Coventry - an unlikely tourist spot
PUBLISHED: 11:03 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 17:36 20 February 2013
Coventry is featured in a new book of unlikely tourist spots. <br/><br/>Richard Shurey pays this remarkable and interesting city a visit.
Shame to say, before the Editor asked me to do an article on Coventry, I had tended to ignore the City. I knew of the Coventry medieval Mystery Plays. Then there was being sent to Coventry because prisoners taken during the Civil War were not warmly received in the city. I love The Coventry Carol at Christmas and was aware of the public protests by Lady Godiva to free the folk from a burdensome tax (that was actually imposed by her husband!) Are there any modern Lady Godivas out there one wonders?
Perhaps I shunned modern Coventry with thoughts of a rather run-down, shabby place languishing under the burden of the old industries and me driving round and round on the notorious ring road. How wrong I was time and again I was so surprised there was a vibrancy about the place, great museums, art galleries (all free of course) and wonderful buildings manned by enthusiastic, helpful staff. For those addicted to shopping, excellent shopping arcades and a huge IKEA.
Coventry is one of those places that, from very small beginnings, has grown rapidly. There were 37,000 in 1851; by the turn of the 20th century it was 70,000 there are now over 300,000 inhabitants. The cause of this growth is perhaps due to the resilience of its people ready (even in todays world) to willingly switch to new industries. Then there was a surge of newcomers from Scotland and the north of England seeking employment in the growth industries like car manufacturing after the Second World War.
Many years ago a sign of prosperity was the establishment of monasteries and priories. In Coventry we find the Greyfriars and Whitefriars besides the Benedictine priory. The first great source of the wealth of the city was surprisingly wool then (with the loss of Continental territories) cloth. This too went to be replaced in the 18th century by two important trades the manufacture of ribbon and watches. (The old mill in Chipping Norton is where some of the silk for the Coventry ribbon was made.)
We find that out that the skills of the watch-making industry were used for jewel bearings for precision instruments then used to make sewing machines. Subsequently the workers switched to the manufacture of bicycles when cycling was all the rage. Then there was another development to produce motor vehicles, accessories, motor cycles and even aeroplanes.
In todays world, with the fierce competition from cheaper labour lands, what of the future? No doubt those eclectic, adaptable Coventry workers will be prepared to again switch to something new. I was told by Council staff of the exciting future in digital technology. Low carbon vehicles and electric cars are now being tested and made. There was high-tech digital technology, aerospace components, solar panels and parts for wind farms.
But to find the start of Coventrys history we go back to the ancient settlement where the old Kenilworth highway crosses the little River Sherborne. There was a Saxon nunnery which the forces of King Canute destroyed around 1016 but about 30 years later this was turned into a Benedictine priory. This conversion job was by the Saxon Leofric and the renowned Lady Godiva. By the 14th century Coventry had become the fourth largest place in the land with the growth of many tradesmens guilds such as the Merchant Guild in 1340.
In the centre of the city rises what is considered one of the architectural glories of England. Soaring over three hundred feet is the spire of what was formerly the parish church of St Michael (now the cathedral). Only two other cathedral spires, at Salisbury and Norwich, top Coventry. When building started in the 14th century it took twenty one years to complete. It was in November in 1940 that the lovely church attached to the spire was ruined in one single night with the air raid that also killed many thousands. (It was said Hitler ordered the raid after an allied attack on Munich a few days earlier such is war.)
Sir Basil Spences start to rebuild the cathedral in warm local red sandstone began in 1951 and the building was consecrated in 1962. The design of the distinctive building still causes controversy should it really, for example, be unlike the ancient churches and the altar be placed like a theatre in the round?
It is small for a cathedral only 270 feet long whereas the old building was one of the largest English parish churches. That said it does contain many gems by artists of the period including the massive tapestry of Graham Sutherland.
Cheek by jowl is another place of worship; Holy Trinity is also a great building and one wonders just why Coventry should build two churches so close to one another. One must think it was the result of ecclesiastical squabbling between the secular powers and the church but Holy Trinity is a beautiful building in its own right with a fine central tower (that was blown down in 1651!) There is another spire but this one is 70ft lower than its neighbour. From these places of worship I visited the many ancient old buildings which survived the blitz. (There is yet another church St Johns has an interior of which Sir Gilbert Scott said he knew of no church more beautiful.)
To visit the important features of the City I suggest you call in at the Tourist Information Centre by the entrance to the ruined Cathedral to pick up one of the two leaflets available. The City Centre Trail covers about 4 miles and the shorter is the Coventry Historic Trail (1 miles.)
