protest about mistreatment. The prospect of having a warm and sheltered place to sleep this evening keeps me focused however, and I slowly trudge out from my rude surroundings.
I cycle up from Falkland Way, a surprisingly common name for such an absurd war, and head towards Barton’s small town centre. Here the land comes to an end, and until June 1981 I would’ve been looking at catching a ferry or temperamental hovercraft from here to Hull on the other side. Fortunately the marvels of modern engineering have established, a little belatedly, a great suspension bridge that links the two. I admire the simple concrete elegance of the Humber Bridge from the southern banks of the Humber estuary, and start chatting to a local man walking nearby.
‘The bridge? There’s a toll. It’s £1 over, £10 back!’
North Lincolnshire seems to revel in its unloveliness, but part of this is an act from the locals to keep hidden the great treasures and stories in the landscape I discovered yesterday. He chuckles and tells me about the place.
‘It’s quiet round ‘ere. A few years ago the BBC did Down Your Way, remember it? When they came to Barton the old boys said, “well, it’s a good place to die!”’
With this he laughs a lot, and his silence expands the joke into something reflecting his own view. I laugh too, and wish him well.
I weave around to the western footpath, the only one open that day, and begin the cycle up. The bridge gives a staggering view of the wide estuary here, formed by the rivers Trent and Ouse. In the morning sun it is quite wonderful.
I spot a Samaritans sign, and realise that this must be a common location for suicides. Later I find out that suicide-prevention barriers have been put up here. It’s a sad reminder of a tragic and preventable issue. Suicide kills more men aged between 30 and 44 than road accidents, murder, or HIV/AIDS combined. It disproportionately affects men three times over, and seems to be rising, particularly in the north-east. Unemployment and poverty are clear influential factors, as the massively rising suicide rate in Greece demonstrates. I used to work for one charity doing good work targeted at men in London called CALM. People who have often come close to taking their own life have spoken about being so grateful that they found some kind of support to pull them through. These kinds of support services need more funding and donations than ever before.
Back to the wonderful view. As I cross the bridge I see an old black lighthouse of sorts and lush forests. The landscape is certainly more rich and spectacular. There is no denying the beauty of East Yorkshire. I cross the grand extension bridge and wheedle round off it. The only route to Hull is a poorly-signed cycle route, so I follow this for a time until it gets too confusing, and then I follow another cyclist heading a similar route east.
The journey takes me through a series of light suburban areas that form a greater conurbation with Hull. These consist of a fairly familiar kind of appearance, early 20th century brown-brick semis, fish and chip shops and the occasional pubs. By the time I reach Hessle, on the edge of Hull itself, the landscape becomes much more interesting and diverse. I travel along a high street absolutely full of independent local shops. It is extraordinary to see. Here the local council must have actively protected local independent traders, giving the area its own identity and lively character that in London, or many small towns, is totally absent. From local food stores and caffs to mobility shops, there’s plenty here for everyone’s wants and needs. This is the opposite of the British Town Centre, and it is truly marvellous.
I need to open up about my Londoner’s ignorance of the world. A couple of years ago I met an old school friend on a bus in town and we started catching up. Whilst I’ve stayed in London and not moved away, he’d gone up to Hull for university. He told me what he liked about the place, but in my mind I couldn’t help imagining some destitute and shabby town full of smoke and stenches. This has broadly been my ignorant and small-minded view of the rest of England. Each day on these travels this view is being gradually exploded.
Hull is lovely. Really, it is. Not only does it have a plethora of independent shops, it is a large and pretty Victorian town full of fascinating free museums, a charming old town, and a lively university area full of young people. There are grand public buildings, a pretty square and, despite chain stores and malls making a couple of in-roads, the town still has bundles of character. The harbour is a pleasant place to pass the time, even if today it has been a little gentrified since the total collapse of fishing here. There are still some old sea fortifications nearby, like that at Fort Paull, and the town retains its fishing identity in theory, though no longer in practice.
