I can’t help feeling sorry for Coventry. This once rich medieval city was almost flattened in a single night of bombing in November 1940. The Blitz killed more than 500 people and damaged 60,000 buildings; the Germans even coined a new (now obsolete) word for it: Koventrieren, meaning ‘to Coventrate’, or to completely destroy. Even before the war, there was talk of a ‘Coventry of Tomorrow’ (revealed in an exhibition in 1939, when the city’s burgeoning motor industry was proving too much for its narrow streets), and the city wasted no time in turning a tragedy into an opportunity. Plans for reconstruction were drawn up almost immediately. According to architect Jeremy Gould (co-author of Coventry: the making of a modern city), ‘Coventry was a leader in the process of post-war renewal and was hugely influential in Britain and abroad’.
Maybe so, but not everyone appreciated the progressive new Coventry: its pedestrian precincts, wavy roof-lines, ramps and canopies and low-rise brick soon looked dated and, as time went by, neglected and rather dreary. The recent flowering of mid-century modernism, should be ushering in a new dawn for the city’s 1950s architecture, but the centre is being ravaged once again – this time by developers; half of the shopping centre is threatened by demolition in the name of progress. But let’s not get too maudlin: the UK’s City of Culture 2021, has a lot to celebrate. Alongside, post-war classics, Coventry claims numerous medieval survivors (the city is perhaps defined by its glorious Cathedral – a conciliation of ancient and modern). And the devil is in the detail. Our highlights feature two restored medieval gatehouses, abstract tiles, a circular indoor market (with a carpark on the roof – so very Coventry), Aztec friezes, murals, mosaics and an animated Lady Godiva (on the hour, every hour).
Dated circa 1300-1450 – and 1962. Grade I listed.
If you need only one reason to visit Coventry, the Cathedral Church of St Michael is probably going to be top of the list. First, the Cathedral Ruin: the original medieval building was reduced to a roofless shell during one night of bombing in November 1940 – no other English cathedral suffered as much damage during the Blitz (the tower survived and was – pre-pandemic – open to the public; for now you just can stand in what was the nave and feel sombre and reflective). Then, the new Cathedral: a magnificent act of mighty modernism designed by architect Sir Basil Spence, featuring red sandstone, precast concrete columns and a polished fossil stone floor – and particularly impressive when sunlight filters through the stained glass panels of its extraordinary Baptistry window (by artist John Piper). The work of other well-known artists was integrated into Sir Basil’s bold vision – among them, Elisabeth Frink’s eagle lectern, Jacob Epstein’s bronze sculpture (on the east wall) and Graham Sutherland’s huge tapestry (Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph) – but it’s the scale of the place that really impresses. Consecrated in 1962 and devoted to a ministry of peace and reconciliation, the city’s best-known landmark is both humbling and uplifting.
• Priory St, CV1 5FB
St Mary’s Guildhall
Dated 1342: Grade I listed
On a narrow lane to one side of the Cathedral Ruin, it’s billed as Britain’s finest medieval guildhall – a meeting place for members of the local merchant guilds – it’s worth a look, not least because its setting is one of the few corners of Coventry that conveys a real sense of what the old city might have looked like during its 14th century heyday. A recent restoration, costing £5.6 million, turned the hall into a new, improved ‘heritage venue’ showing off its original kitchen and upgrading access to the Great Hall (stained glass, carved angels and the remarkable Coventry tapestry, made by Flemish weavers and hanging on the same wall for 500 years). The Guildhall re-opened in December 2021.
• Bayley Lane, CV1 5RN. [photograph: courtesy of City of Culture]
Dated: 1385-1440. Scheduled monuments.
Coventry’s medieval city walls have now been replaced by the four lanes of ring-road that embraces the city centre, but the odd remnant still survives, notably the last of the gatehouses: Swanswell and Cook Street. Originally, there was 12 of them set at strategic points within the city’s two miles of hefty fortification (the walls were nine-foot thick and 12-foot high), second only to London’s at the time. The walls were demolished after the English Civil War, and most of the gatehouses went the same way as the city gradually modernised over the centuries that followed. Swanswell (right) was converted into a cottage in the mid 19th century, and has since been used as a shop, an artist’s studio and a hang-out for the West Midlands police. Cook Street is older and was, until recently, in a poor condition (on Historic England’s ‘at risk’ register). Both are now under the wing of the Historic Coventry Trust and have been restored and turned into holiday accommodation. Cook Street offers a one-bedroom studio above the gatehouse arch; while Swanswell is now a three-storey lodge next to the city’s Herbert Gardens.
