By the Tide of Humber

“Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime,
We would sit down, and think, which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Should’st rubies find; I by the tide
of Humber would complain.”

Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress

We crossed the Humber bridge mid-morning in October, the sun shimmering on the water below. The North bank of the Humber is heavily wooded and here and there a church spire or a rooftop pokes out above the canopy, revealing signs of habitation. The bridge lands in Hessle, where Philip Larkin’s publishers lived. Long before the bridge, Larkin would enjoy walking by the estuary here. When the bridge was opened in 1981, Larkin’s words were read out to the assembled crowds.

It was Larkin we were to see first, we carried on driving north into the outskirts of Hull and a town called Cottingham. In a quiet little church, Philip Larkin is buried. His memorial is hard to find as, rather than an ornate sculpture, there is a tiny little white stone with simple black lettering, stating “Philip Larkin, 1922 -1985, writer” A fittingly quiet and understated memorial.

We continued north to Beverley, where we would spend the early afternoon before driving back down to Hull, where we were staying for the night. Larkin used to cycle to Beverley on his weekends away from the University Library. He would stop to take tea at the Beverley hotel, so I did the same. Too early for tea, though, I stopped for a pint and a sandwich and consumed them outside, in a heated and paved courtyard area. The pub was famous in literary circles long before Larkin took tea here. Anthony Trollope stood for election in Berverley, using the hotel as his headquarters. He described the electoral process, and the associated corruption, in Ralph the Heir. Previously, a house next door to the hotel was the home of John Arden. He was teacher to the young Mary Wollstonecraft, who took her lessons here. Arden’s house has since been incorporated into the hotel building

For a post-prandial, I took a stroll across the road to the church opposite. St. Mary’s is a magnificent building; the grandiosity of the churches in Beverley show how wealthy the town once was, although this one is not as magnificently gothic as its its sister at the other side of town. The stone carvings have recently been replaced with fresh, new carvings featuring animals from the Narnia novels of CS Lewis. They are high above the clerestory at roof level and hard to see clearly and even harder to photograph. Even at this distance, however, I was able to make out a Lion, a wolf, a mouse, a beaver and Mr. Tumnus.

We retraced our steps and drove south towards Hull, promising that we would visit Beverley again in future; the town needed more time to appreciate fully. We were staying at the Kingston Theatre Hotel, in the north of the city, opposite the Hull Theatre, where Charles Dickens had given performance readings in 1859 and 1860. It was a lovely, comfortable room: quite large and pleasantly decorated. Mrs. P lay down for a snooze on the bed and, agreeing to meet later, I set out to explore the city.

There isn’t actually a town called Hull. There is a river Hull, flowing through the East of the city, serving factories. warehouses and docks. The town stands upon it, but ‘Kingston-upon-Hull’ is more usually shortened to ‘Hull’ than ‘Kingston’. There are signs of a thriving industrial past alongside the river, which must have once brought great ships from the Humber into the industrial heart of the town. There are also signs of a thriving working-class life: pubs and working-mens’ clubs, long since shut down.

Hull History Centre

Although there are empty warehouses and factories sprawling over a large part of the town, much of it is in the processes of redevelopment. There are little areas of the city, such as the Marina, where new shops, cafes and bars have sprouted in the remains of dockside warehouses. There are also some tech companies and logistics hubs out on the outskirts, near the major roads. The major manufacturer of parts for wind turbines is based in Hull. Improvement has not been uniform, however. There are still parts of the city in desperate need of renovation and waiting for some money to flow out from the city centre and make its way into the environs.

The City centre itself shows the town’s oppulet, commercial past. Wide public gardens, tree-lined avenues, fountains and statues punctuate the built-up areas. There are several wonderful buildings, such as the Town Hall and the Guildhall. In the main shopping area, signs of recession are evident. I was disappointed to see that Marks & Spencer has gone. This is the building about which Larkin wrote The Large Cool Store – they used to have the poem on the wall inside. Now it stands empty, leaving its Art Deco colonnaded front.

The large cool store selling cheap clothes
Set out in simple sizes plainly
Knitwear, Summer Casuals, Hose,
In browns and greys, maroons and navy
Conjures the weekday world…

Philip Larkin, The Large Cool Store

In the old town, the ancient cobbled streets remain, and there are some great museums here, mostly on a maritime theme. Chief among all of these is the house in which William Wilberforce, the great abolitionist, was born. Hull is rightfully proud of Wilberforce, and you will see his effigy everywhere.

My first port of call today was Hull History Centre. This is part library, part archive, part local history study centre. Inside there are books about Hull and the East Riding: the triangular region of Yorkshire that reaches out into the north sea. The shelves are loaded with Larkin and Marvell, of course. Winifred Holtby is well-represented here. She was born in Rudsby, a little to the North of her and her novel ‘South Riding’, was set in the region, despite the name change. From here, I planned to walk through the town to the Minster and, as luck would have it, my route would take me through cobbled back lanes and alleys, past a couple of pubs that Larkin once frequented.

The White Hart, Hull

The White Hart stands beside the very busy Alfred Gelder St. It is a strange mixture of styles with a stone and half-timbered facade fronting the red-brick building behind. Inside is a stripped-down, bare-floored and serving craft ales from behind a wonderfully ornate green tiled island bar, looking like a gigantic jelly mould. In a large back room there are columns and etched glass. In Larkins day, there was a regular Jazz club meeting here and Larkin came to listen and discuss the latest releases. Now, it has a cool, hipstery, student vibe about it: there was an old Western on the TV and Bob Dylan playing in the background. I had a liquorice stout. It was delicious: smooth creamy and dark and almost unbearably bitter.