There were once huge docks, and today the town maintains sea connections with the rest of mainland Europe, fitting for a city that was once part of the autonomous Hanseatic League, a pre-capitalist trading network-confederacy of cities across Germany, the Low Countries, parts of Scandinavia and the Baltics, and many of the larger towns on the East Coast of England too. It was a medieval trading arrangement that lasted between the 13th and 17th centuries, and in some ways anticipates the features of international capitalism today. It prioritised commercial trade over national or local priorities. Its guilds acted like corporations, aggressively working together to boost production and pressure other cities or states to grant them unusual privileges or rights. It had no organised state as such, and dedicated itself to the production of wealth over the glory of military or scientific conquests, or long-lasting political or legal codes. In the end the League was outmanoeuvred and gradually diminished by the growth of authoritarian nation-states from the 17th century, those that would come to confer a divine right on their rulers, expand their empires, and kill millions during the 20th century. Today it seems we’re drifting back towards the international rule of wealth.
Hull is a town truly founded on trade. It was built originally in the 12th century by monks at the Meaux abbey who needed a port to trade wool from, and has over time flourished through international trade, fishing and, for a time, whaling. Looking out at the sea from the harbour, one feels like one is gazing out at the town’s other half. What is today called the North Sea was once the German Ocean, indicating a historical connection with mainland Europe that undermines ideas of being a cramped nation-island. Trade has always been a feature here.
I pop into the Fernes Gallery, a lovely place and free to the public. I come across images of strange sea creatures by John Bellany, and a very large collection of Dutch works picked up in the economic and cultural trade that once flourished here with the Low Countries. A vanitas image by Cornelius Gijsbrechts is particularly melancholy, and has a certain fun with death. There’s a good collection of pieces of strange beasts on, loaned from the British Library, with a few works by Goya chucked in, always a delight. The contemporary works are most interesting to my eye, and I come across some haunting close-ups of faces by Ian Breakwell, a man fascinated by the difference between the truth of a face, and the mask that conceals it. As he put it,
‘Perhaps the hardest thing in the world is to look into another person’s eyes and tell the truth, face to face and not mask to mask’.
I drift around the old town and get a drubbing from the pointy cobbles and poky streets. I post a father’s day card back to London and head towards a cluster of museums, where I’m keen to find out more about one of Britain’s more hidden histories, slavery.
As I reach the William Wilberforce museum I pass statues of Ghandi and walls dedicated to slavery abolitionists and equal rights activists. These are the kinds of things I wish would also appear in the squares of the capital. Workers at the museum take turns to tell me about the town today. ‘Built out of fishing!’ I ask him about what’s become of it since.
‘These days’, he comments mournfully, ‘they just pull out everything. Most of it gets flushed out dead, not alive. There used to be herring boats, now trawlers from Iceland pull out everything’.
The fishermen round here are not so innocuous though. The EU has forcibly restricted all fishing here after decades of over-fishing depleted stocks. Cod and haddock are becoming rare. I begin to wonder what the many fish and chips shops of the region are serving people.
I get to work finding about William Wilberforce, the tireless campaigner who managed to see the abolition of slavery in Britain and overseas. We owe this individual quite a debt. Wilberforce came from wealthy stock, and his family were rich merchants who backed the building of the town’s first dock. He grew up in the mid 18th century at a time when the slave trade was bustling. Sugar, cotton, tobacco, rum and coffee had transformed the manners and tastes of the English population. Sugar consumption had boomed particularly: 10 000 tons were imported in 1700; 80 000 tons by 1800.
But many people were finding serious problems with how these commodities and consumables were being produced. Wilberforce became an evangelical Christian as a young man, moving into politics soon after and becoming MP of Hull in 1780. It’s worth noting the attachment of non-conformist religions and political radicalism, I think. Many of the slave abolitionists were part of the ‘Clapham Sect’, a group worshipping at the Holy Trinity Church on Clapham Common. Whilst many MPs were invested in the slave trade and opposed to abolition, Wilberforce continued to push through abolition bills, speaking tirelessly and working with others, like Olaudah Equiano and other escaped slaves, to build a large abolitionist movement. Finally, by 1807, his bill was passed to end the transatlantic slave trade. Tears were running down his eyes.
