No one can dispute the U.K.’s culture capitals of London, with its historic museums and music venues, Edinburgh, the festival city, and Dublin with its literary lore, but there is a new crop of cultural centres emerging in the British Isles: In Hull, Glasgow and Belfast, grassroots efforts are being met with government support resulting in impressive interdisciplinary art. Thanks to accessibility and opportunity — including good schools and lower living costs — these previously overlooked spots now offer the perfect conditions for burgeoning creative scenes. And while these cities’ inhabitants have never doubted their artistic depths, they haven’t shouted about them either. But with grand new titles bestowed upon them —in 2017 Hull will hold the title of the U.K.’s City of Culture, while this year is Scotland’s Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design and Northern Ireland’s Year of Food and Drink, and — they are beginning to receive the attention they deserve.
In the past, Hull has often been cited in the British press as one of England’s worst places to live, but the city is poised to shake off its unfavourable reputation. Undergoing significant change as it preps for 2017’s year-long celebrations as the U.K.’s City of Culture, orange construction fencing surrounds its 700-year-old Holy Trinity Church and the Maritime Museum (which dates from 1872), incongruously alluding to the change on the horizon.
Independent art administrator Rick Welton says that the innovations happening for next year’s programming only highlight Hull’s existing creative scene. “There’s always been an underground culture in Hull,” says Welton, “it’s just that people are starting to take notice.”
This year, Welton organized a festival in July to pay homage to famed local aviator Amy Johnson, the first pilot to fly from Britain to Australia in 1930. In a tribute to her plane, named The Moth, Welton’s work continues throughout 2017 with displays of artist-decorated giant fibreglass moths being installed on buildings as a free city-wide outdoor art installation.
The cobblestoned Fruit Market on the marina is also packed with artists’ spaces and music venues including Früit, which hosts theatre and live gigs, a monthly Cult Cinema Sunday club, as well as indoor arts markets and food fairs. Similarly multi-disciplinary, the Hull institution Kardomah94 is part music venue, part art gallery and part cafe, and holds everything from book launches to rock and roll concerts in a room where the work of local artists is also for sale.
And a stroll up the leafy streets known as The Avenues, where rows of Victorian terraced houses border Pearson Park, gives way to the thriving independent restaurant and bar scene of Princess and Newland Avenues. Here, the buzzing Fish and Chip Kitchen offers an introduction to a Hull delicacy: the patty, a.k.a. deep-fried mashed potato, which you insert into a soft white buttered bread roll to make a “patty butty.” It’s not classy, but it is indeed delicious and reminds me of the people of Hull: down to earth, unpretentious, and, well, creative.
The raw, working-class counterpart to artsy Edinburgh, Glasgow’s creativity is woven throughout its landscape. The influence of famed Glasgow architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his nature-inspired modernist work is evident throughout the city, but most notably at The Glasgow School of Art and the Lighthouse, Mackintosh’s first public commission. (The five-storey design hub now holds the Charles Henry Mackintosh museum, as well as other temporary design exhibits and boasts one of the best 360-degree views of the city.)
Newer buildings are a major source of excitement, too. The RSNO Centre, which is home to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, was a £14-million construction project that opened to fanfare last fall and has helped Glasgow hit a high note on its musical agenda. “It’s an instrument in itself, really,” says local composer Giles Lamb, who was the first to have a piece of his work played there. With free entry for those under 16 and a lineup that appeals to all ages and interests — from Beethoven’s Ode to Joy to E.T. — its technical capabilities are poised to attract talent from further afield, too.
Due west, along the Clyde River, sits SWG3 in what was a disused warehouse in a once-industrial area. It is now a space for artistic and creative enterprises to grow. “Having this studio allows us to make everything here, and use the space to showcase our prototypes,” says Alec Farmer a Glasgow School of Art graduate and founder of the bag company Trakke, which operates out of SWG3. “In fact the whole city has this feeling that you could get away with anything,” he says from his airy studio that contains a handful of industrial sewing machines, and a few half-drunk bottles of Irn-Bru. Exploring the rest of the SWG3 space, I come across a new open-plan design studio where independent creatives work alongside each other, as well as a handful of graduates from across the country who’ve successfully applied for SWG3’s year-long free workspace programme. Meanwhile, on the street level everything from club nights to a poetry cafe are hosted in a huge exposed-brick-and-concrete event space. With sweet stale beer in the air, you can smell the potential of the space that’s used for theatre, visual arts and music.
“There’s a breadth of engagement with different art forms here,” says Glasgow International Festival director Sarah McCrory who moved from London to head up the contemporary art celebration three years ago. “It is a great place to be an artist, because with the cost of living you can still work a part-time job and make work, and there’s affordable space to do it in,” she says, which is harder to do in other parts of the U.K. The result is that Glasgow’s art scene is led by artists making work for themselves, rather than simply in the hopes of selling into galleries, which feels creative and boundary-pushing. (One such example from this April’s Glasgow International was a visual performance piece on roller skates by musical artists Asparagus Piss Raindrop.)
It seems like creativity is around every corner in Belfast, and in some spots, thanks to mural painter Danny Devenny, it actually is. Devenny’s white beard contrasts with the colourful walls behind him, adorned with paintings of everything from those who lost their lives in local conflicts, to Margaret Thatcher and Bob Marley. “We see ourselves as political activists who were always supposed to be artists, but got waylaid,” he says of himself, but he could just as easily be describing the city he has lived in his whole life.
Here, art is a means to education and an outlet for expression. The Cathedral quarter in the centre of the city — marked by cobblestoned streets strung with edison-bulb lights and flanked with blooming window boxes — is filled with independent creative programs. The Oh Yeah Music Centre is a performance and rehearsal space, coffee shop and bar, which serves as the meeting spot of the Over the Hill club where older musicians jam and put on care-home gigs for people with dementia. A few doors down, in the white, minimalist Cafe 31, you’ll find a book from the owner’s poetry collection on each table, as well as a gallery space upstairs. Around the corner a live-music and theatre venue, The Black Box, is holding a games afternoon for adults with learning difficulties.
Outside the city centre near Queen’s University, David Torrens owns local bookstore and literary treasure trove No Alibis — but Torrens regularly wheels his shelves aside to make room for book readings and debates. “We’ve always had a literary and poetic tradition here,” he says. “These things existed to make sense of a situation through poetry, music and storytelling.”
Artistic education is hungry work and the city’s food scene is catching up creatively. “We’re in the early stages of foodie evolution,” says Caroline Wilson, founder of Belfast Food Tours, “but it’s progressing rapidly.” Along her walking taste tour, visitors stop at seven or eight local foodie hot spots. Highlights for me included meeting Deidre who is as sweet as her delectable tea-infused truffles at Co Couture, and a succulent lamb dish with a garden of sweet, seasonal vegetables at The Muddlers Club, a new favourite of off-duty actors. (Mad Men’s Ken Cosgrove, sans suit, was seated at a large round table across from me.) Wilson explains the evolution: “In the ’80s you went for a Chinese or to a hotel for dinner. Now that’s boring,” she says. As customers are getting more adventurous in their tastes, the restaurants are becoming more imaginative, and both are resulting in a more diverse culinary scene.