My next port-of-call was a short walk through cobbled streets, past the wonderful old buildings around the docks. There is a handsome Georgian customs house. Much money coming from slavery and whaling: important parts of the Georgian and early Victorian economy. This is the ‘museums quarter’, where Hull celebrates its maritime past.

The Black Boy Inn was one of Larkin’s favourite hostelries and a look inside will show you why. A very small, yet very atmospheric room with brewery memorabilia lining the walls. there are also paintings relating to the life of the city and a train set, which you can operate with coins and which, when activated, will send a small toy train off on circuits above your head. There was another Jazz Society here, and Larkin would come along to sit in the cosy back room and listen to, and discuss, his favourite Jazz records.

Andrew Marvell. In the background is the Grammar School he once attended

I walked past the huge, imposing Minster church. Gothic honey-coloured spires, soaring over the surrounding red brick. I had, partly due to spending a large part of the afternoon in pubs, missed opening for the day, but I could still marvel at the impressive structure. Talking of marvelling, Andrew Marvell’s father worked in the minster as a lecturer: a now obsolete role equivalent to an assistant curate. Outside the Minster is a little square, bounded on one side by the old Grammar school, once attended by Marvell and, later, by William Wilberforce, and now a local history museum. There is a large statue of Marvell in the square, commemorating his political acheivements, rather than his poetry, it does have a verse from his most famous poem.

Marvell was born near Hull in 1787. He became tutor to Cromwell’s ward and eventually became trusted enough to be part of Cromwell’s cabinet and paid £200 per year. He must have been a hugely influential man as, on the restoration of the monarchy, he not only avoided punishment for his part in the Republic, but also successfully argued for the release of John Milton. He was elected as representative for Hull in the first restoration parliament, writing satirical verses against corruption in government. He died suddenly in 1678; suddenly enough for poisoning to be suspected. His body was returned to London where it was buried in St. Giles-in-the-fields. His poetry is largely metaphysical in nature, incorparating long, complex metaphors and observations of the natural world.

Brynmor Jones Library, University of Hull

I met Mrs. P in the Minster Square. She had been doing some very important shopping and had discovered the nice little artisan shops and restaurants by the Marina. She insisted on showing me and, as it was getting close to dinner time, I complied. There were some lovely looking restaurants down by the quay, some of them specialising in seafood, all of them full to capacity. I had forgotten the absolute necessity of booking a table during Covid times. We finally found a free table in a pizza chain and had a very good meal. We weren’t far from the hotel and were able to walk back, taking in the city centre as we did so.

The following morning, I got myself on the outside of a magnificent cooked breakfast and left Mrs. P snoozing while I did some exploring. There was an open day going on at the University, so I was able to join the crowds and have a good look around the campus. The Brynmor Jones Library has become internationally well-known as it was here that Larkin worked for most of his adult life. The library is for exclusive use of students but there is an art gallery inside, into which the public are allowed. Opposite the campus, and now housing the university’s international students’ centre, is a building that was previously utilised as a hospital. Here, wounded soldiers, fighting in Belgium and France, were sent to recover. Among them, in 1917 suffering from Trench Fever, was JRR Tolkien, who spent the last years of the war in various military camps in the area.

Philip Larkin’s home in Hull, complete with large fibreglass toad.

A short drive from the campus will take you to the last of Larkin’s houses in Hull. It is a surprisingly modern building, with wrought iron balustrades and wooden gables and even a large, fibreglass toad (I wasn’t able to find out why this is here but I am guessing it is a reference to the poem ‘Toads’. The house is a marked contrast to his previously residence: a large Victorian villa in the midst of Pearson Park, where Larkin rented the top-floor flat.

A short walk from the park, in a wide, leafy suburban street, is the house where Dorothy L Sayers lodged in 1916, while working as a teacher at Hull High School for Girls. This is ‘The Avenues’ area: a high-status Victorian area, with street statuary and fountains and wide boulevards. Also in this area is the small terraced house in which Stevie Smith was born. She lived in the same small house in North London throughout her life, and is forever associated with Palmer’s Green, but she was actually a Kingstonian and spent the first three years of her life in Hull.

Inside the station is what I’ve really come here to see: the marvellous statue of Larkin by Martin Jennings. I’ve previously admired several examples of Jennings’s work, particularly John Betjeman at St. Pancras Station and Charles Dickens in Portsmouth. In this one, inspired by The Whitsun Weddings, Larkin appears to be in a hurry, leaning forward as he rushes for his train. It’s difficult to know what Larkin thought about Hull. He was rude about it, calling it a ‘dump’ and a ‘hole’, but then, he was rude about everywhere. He also refers to it as “my lonely Northern daughter”, so it seems to have been somewhat of a ‘love-hate’ relationship. Whatever he thought, Hull and Larkin are inextricably linked, a marriage exemplified by the statue at Hull Paragon Interchange. In the Whitsun Weddings, Larkin travels away from the city, observing the world through his open train window:

That Whitsun, I was late getting away: not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.

Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings

If you are interested in pursuing the links between Larkin and Hull, there is a wealth of information to be found at: http://www.thelarkintrail.co.uk

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s