Immense damage has been done by slavery. Between 1500 and 1900, 12 million Africans sent across Atlantic. It is the largest forced migration in history, and one of the greatest crimes against humanity.
10 000 slaves were sent each year from Africa during the 16th century, but by the 18th century 60 000 was a more common number. The ‘Middle Passage’ across the Atlantic could take three months, based on the weather, and many slaves died in the overcrowded and disease-ridden holds of the boats. ‘It resembled a slaughterhouse’, recalls one sailor, Alexander Hardcastle. Revolts were common and could happen on around one in ten vessels, but crews were well-armed and the prisoners often didn’t know how to sail the boats. But it’s worth recalling that there were many cultures of resistance, from these boat uprisings to the Maroon communities of runaway slaves in Jamaica, or Toussaint L’Ouverture’s successful uprising in Haiti.
In today’s terms, Britain made £2.5 trillion from slavery, helping finance the formation of the Bank of England and the construction of many major buildings in London, as well as financing the empire, which in turn gave many of the British middle and upper classes one of the highest qualities of life than ever before.
The Bill hardly ended things. Slavery still continued in the British colonies, and further bills continued to challenge this. Eventually by 1834 slavery in the colonies was replaced with an ‘apprenticeship’ system, one which unfortunately retained the principles of slavery but without the name. Finally by 1838 this came to an end, and France followed in 1848. £20 million given to plantation owners, but nothing has ever been given to the slaves or their descendants.
Wilberforce was a bit inconsistent. He supported parliamentary acts that made trade unions illegal and seemed to have little interest in the welfare of the industrial working class. But movents like slave abolitionism, or democratic reform, indicate that profound and unthinkable political transformations can be achieved by hard-working, tireless and populist protest movements. When people dismiss the rights of the unemployed or immigrants today, one can easily quote the words of Josiah Wedgewood, often reprinted on ceramics of the day: Am I not a man and a brother? Am I not a woman and a sister?
The power of these words also harks back to their religious, Christian connotations. But it draws me back to the words of Ian Breakwell earlier. There was a common use of masks in West African public ceremonies, among the Yoruba, Mende and Ibibio peoples. These were often made in secret and imbued with powers, gives wearer new identity from the spirit world. New movements and identities often need to put on a mask, to bravely face the powerful and demand common rights, even where such rights have never been granted before and may even seem unthinkable. There is a power in masks, in intimidating the powerful with violent and inexplicable behaviours that belie a committed and consistent political message for equality, liberty, toleration and freedom.
Slavery is unfortunately an ancient feature of human societies. It occurs in the earliest written records of Babylonia, and in Rome, Greece, Africa. It appears among the Vikings and the Ottomans, and of course in ancient Britain too. The 5th century CE Irish patron saint, Patrick, was captured in Britain and taken to be a slave in Ireland. Physical punishment and sexual abuse were common, but at the same time, many slaves also became attached to the masters, and would not leave after they were freed.
There is the curious case recently of the Connors family in Leighton Buzzard, Irish travellers who were imprisoned for rounding up and working homeless people in a condition of slavery. The problem is that many of those they exploited preferred the structure of their lives, refused to trust the police, and some even moved back with the family after the trial. With 27 million across the world thought to still remain in slavery, no doubt an under-measure, the problem of slavery remains with us.
I’m having a good time in Hull, and feel inclined to stay longer. It is a curious place. It even has its own internal telephone system, defined by cream-coloured phone booths. I travel up towards the University, ready to pay homage to Philip Larkin, the university’s librarian and the town’s perhaps well-known poet. I loved reading Larkin when I was younger, and always had an image of him struggling in a dingy town to find something to hope for. In fact the place is beautiful, and the university pretty and nearby are a lively set of shops and bars. Larkin’s poem Here is a superb tribute to the place. Read in full, it clarifies the landscapes I’ve been passing, yet it refers also to ways of life that are also in passing, like those small independent shops which may one day be deemed prime real estate and replaced with a Westfield mall or car park.
