Travel: Better than a desert island

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The Independent Travel
Robinson Crusoe made a big mistake. In September 1651 he couldn't wait to leave Hull, and look what happened to him. "Had I the sense to return to Hull, I'd have been happy," he said.

North Sea Ferries make the outward journey easier these days, at least. Belgium and Holland are just over the water: dinner in Hull, breakfast in Ghent, supper in the North Sea. Literally, if it's a choppy crossing.

Crusoe should have stayed longer. Hull isn't Paris or Prague, it's true. It's not even really Hull any more: the town's traditional lifeblood, the fishing industry, started its slow decline in the 1970s, and the Cod Wars didn't help. (Hull is twinned with Reykjavik).

Hull, which celebrates its centenary this year, is a big industrial city with enough curiosities to keep the visitor from rushing off to a desert island right away. The River Hull, striking north from the Humber through the city, is still lined with boats, and Hull remains a major port, though nowadays you're as likely to meet people working in chemicals (BP has a huge processing plant nearby) as trawler crews. However, fish are still a feature of Hull life - in a sense. A walk through the old town takes you past an A-to-Z of fish plaques, set in the pavement. Stroll round the old docks, have a drink in the Black Boy or atmospheric old White Hart, and collect the set from Anchovy to Zander (via Quid, X-ray fish and Yawling). And look out for the jokes; a catfish is being chased by a dogfish, an electric eel swims outside a Yorkshire Electricity substation, outside the old monastery is a monkfish, red herrings nearly lead you off the trail, and outside a bank, sure enough, is a shark.

Listen out for the local accent. Despite it being in Yorkshire (since May 1996: previously it was in the now-abolished Humberside), there's no "Ee-bah-gum" here: locals speak with flat "O" sounds, as their Danish ancestors did. So Hullensians pay "Pearl" Tax and call people on the "fern". In fact, uniquely in Britain, Hull runs its own "fern" system. As used to be the case throughout Britain, the duration of local calls is unlimited - no scrabbling for change in the phone boxes, which are not red but white.

Phone-box-spotters take note: in the Market Hall, you can see a K1 - one of a surviving handful of Britain's very first. And when Hull phones switched over to digital a few years ago, they gave the old equipment to Freetown in Sierra Leone. (Because anti-slavery man William Wilberforce is a Hull alumnus, it's also twinned with Freetown.) It's an intriguing thought that somewhere in Sierra Leone is our family's old 1960s bakelite phone with that orangeade stain on the dial.

If Crusoe made it back from his desert island, he would recognise little of the port he knew. World War II saw to that: Hull proved a handy dumping- ground for German bombs. But he'd soon settle into a pub in the old town, and get chatting to some of the former workers from the docks. They'd put some more "curl" on the fire, drink a "terst", and talk about life on the fishing "berts".

RA

Hull Tourist Information 01482 223559

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