The first surprise of my visit was just how beautiful and graceful a ruined building can be. Stand in the roofless nave of the old cathedral; it really is an awesome sight with the skeletal windows open each side. Im a little uncertain though about the grotesque and huge granite Epstein statue of Ecco Homo staring at me! The same artist was responsible
for the large statues of Saint Michael and Lucifer clinging to the new walls. However, the bronze called Reconciliation in the old nave is truly poignant and beautiful. It was given by Sir Richard Branson with an identical one in Hiroshima. We are reminded that in the face of destructive forces, human dignity and love will triumph over disaster and bring nations together in respect and peace.
Other surprises from here were the views over the City from the tower and the rather hidden blitz experience museum. (Note that this is only open on Wednesdays.) The museum is in the vestries of the old Cathedral. It was in 2002 that the project was designed to recreate, in five rooms, the life at the time of the blitz.
Compared with the old Cathedral the new building (entered through a canopied link which is a gesture of genius and by a quotation from the book of Micah nation shall not lift up sword against nation) might be considered disappointing. However, it does portray the distinctive architecture of the age and has a beauty of its own with the towering bare walls of cream-hued stone and windows that stretch from floor to ceiling that are said to have done much to give back to England her medieval fame for stained glass.
Art and culture
A stones throw away is the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum which was established in 1938. This imaginative place (where you could easily spend a whole day) brings together the heritage and culture of the city. Alfred Herbert was a local industrialist and the centre was finally opened in 1960, with a 20 million redevelopment following in 2008. Nudging the Ring Road is Lady Herberts Garden (given to Coventry by Alfred in memory of his wife) where there is one of the several sections of the original city wall.
St Marys Hall
Out of the ruined cathedral by a gate near the Blitz Exhibition, I turned right down Bayley Lane to the gem that is St Marys Hall. Dating from 1340 it was the hall of the Merchants Guild; here was another surprise a huge tapestry (finer than that at Bayeux, I dare to say!). It was made to depict Henry VI and Queen Margaret and remains on the same wall after 500 years.
Greyfriars and the Priory
Further along Bayley Lane is The Golden Cross Inn (c.1583) with its dramatic double overhang, and which is on the site of the Mint. From here I crossed streets to Greyfriars Lane to admire Fords Hospital that was endowed by William Ford in 1509. We are privileged to look through the metal gates to the beautiful garden and narrow courtyard with its lovely baskets hanging from the squeezed gables. The remarkable thing is that the building was badly damaged in the air raid but rebuilt with the original timbers.
North east of the new Cathedral and adjoining the peaceful retreat of a garden is the Priory Undercroft. It was here that the Phoenix Archaeology Team unearthed quite substantial ruins of the Priory. Nearby are the rather splendid BBC studios; they can be visited if notice is given.
Memories of the Blitz
I enquired of several elderly residents sunning themselves Have you any memories of the night of the great blitz? They were all from other parts of our land. However, a priest heard what I wanted and directed me with the offer of refreshment to a room in the old Blue Coat School building. Here I met Peter, who was eight at the time.
Peter clearly remembered. He was in the family Morrison shelter for the long night while the raid was on and was aware with the glows from the great fires of something really big happening. They were not encouraged to, as he says, gawp afterwards to hamper the rescue services. After Coventry took its toll, the Morrison shelter was removed to counter the London raids!
The Blue Coat School was opened in 1714 but was rebuilt with towers looking like a French Chateau in 1856-7. Nearby is a fine black and white building the Lychgate Cottage is the only building that survives from the previous priory. St Marys Church was here; it is where Lady Godiva and Leofic are thought to have been buried.
From the priory site it is only a few steps to what was another surprise. The Coventry Transport Museum reflects the unique place held by Coventry as the birthplace of the British cycle and motor car industry. The place tells (with some modesty, but I have to agree!) that this is definitely one of the best trips through time you will ever encounter. However, do allow time to examine the elaborate pavement Time Clock outside. (Another surprise!) They say at night the square is truly spectacular. A statue of Sir Frank Whittle gazes down on the scene; he was a Coventry man and, of course, inventor of the turbo jet.
From the museum I went to the Belgrade which was (1958) the first civic theatre to be built in the land after the war. But why is it called the Belgrade? It was in 1958 that the city of Belgrade (then in Yugoslavia) made a huge donation of timber for use in the construction of the auditorium in a style so redolent of the period.
The Lady herself
The last call of my visit to this truly fascinating city was to Broadgate. Here, since 1949, is the statue of Coventrys heroine which Pevsner called: The corny equestrian! I love the carved Tennyson words. She rode forth clothed on with chastity: the deep air listen around her as she rode and all the low wind hardly breathed for fear. Then she rode clothed on with chastity; she took the tax away and built herself an everlasting name. Lady, do turn your steed around and come back soon!