‘Here domes and statues, spires and cranes cluster
Beside grain-scattered streets, barge-crowded water,
And residents from raw estates, brought down
The dead straight miles by stealing flat-faced trolleys,
Push through plate-glass swing doors to their desires –
Cheap suits, red kitchen-ware, sharp shoes, iced lollies,
Electric mixers, toasters, washers, driers –‘
I cycle round to 105 Newland Park, where Larkin owned a large suburban home in his final years. There’s a plaque nearby but a large gate and busy workmen dispel the ambience. My flask-holder starts to fall off, and I take a little while to fasten it back on with plastic tape. I imagine what Larkin would have made of this grubby traveller-writer and his bags of blather tinkering about in front of his drive.
Hull also gave us Andrew Marvell, famous for his amorous words to his coy mistress, but Larkin is the best companion in this town. Hull is a superb place, and I am again sorry to leave. But I must make tracks, and so I head on towards Bridlington.
I take a nice enough cycle route (yes, I know…) over an old railway line. It’s a little long but pleasant, though the track is bumpy and I often have to check back to make sure all my bags are still present. I reach Hornsea eventually, a small town with a classically British sea-front, holiday homes and caravans, benches day-dreaming out towards the ocean, depopulated amusement arcades and a fish and chip shop. I pop into Sullivan’s for perhaps the most miserable service I’ve encountered and the best chips and mushy peas I’ve ever eaten. The stuff is plentiful and very cheap and I eat it out by the seaside, gazing into the afternoon ocean, masking my lunch from the fierce winds. I decide to go back to main roads, and leave little Hornsea and head towards Bridlington. On the road I meet Mike, a man born in Fulham and another Londoner surprised to meet another. His home was demolished to build the Hammersmith flyover, and after living in Middlesex and elsewhere, he now counts East Yorkshire his home.
‘When I used to come into London for business, the best thing was getting out of it!’
He describes how the atmosphere would change on the train. Passengers would sigh with relief and become more light-hearted. He tells me that there’s so much to see round here. Yet as I’ve also found in these parts, much of this wonderful scenery is being appreciated only by the retired. We ought to publicise how spectacular some of these countryside routes and towns truly are. And unlike driving or rail transport, cycling is perhaps the ideal way to experience all this. It puts one in continual exposure to the landscape, to its sights, smells and sounds. One can travel with sufficient speed to appreciate the changing nuances which walking, to my mind, doesn’t allow. The landscape becomes like a rolling film, full of surprises.
I finally reach Bridlington, a small and dingy town which seems to have fallen on hard times. It was once a popular working class seaside resort like Scarborough, but as I reach its tatty town centre, its hotels are disappearing and its shops are a mixture of poundstores and charity shops. But as I reach the harbour I’m a little impressed. There is still some active fishing happening here, and one can take a boat ride for a £1. It’s like a run-down Cornish resort on a shoestring.
One could spend time here pleasantly for very cheap, though the place lacks glamour or prettiness. David Hockney lives round here, and has done his best to introduce brighter visions of the place, and certainly towards the outlying cliffs there are some wonderful sights. But the pleasure is a little cheeky and subversive. Cheap ice cream and pints of lager, dodgy amusements, some old-fashioned and now racist sales slogans on the waltzer. I pop into a pound shop to get some water and start talking to the woman behind the counter.
‘It’s a very small town, everybody knows each other.’
Her face shows sadness and loathing. ‘Would you ever want to escape?’, I ask, a weird impulsive question that reveals I’d already come up with a judgement to the place, something I try to avoid. There’s silence for a while and hesitancy. She’s unsure, and seems unsure if she could.
I travel on, past pretty cliff-top views, whistling past Sewersby and the pretty Hall, before heading towards Bempton. As I travel on the birdlife becomes much more diverse and interesting, and I realise I am passing by Bempton Cliffs, a bird nature reserve where, for ‘twitchers’, some extraordinary specimens can be glimpsed.
