Tuesday, 8 October 2013


Coventry Cathedral

We met up with our friends Sally and Malcolm for this walk around Coventry, starting from the New Cathedral, which they had seen long ago and we had never seen other than in photographs. Your first sight of it is undeniably imposing. The rippling sides with their tall windows and the fantastic statue of St Michael vanquishing Satan (by Sir Jacob Epstein) are very impressive.

The thing which surprised us all was the way the Cathedral was positioned at right angles to the ruins of the Old Cathedral (burned in the blitz of 1940). This was a master stroke by the architect Sir Basil Spence: leaving a poignant reminder of the war damage and creating a sort of courtyard in front of the new Cathedral. We had only recently seen similarly poignant roofless and windowless ruins of the Charles Church in Plymouth, destroyed in the blitz of 1941.

The Old Cathedral was a large and imposing church in red sandstone, built in the perpendicular gothic style and dating from the late 13th century. The tower was undamaged and now houses the tourist information office.

On entering the New Cathedral we had two strong impressions: firstly it is spacious, but a bit forbidding and this is because the tall side windows of the nave are angled in such a way that they can't initially be seen. Secondly, when you look to your right there is the massive, floor-to-ceiling Baptistry Window designed by John Piper and painted by Patrick Reyntiens representing the light of Christ breaking into the world. It is simply magnificent.

We headed away from the Cathedral to walk along Earl St and then Jordan Well where we were delighted by this art deco former cinema, now housing a department of the University.

A loop around Whitefriars St brought us back to face the former Council House, a Tudor style building of 1913-17 with Arts and Crafts details above the main entrance.

We walked along the High St to see the statue of Lady Godiva in Broadgate (there is also one on teh front of the Council House). Pevsner describes it as "corny", but we thought it was quite well done.

We chanced to be there at exactly 12 o'clock and then we saw something that certainly was corny: the Godiva Clock on Broadgate House. As the hour strikes, a figure of Godiva on a white horse emerges and travels through an arc and disappear again. The building has recently been listed and a piece in the Coventry Telegraph describes the clock as iconic.

We doubled back and headed down Greyfriars Lane to see something much more to our taste: the almshouses of Ford's Hospital, which amazingly contains an inner courtyard, which unfortunately we could not see. Writing on the facade reveals that it was founded in 1509 and rebuilt after war damage in 1953.

The route now took us past the spire of Greyfriars church (1350) and the one-time gatehouse of Chyelesmore Manor to enter the main shopping area. We emerged on the west of the centre opposite St John's church, an imposing 15th century building, bearing the marks of 19th century restoration (Pevsner points out the corner turrets on the crossing tower).

Then we walked up Spon Street, or "Medieval Spon St" as the signs we had seen would have it. We soon discovered what this meant: most, possibly all, of the many fine half-timbered houses had been dismantled, moved from other parts of the city and rebuilt here. We could understand the practical benefits of this: it would certainly facilitate redevelopment. But the result is false and rather sad.

After lunch we returned to nearby Hill St to see Bond's Hospital, just behind St John's church. These almshouses date from 1506 and were restored and extended in 1832 and 1846.

Next door, separated by an arch also of 1832 is the original Bablake School of about the same age as Bind's Hospital. Inside the shared courtyard you can see the open galleries of the former school and the half-timbered side of Bond's Hospital.

We headed across the ring road to find a real surprise: the renovated Canal Basi, which features a Y shaped terminus (I don't think I have ever seen a canal come to a dead end before, coal warehouses and a nice statue of canal engineer James Brindley. I focused tightly in on this picture to exclude modern office buildings on the left and a massive block of flats on the right.

Back across the ring road, we continued clockwise to reach the Cook Street gate, one of two remaining gates in the former city walls, we have also seen a few vestiges of. There is a map of what they were once like here.

Nearby are the Lady Herbert almshouses of 1937, some of which overlook the very pleasant Lady Herbert Gardens. Both were built by industrialist Sir Alfred Herbert in memory of his wife Florence.

Nearby, in Chauntry Street there is a row of houses with gothic porches, which I thought might be further almshouses. I have now discovered that they were Firemen's Cottages.

Finally, we returned to the vicinity of the Cathedral to see St Mary's Guildhall, built in 1340-2, with a small timber-framed courtyard.

Conditions: quite warm.

From: the AA website.

Distance:  3 miles or so.

Rating: four and half stars. Shattered our preconceptions of Coventry. Obviously all the ugly modern bits have been studiously ignored in this account.

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