Avenues Open Up
Avenues gardener, Tim Pritchard, gives his blooms a drink
'You can keep your sterile executive ghettos in the East Riding' says one Avenues resident - STEVE WALSH strolls the leafy streets and open gardens of a historic conservation area undergoing a renaissance...
Like the songs of The Beatles or Big Brother on the telly, it's hard to imagine a time when the Avenues weren't there.
Their broad promenades stretching for three-quarters of a mile west from Princes Avenue have such an air of permanence, you can't really believe that this was once home to a pestilential rustic dirt track called Muckypeg Lane.
That it isn't is mainly down to the vision of one man. In 1874, Hull-born businessman, ship-builder and property developer, David Parkinson Garbutt, bought 230 acres of open farm land to the west of the recently opened Pearson Park.
It was a speculative investment. Garbutt was banking on the fact that the growth in demand for middle class housing, following a rapid expansion in the town's population in the second half of the 19th century - it doubled to 200,000 between 1860 and 1890 - would continue.
As a bait to the upwardly mobile solicitors, bank managers, engineers and merchants he hoped to attract, he gave his purchase a distinctly aristocratic sounding name.
Youngsters take a ride on a miniature steam train as part of Open Gardens
On Easter Monday, 1875, an animated crowd gathered as the foundation stone was laid for the Westbourne Park Estate. The Hull and Lincolnshire Times report celebrating the transformation described a carnival atmosphere with 'the sun peeping forth warily ... flags flying and the police band sounding forth lively music.'
On the same day, the newly straightened and resurfaced Princess Bank Avenue, our Princes Ave, was also inaugurated.
This 'fine thoroughfare' and the four, as yet undeveloped, roads it served were laid out in the in-vogue Parisian style, with boulevards, handsome circuses, elegant fountains, ornamental railings and avenues of trees all contributing to the continental flavour.
With the cholera epidemic of 1849 in which one in 43 had perished still fresh in people's minds, the energetic Garbutt had also provided the future residents of the new suburb with a plentiful supply of clean water, from his Newington Waterworks (now the site of Albert Avenue baths). As was so often the case with Hull's Victorian benefactors, philanthropy didn't preclude commercial gain: he later sold the company to Hull Corporation for £100,000.
All the Avenues needed now was some residents and the land agents' prospectuses weren't slow to extol the area's virtues to would-be buyers.
'The proximity of the Park [ensures] its continued healthfulness as a residential suburb while the fact that Tramway and Railway Stations are within a few minutes' walk makes it especially convenient for gentlemen engaged in business in the town,' enthused one.
The hype paid off and within four years of the estate's opening, the first residents had moved in.
Development of the Avenues was piecemeal, with most of the building work taking place over a period of about 50 years. The result is a variety of housing unique in the city. Polychromatic brick work, half-timbered upper storeys, castellated towers and cast-iron balconies that wouldn't look out of place in a Storyville brothel can all be found within a few hundred yards of each other on Westbourne Avenue.
Since 1974, the Avenues has been a Conservation Area, which explains why so much of its original Victorian and Edwardian character still survives.
The Avenues and Pearson Park Residents' Association has had a number of successes in blocking inappropriate modern development and restoring original features.
"We've developed all sorts of expertise to find out what works and what doesn't," said Association chair, Stephanie Wilson, who points to the large three-storey houses at the corner of Salisbury Street and Park Avenue as examples of what sympathetic restoration can achieve.
A terrace on Salisbury Street
Period features certainly command a premium among house buyers. Tony Cook of Marlborough Estate Agents estimates that prices in the area have gone up by 50 per cent in the last two years as families who would in the past have headed for the suburbs are now settling there.
"It's the most sought after inner-city area, with good schools and facilities; and compared with Hull's outlying villages, it's reasonably priced," he said.
But to say the Avenues is full of property speculators is as unfair as it was once to stereotype the area as Hull's 'Muesli Belt', populated solely by lecturers and social workers who like their copy of the Guardian with a cup of fair trade coffee on the side.
Artists, students, asylum seekers and single mums all live here, making for a cosmopolitan social mix.
The 'aves and 'ave nots all come together for the Avenues Open Gardens. The event, which is held every year on the first two Sundays in July, attracts thousands of people from all over the country, all keen to have a peek at the manicured lawns and dingly dells that lie hidden behind the historic facades. All proceeds are donated to charity.
"Each year, we try to make it bigger and better; this time, we've had a lot of add-ons: concerts, cafes, exhibitions and stalls of every description," said Bob Sandham, who has been organising Open Gardens with his wife Rose for the last 11 years.
"This is what urban living is all about. You can keep your sterile executive ghettos in the East Riding. What's the point of having a village pub if nobody uses it?"
The 700 trees that are one of the area's defining characteristics make the Avenues a lot greener than most villages anyway.
In 'I remember, I remember', the late Maeve Brennan recalls the poet Philip Larkin's 'almost childlike delight in walking through the thick carpet of fallen leaves' that lined Avenues pavements in the autumn.
The image of the bad-tempered bard kicking his way through leaf-strewn streets seems incongruous. But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Larkin, a resident of Pearson Park, appreciated the grand 60ft limes and sycamores and the spectacular seasonal archways they create.
However, residents have not always had such an easy relationship with their ageing arboreal neighbours.
The dry summers of the 1980s led to major subsidence and the trees, with their prodigious water uptake were thought to add to the problem. A gradual replacement programme is now under way, with the planting of a variety of native species that will pose less of a threat to the houses.
The old trees' passing has been marked by a series of original public sculptures. One of these, the Mermaid on Salisbury Street, celebrates the restoration of another of the Avenues' best-loved original features.
The 20-ft high mermaid fountains at the intersections of Park and Westbourne Avenues and Salisbury Street had been stopping traffic for over a century when the sirens' lure almost proved to be their undoing.
In the space of one calamitous month in 1995, three separate car crashes had written off 100 years of history. A vigorous campaign to have them restored was mounted and, five years and £200,000 later, the nymphs were back.
As residents celebrated, the bunting fluttered once again over David Parkinson Garbutt's dream suburb.