Monday 17 September 2012

The Philip Larkin Trail

Poet's corner: on the Philip Larkin trail in Hull
Larkin felt at home in Hull, a city 'on the edge of things'. Now, the Larkin Trail offers a tour around this unlikely literary locale

David Mark
Friday 7 September 2012

I like Hull. That's why I set my books there. I may have plans to kill off half the fictional population, but that's because it's such a fascinating and colourful place. Admittedly, most of the colours are a bit mucky, but for a port city that got battered by the Luftwaffe and then lost its main source of income when the fishing industry went under, it has got a sense of self and a talent for survival that remains both touching and admirable.

Hull is indeed painted as bleak and forbidding in my debut novel, The Dark Winter. I've lived in and around the city for 12 years. It's not the prettiest of places, and the wind that tumbles in from the sea can eat through to your bones, turning the citizens into gargoyles as they wince into the gales. But I'm a writer of fiction, a miserable git. And I don't work for the bloody tourism office.

Even so, on the day I visit as a tourist, it's a bright day, and the sky is cornflour blue. To see Hull the way a first-time visitor would is a curious thing. And it seems the number of these first-time visitors is on the rise. Subtly, Hull has become a destination of choice for people keen to experience a Yorkshire beyond Last of the Summer Wine and brass bands.

A big attraction is the new Larkin Trail (, a walk around 25 locations, marked by wall plaques, in the footsteps of the poet, known in Hull as a grumpy bugger who looked like Eric Morecambe. Larkin was, of course, one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century, his career beginning in 1945 and spanning 40 years. He won the Queen's Gold Medal for poetry, declined the job of Poet Laureate, and was celebrated for his "piquant mixture of lyricism and discontent". He was named by the Times in 2008 as Britain's greatest post-war writer, but was also librarian at Hull University from 1955 until his death 30 years later.

It would be interesting to know what Larkin would make of Hull today. In my debut novel (and to the displeasure of many) I called it "a city on its arse", and anybody driving down once-proud Beverley Road would be hard-pushed to disagree, unless they are particular fans of chipboard or steel shutters.

Still, close one eye, and the trip to Hull is worth it. I begin my journey at his statue, in Paragon Station. The memorial, cast in bronze, is a warts-and-all likeness of the great man, looking a little stressed, hurrying to catch a train in what looks like more than a gentle breeze. Nobody else is stopping to look at it; they probably think it's Eric Morecambe. On the plinth is engraved: "That Whitsun, I was late getting away," from his famed poem The Whitsun Weddings.

I head out of the station, with the new shopping centre, St Stephen's, to my back and the bustle of Ferensway in front of me. Nobody could call Hull a ghost town on this evidence. It's packed with shoppers and office workers. I turn right and duck into the Mercure Hull Royal Hotel, referenced in Larkin's Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel as a place where "silence laid like carpet".

That's not the case today, and I enjoy my pint in the mahogany-panelled open space, quickly finding the framed photograph of Larkin with fellow poet John Betjeman, taken in 1973 at Hull City Hall – my next stop. Another customer tells me that 30 years ago there was a fire here, and the manager arranged for the boss of Marks and Spencer to open up in the middle of the night so his shivering patrons, who had fled the flames and left their clothes behind, could get themselves something nice on the company's account. I hope this is true.

Leaving the bar, I walk to nearby Queen Victoria Square and City Hall. I make my way to Whitefriargate and from here towards the Old Town where, in other cities, artsy shops would no doubt have sprung up, flogging oddments and curiosities. But the sort of people who buy oddments and curiosities don't really live in Hull. Locals come into town to pop to Primark for some leggings or to get their bairns some new school shoes. Still, halfway up is Marks & Spencer, which Larkin immortalised in The Large Cool Store. He wrote of "cheap clothes/Set out in simple sizes plainly". A plaque by the lift bears lines from the poem.

Trinity Square is a wide, quiet piazza over which looms majestic Holy Trinity Church. Here stands a statue of Hull's other famous poet, Andrew Marvell (1621-78), after whom Marvell Press, which first published Larkin's poetry, was named. In a shop window, another Larkin Trail plaque quotes the poet's foreword to an anthology of local poetry: "For Hull has its own sudden elegancies."

