Living in multi-cultural London I sometimes forget that the north of England has such a different vibe. So an outing to the UK’s City of Culture 2017, Hull, re-opened my eyes to an almost quintessential ‘olde England’, one of beguiling pubs, quirky history, Morris dancers and, yes, white phone-boxes. All very East Riding, the Yorkshire county of which Hull is the hub.
The Morris dancers were perhaps the biggest surprise. A folk festival (randomly clashing with an open-air riverside concert and a Gay Pride march) had lured dozens of them in separate groups to the boisterous central streets to occasionally break into a dance. Now, being a resolutely contemporary kind of gal, I am supremely ignorant of English traditions – for some reason I love Spanish equivalents but know little about those in my own country.
So when confronted by what looked like Goths with painted faces, I decided to investigate. “Oh no we’re not Goths, we’re Border Morris!” exclaimed this young woman, clad head to foot in purple and black, “It’s a type of Morris from the Welsh borders – though we’re from Lincolnshire.” Of course there were more predictable dancers, their legs jingling with bells (top pic, doing a jokey four-legged act for the camera) while others pranced in solid, wooden-soled shoes (below), just like the Galicians of northwest Spain.
Next we came across a spectacular splinter group of Border Morris, this time sporting exuberant hats overflowing with flowers, feathers and fox-tails – again with painted faces. On asking about the face camouflage I was told that Oxford academics have suggested this was traditionally to mimick the Moroccan Moors who came to entertain at court in the Middle Ages; in fact the very word “morris” could actually derive from “moorish”. Today faces are dark green or purple out of political correctness, though originally they were black.
This theory seems unlikely, and the second hypothesis more probable – that the aim was to preserve anonymity, a pagan habit revived by unemployed labourers who danced to make money. Anyway, I’m no expert but reams of studies have covered the origins of Morris.
Architecture and boozers
Back in contemporary Hull, next find was the engaging Old Town. After Hull was bombed extensively in World War II, much of the city was rebuilt in dreary 1950-1960s style. How and why was it that architects of the time produced such dreadful designs? Anyway, in contrast the surviving Old Town or Trinity Quarter is a treasure trove of Georgian and Regency architecture which includes the house of William Wilberforce, the illustrious MP responsible for ending the slave trade (though not slavery per se) in 1809.
Then there are Hull’s pubs – great places, and about half the price of London! One pub even dates from 1337 while the George Hotel (both pics above) claims England’s smallest window – a mere slit – as well as rather delicious rhubarb cider (no, I didn’t know it existed either) and a location in the whimsically named street, Land of Green Ginger.
Many Old Town boozers have fabulous interiors packed with history like the stunning wood-panelled WM Hawkes (below), in Scale Lane, which only serves real ales and cider. None of that pissy lager here.
Not far away came another architectural surprise: the Hepworth Arcade, a beautiful glass-roofed shopping arcade from the 1890s. Having lived above a similar though older one in Paris (Galerie Vivienne), I felt quite at home here, though shops were hardly as chic, ranging from the traditional Dinsdale’s Joke Shop (very mid-20th century) to Beasley’s hats and another selling vintage crockery. I learned too that one of the early Marks and Spencer’s penny bazaars once traded here (the very first M&S was in nearby Leeds).
Finally we discovered yet another anomaly – white, not red, phone-boxes. This local idiosyncrasy dates from 1902 when Hull’s very own phone company was founded. It continues today as KCOM with a monopoly on local telecom, much to the ire of the users who complain about exorbitant tariffs for unimpressive broadband.
Here are two surviving phone-boxes in the main square of nearby Beverley, a handsome, prosperous market town with its own early Gothic Minster, streets of well preserved Georgian houses, a bountiful Saturday food market and outgoing, loquacious inhabitants. Here, rather than pubs (although there’s no shortage of those), I recommend an excellent Japanese restaurant, Ogino and in particular the Japanese Rainbow (below) – a tsunami of sushi topped with tobiko (flying fish eggs).
Best of all, though, Beverley boasts a narrow lane with a typically eccentric name – Narrow Racket. No idea what it refers to. Did someone say it was quirky up north?