Hull, England City of Culture 2017: No longer 'England's crappest town'

In 2003, readers of The Idler magazine voted Hull the UK's crappest town, beating off strong competition from Morecambe, Basingstoke and Liverpool. I doubt many of them had ever been to Hull, but that's incidental; Yorkshire's only maritime city has long been cursed by a perception of crapness.

This image problem is one of the reasons Kingston upon Hull (to use its proper name) was named "UK City of Culture 2017". The competition, which runs every four years, is modelled on the European City of Culture, which was so successful in reviving the fortunes of Glasgow and crappest town runner-up Liverpool. 

The win means £25 million of improvements and a year-long celebration that will include 25 festivals, 12 artists' residences and 1500 special events. 

It's hoped this will generate an additional £184 million in tourism revenue, money the city desperately needs. Hull is the tenth most deprived local authority area in the UK, with one in three children living in poverty. The city's life expectancy figures are in the UK's bottom 6 per cent and it has one of the worst unemployment rates in the country.

All of which I'm struggling to reconcile as I tuck into tender medallions of pork wrapped in smoked saddleback bacon in the plush interior of Hull's 1884 Dock Street Kitchen. The restaurant won gold in VisitEngland's 2014 Awards for Excellence and is well on its way to a Michelin star. Outside, a gleaming flotilla of motor boats bob in a state-of-the-art marina that's surrounded by designer apartments. Err... what happened to the UK's Crappest Town?

While the rest of the country has been busy making "Get the Hull out of there" jokes, Hull has been quietly reinventing itself. Stroll through the city centre and you'll find gems such as the Ferens Art Gallery, which has a world-class collection of European Old Masters, including Frans Hals and Canaletto, alongside contemporary works from British artists such as David Hockney. 

Hidden among the quaint cobbled streets of the Old Town is Hull's Museum Quarter. Here, you can spend a morning at the birthplace of William Wilberforce, the man who spearheaded the abolition of England's slave trade, and the afternoon gazing at a life-sized mammoth in the Hull and East Riding Museum of Archaeology. Alternatively, immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of yesteryear at the Streetlife Museum of Transport or learn about the hazards of deep-sea fishing on board the trawler Arctic Corsair.

For something more contemporary, check out the world's only museum of club culture in the Fruit Market, an up-and-coming district where abandoned warehouses are being transformed into trendy cafes, concert venues and gallery spaces.

Throw in The Deep, a stunning subterranean aquarium with Europe's deepest viewing tunnel, and Hull Truck Theatre, one of the UK's most innovative theatre companies, and I genuinely can't remember the last time my perceptions about a place were so at odds with reality.

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Surprisingly, this image problem doesn't seem to bother the locals, who have always had a strong sense of civic pride and independence. Hull is where Governor John Hotham famously refused entry to King Charles I in 1642, an act which precipitated the English Civil War. Today, it's the only place in the UK with cream telephone boxes. Hullensians are also disarmingly friendly. I lose count of the number of times I'm called "Love" in shops and pubs, where the service, in stark contrast to most UK cities, is warm and unhurried. 

While 2017 will be the standout year in terms of events, the city already has an impressive festival calendar. This month the Humber Street Sesh transforms the Fruit Market into an outdoor music venue with more than 180 acts playing on 10 stages. Next month, the three-day Freedom Festival showcases art, culture and dance to more than 80,000 people. And in October, Hull hosts one of Europe's largest travelling fun fairs, a week-long, neon-lit extravaganza that dates back to 1278.

After decades of economic woes, Hull's fortunes are finally on the rise. Hot on the heels of the City of Culture win came approval for an offshore wind project that will create thousands of jobs. Even Hull City FC is getting in on the action. Last year they made it to the FA Cup Final, narrowly losing to favourites Arsenal. Now, when visiting teams come to play, fans are greeted by deafening chants of: "You're only here for the culture".

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.visithullandeastyorkshire.com   

www.hull2017.co.uk 

GETTING THERE

British Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to London via Singapore. Hull is 2½ hours by train from London King's Cross. See www.britishairways.com  

STAYING THERE

Ideally located overlooking the marina, the Holiday Inn Hull Marina has rooms from £89. See www.hihullmarinahotel.co.uk 

The writer travelled as a guest of British Airways, Visit Britain and Visit Hull and East Yorkshire.

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