The trail gets less elegant after that. The A63 is congested and noisy and bars the way to the marina, with its pleasure crafts and the beautifully regenerated old Fruit Market. This was once Hull Corporation Pier, from which, in pre-Humber Bridge days, you could catch a ferry across the river. People are taking photographs of The Deep, the multimillion-pound submarium which has been a hit since it opened a decade back. All glass and blue panels, it sits on Sammy's Point, where the river Hull flows into the Humber, like the prow of a ship.

Back in the Old Town, the street splendidly named Land of Green Ginger was the cornerstone of Hull's drinking scene, and Larkin enjoyed many an evening in the atmospheric George Hotel, Ye Olde Black Boy ( and Ye Olde White Hart ( This last one is worth popping into, if only to hear locals tell of its plotting parlour, where the city's leaders decided not to open the gates to the King during the civil war, and to look at the bones and skulls found in the walls and mysterious, darkened back rooms over the years.

The last stop in the core of the city is Hull History Centre on Worship Street (, with its archive of Larkin's workbooks, letters, postcards, tapes and photographs.

I get a taxi to the next stop, a mile away, at 32 Pearson Park, where Larkin lived from 1956 to 1974. From his attic flat the poet had a clear view of the 22-acre Victorian park and its visitors, immortalised in the bleak poem Toads Revisited, with its "Palsied old step-takers, hare-eyed clerks." There's not much of that today, but there are lots of people playing football, and I'm reliably informed that the weekly Saturday kickabout here has helped solve some of the problems that blew up when a wave of asylum seekers arrived in the city a decade ago.

The Larkin Trail has its gloomy side, with Spring Bank cemetery ("The most beautiful spot in Hull," Larkin apparently told Betjeman) and two hospitals. Neither could be called attractions but they were important to him. His poem The Building is about Hull Royal Infirmary, whose "lucent comb shows up for miles", and he died at a former private hospital near to Pearson Park. The trail ends, like Larkin did, at the cemetery in nearby Cottingham, where he is buried. The headstone simply calls him "writer". I think he'd have liked that more than the brass statue. He was never much of a publicity fan, and those with long memories say he was never the most cheerful of souls. But he's bringing people to Hull, and that can only be a good thing.

But there's more to the city than Larkin. Hull's museums are all worth a visit ( The unimaginatively titled Hull and East Riding Museum (26 High Street) covers the area's archaeology and geology. My daughter calls it "the one with the mammoth", as it's hard to miss the colossal hairy beast in the doorway. Up the road (no 26) the Streetlife Museum brings more than 200 years of transport to life. I felt a bit of a prat sitting in the old-fashioned carriage listening to piped-in clip-clop, but if I'd had the kids with me, it would have been a blast . I've never visited without hearing kids tell their parents "this is ace".

In Queen Victoria Square is the Maritime Museum. Its darkened glass windows mean that from inside it always looks stormy outside, but that just gives you more reason to stay. Follow Hull's rich association with the sea – its docklands and the evolution of trawling – and inspect ornately carved whalebones and fearsome harpoons.

I finish my Larkin tour on studenty Newland Avenue (number 16 on the trail) at Larkin's Bar. It doesn't shout about the poet, but its logo is a toad (Larkin's metaphor for work). The man himself never drank here, of course – it's been open only a couple of years – but he is known to have shrugged off his ill-humour over nights of drinking in several pubs close by. I'm not feeling grumpy at all after my Larkin day, but I'll raise another pint to him anyway.

• Stay at the Mercure Hull Royal (01482 325087,, doubles from £65) next to the station, or The Old Grey Mare (01482 448193,, doubles from £42) opposite the university, with views of the library. Pick up the free Larkin Trail guide at East Yorkshire Tourist Information Centres (01482 223 559, or download it from

National Rail
(08457 484 950) run trains to Hull's Paragon station. The main links are on Northern Rail from York, and on Hull Trains and East Coast from London King's Cross via Doncaster.


  1. I read that in the Guardian - good piece.

  2. I think we ought to organise the Terry Kelly trail: The Bridge, The Duke, The Bacchus, The Monkey and overnight accommodation at Market Street police station.