At last I reach Filey, my final destination, where I am staying with Ian, a very friendly Hull man who has offered to put me up. It’s a pretty and laid-back seaside town which has managed to retain much of its pre-19th century character, in a manner quite unique for the towns I’ve been passing through. There are a couple of pubs and takeaways, but the place has an altogether more laid-back feel.
Ian is fascinated by oral histories and has worked tirelessly to research and record the histories of the town. He tells me that when transcribing many of these histories, a common response to the place was ‘Filey is paradise’. He tells me so many rich and wonderful stories of the place, many of which can be read via the UK web archive at http://www.webarchive.org.uk/wayback/archive/20130918113607/http://lookingatfiley.wordpress.com/. He tells me about Margaret Drabble sitting at benches nearby and writing, that whilst Tolkien hated the town, Shelagh Delaney loved it with a passion, and had her ashes scattered at Filey Brigg. Richard Hoggart, our cultural studies man, is said to have visited the town regularly on summer holidays as a child, where he would study and write in the local cafes. In this pretty little villagey-town, it’s all probable.
Ian tells me of his own life and rich experiences. He’d originally got in contact about the Raleigh factory in Nottingham where he once worked. Men were paid much more for the same jobs than women, something which still appals him, but he tells me how the workforce were remarkably multicultural, and of the friendships and fun encounters all this provided. He tells me about working at Rowntree’s too in York, of how the KitKat line worked. I find it much more interesting to hear of people’s stories about places than to just record the facts, and Ian is a mine of information and anecdotes.
Filey was once a major fishing station the on coast, though today little fishing occurs. Silt has washed down and started to spoil the beach. Plans were made in 1878 to turn the place into a harbour of refuge, a place for endangered ships to flee to in storms, but these fell through, and Filey became a kind of large port that never was. Trawlers started to outmode the local fishermen and their industry declined. The town then had a second life as a kind of luxury resort, with a ‘New Filey’ of sorts built by one Birmingham entrepreneur to cater as an exclusive watering hole for the more wealthy, for factory owners rather than workers.
Old Filey became the place of fishermen, and was considered a pretty godless place! Fishermen drank heavily and rarely observed the standard deities, until Johnny Oxtoby came along to evalangise the natives with his brand of Primitive Methodism. At first the fishermen threw sharp pieces of dried skate at him, but he stuck it out, and eventually the town became a god-fearing Christian place, a little like the Cornish fishing towns like Newlyn. Ebenezer Chapel was built, but today it is flats. It reminds me of a similar ‘Prim’ chapel I see in Hull which had fallen into disrepair. I’ve never come across the Prims before, and they are just another moment in the long history of diverse religious practises on this island.
Package holidays out to the Med have wiped out seaside town resorts today. Filey has gone into decline like so many other places on this pretty coast. It’s sad to see signs of decline (albeit few here), but I guess it keeps the secret hidden to locals. Ian tells me that East Yorkshire has been called ‘the edge of heaven’. As we eat a Chinese-and-English takeaway and view the rich sunset, it’s quite possible. He’s sought to capture it in photographs at www.sateoh.wordpress.com, and I recommend you take a look.
As the sun sets, we talk about the dangers of fishing, and Ian tells me the sad story told to him by one fishermen, of distant relatives, two brothers, who drowned in the nearby waters, one attempting to rescue the other. Ian describes the story of the Edith Cavell fishing vessel, sunk by a German U-boat during the war. Only one fisherman was able to escape, a young man who apocryphally told the submarine’s commander that he would have attended chapel that day, his religious devotion saving his skin. Such stories I love. Ian’s worried about environmental damage, but presents to me the view of the ‘Dark Mountain’ poets, that it is probably too late to prevent ecological destruction, so let’s record and enjoy what’s here. I like the spirit of this.
Facing the edge of heaven, presented with a series of social and political contradictions that no one force seems capable of mastering, I’m reminded that it’s better to first make your peace with the world. Discover these things and know their causes. Whether a greater transformation can be made, of a kind Wilberforce discovered, remains to be proven.