Coventry: A capital city

PUBLISHED: 00:16 12 January 2012 | UPDATED: 12:08 28 February 2013

Coventry: A capital city

Coventry: A capital city

In the 15th century, Coventry was effectively England's capital. Historically a county and city in its own right, it is once again, firmly at Warwickshire's heart. Marsya Lennox reports.

Coventry: A capital city

In the 15th century, Coventry was effectively Englands capital. Historically a county and city in its own right, it is once again, firmly at Warwickshires heart. Marsya Lennox reports.

Coventry seems to have acquired the trick of keeping up with the times, a trick that many of our industrial cities find hard to learn. J. B. Priestley.

The patient people of Coventry are putting up with the latest town planning initiative to change their way of life at the heart of the city. As they enter the smart new shared space road layout at the junction of Gosford Street and Cox Street, theres a striking change of pace and attitude. Nobody is quite sure how to proceed and at what speed. The great transport nanny has left, having taken the warning lights, and signs the whole historic cacophony of orders and instructions.

Its a strange moment for the bemused motorist, his instinct being to slow right down, show a little humility, seek eye contact and wave people on in a rare moment of motoring magnanimity. Auto-pilot is off and the brain engages with the survival instinct. Coventry is good at survival. It has seen repeated cycles of fortune from its zenith as powerful city and favoured seat of the royal court, through plague years to trading pre-eminence then decline at the Dissolution. But Coventry could make things, cloth and ribbons for starters. When fashions changed again, there was more reinvention: sewing machines, bicycles and cars.

And when the Luftwaffe did their best to Coventrate this dangerously inventive and productive English city, it provided more compelling incentive to fight back. Improvers had already started the destruction of some of Coventrys best bits and priceless parts of the historic city, intending to remove slums and widen roads. It was an act of vandalism unequalled in the citys history of redevelopment, says David McGrory in his A History of Coventry. More clearances were planned by the city burghers, only hastened by the German bombs.

It had been hailed as one of the finest surviving European examples of a medieval city, hardly surprising considering its historic importance. It was effectively the capital of 15th century England under Henry Vl, standing alongside just three rich city contenders, London, York and Bristol. Birmingham was still a mere village, somewhere to the west, when Coventrys complex streets, undercrofts, important religious houses and churches were already part of a period street scene.

And, miraculously, and in spite of the first impressions that may dominate a strangers view of Coventry, there are treasures still in place, mostly old ones. Penetrate the tidemark around the bath, the more dismal of the 20th century developments and the scary,though efficient, ring road to climb up to Coventrys historic core. Utterly wonderful is the St Marys Guildhall dating from 1340, its kitchens in constant use for six and a half centuries, having catered through the ages for medieval kings and modern brides.

You will find yourself in the countrys first pedestrianised shoppers heaven which blazed the trail from the mid 1950s. The shops march right up to the heart of the city to the very doors of the landmark Holy Trinity Church, just one of Coventrys magnificent early churches.

Coventry itself, ancient steeples and motorcar factories, and all, was stated so emphatically against the green hollow and the silken sky that to see it gave one a sharp jolt of pleasure, said J. B. Priestley in 1933.

The surviving church towers, including that of the ruined St Michaels Church, still dominate, despite the odds. But there is plenty of visual pain to remind one of the brutal treatment meted out to towns and cities everywhere in the deluded 1960s. Many architects would disagree. But as Auberon Waugh famously said, in the 1980s: The correct way to greet a modern architect is to punch him in the nose.

Truly excruciating is the dirty grey, depressing 19 storeys of the ridiculously-named Priory Hall, student accommodation for the next door university. This abomination was started in 1965, placed just across the road from coventrys acclaimed symbol of hope and reconciliation, its new cathedral by Basil Spence, completed just three years earlier.

Good and evil, in terms of architectural aspirations, could not be more effectively juxtaposed, a sort of stone and concrete parallel to the famous floating sculptures on the cathedral front. St Michael and Lucifer. There are other fascinating contrasts in bricks and mortar, wherever one looks. Spot the former cathedral gift shop now earmarked as a smart coffee bar, somehow glued to the old cathedral ruins; the nearly new flats in Priory Place, blessed with views over the excavations and old buildings of the former Benedictine Priory; the shock of the two tone brick shopping centre viewed from Cuckoo Lane and the exquisitely pretty Golden Cross pub.

Newer can mean better too, however. Check out the fabulous extension to the showpiece Herbert Gallery, once contrasted with the poor attempts to tart up an absolute minger of a building, Coventry University, right next door. Birmingham had to wait much longer that Coventry for its chance to taste a European-style 24 hour, city living culture. Here, late 20th century city flats actually join onto retail space, all standing on 1,000 years of local history, started with Coventrys first cathedral.

The suburbs are a completely different story, of course, reflecting both the earlier wealth of the manufacturing city and the later mopping up of its residual social problems. There is a whole new view of Tile Hill, however, at the Turner shortlisted George Shaws I Woz Ere exhibition at the Herbert, running to March 11, 2012. His paintings of everyday estate locations show the surprising beauty that can sometimes be found in the banal. The shopper or tourist will notice something unusual about this city centre, strangled or protected, depending on your point of view, by the ring road.

In the middle of the day, it is remarkably quiet, unblighted by the drone of nose to tail cars seeking parking spots. More noisy are the banging skateboards of the acrobatic youth outside the gallery and university. They respect the no skateboarding signs on the cathedral steps - but get as close as they can.

The Olympics and 2012 are a good excuse to plan more improvements for Coventry, one of the city hosts. Even more significant than a couple of weeks of sport, however, will be the 50th anniversary events marking the creation of Coventry Cathedral. Voted the nations favourite 20th century building, it is a showcase for artistry born of adversity, a veritable museum of famous works. And it is set to focus fresh attention on the citys achievements, historic, recent and those yet to come.

Further reading:

A History of Coventry, David McGrory.

The Buildings of England, Warwickshire, Pevsner.

Coventrys first Cathedral, George Demidowicz.

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