[photographs courtesy of Historic Coventry Trust].
3-5 Priory Row.
Dated: Circa 1415. Grade II* listed.
Also known as Lych Gate cottages, these little beauties occupy one of the most photogenic corners of central Coventry – a cluster of ancient buildings which includes Holy Trinity Church (12th century), the Old Blue Coat School (18th century), remnants of St Mary’s Priory and Cathedral (a footbridge crosses what’s left of the foundations) and the former priory cloisters – now a small park with a visitor centre (part of a city Millennium project). Back to the cottage, 3-5 Priory Row is described by Historic England, as a ‘remarkable survivor of pre-Dissolution Coventry’, all wonky timbers and ‘jettied floors’. The Historic Coventry Trust have carried out sensitive restoration, turning the three cottages into five holiday lets. Note: the larger black-and-white building which butts onto the cottages, is 1930s mock Tudor, now a Wetherspoons’ pub, the Flying Standard.
• Priory Row, CV1 5EX
[photographs courtesy of Historic Coventry Trust].
Ellen Terry Building
Dated: 1928. Local listing.
This was the city’s Gaumont cinema (later the Odeon), an art deco picture palace designed by Bristol architect M.H. Watkins with seating for 2500, a ballroom and restaurant. The building was bombed during the Blitz and lost most of its innards. and after restoration is now part of Coventry University’s Arts and Humanities faculty, named after famous Victorian (and Conventrian) actress Ellen Terry. I haven’t been inside, but the university has recently done some internal remodelling to provide arts and media students with a music studio and performance spaces and other facilities.
• Jordan Well, CV1 5RW
Broadgate and the Lady Godiva Clock
Dated: 1953 (the clock). Grade II listed.
Two minutes to four o’clock on a wet Monday afternoon, it’s a bit of a non-event: just me and another woman standing under our umbrellas in Broadgate, waiting for Lady Godiva. ‘Coventry is not what it was,’ the woman tells me. She’s not talking about the medieval city that was crushed by the Blitz, but the post-war ‘motor city’ of her youth – when Primark was a posh department store (Owen and Owen – a recently listed building) and Lady Godiva’s statue was set on lawns and faced the other way. She used to meet friends, ‘by the elephant’, she tells me. Paved and pedestrianised, Broadgate is the heart of Coventry’s city centre; and she’s right, it’s not what it used to be. Primark. No lawns. A hideous new ‘leisure quarter’ development (Cathedral Lanes was launched in 2015), an insult to the Cathedral and totally out of synch with the spirit of Coventry’s mid-century style. The aforementioned elephant and castle statue (inspired by Coventry’s coat of arms) was put up by firemen on the top of a 15-metre concrete mast in 1948. But, hey, our eyes are fixed on the clock tower. On the hour, doors open and a toy-like Lady Godiva slides out on her white charge (she and the horse were carved by sculptor Trevor Tennant) while a pop-out Peeping Tom looks on from above. The clock’s mechanism was badly damaged while an exuberant crowd celebrated Coventry’s win at the 1987 FA Cup. Thankfully, it’s now in full working order.
• Broadgate, CV1 1LL
[main picture courtesy of Rob Higgins].
Dated: 1958. Grade II listed.
The first purpose-built civic theatre to be built after World War Two, the Belgrade was designed by erstwhile City Architect, Arthur Ling and was named after the city of the same name; partly because the capital of what was then Yugoslavia made a donation of timber to augment the construction (plus the city council leaned a long way to the Left). Like the Festival Hall in London (to which it bears more than a passing resemblance) the theatre was intended to embrace the new spirit of Welfare State culture, with a determined community focus and a progressive international outlook. The building was sympathetically extended in 2007, adding the new B2 auditorium. Worth popping inside to see the foyer’s colourful mosaic by artist Martin Froy. Cool café-bar, too.
• Corporation Street, Belgrade Square, CV1 1GS
Dated: 1957. Grade II listed.
The market was part of the grand plan for the new Coventry and sits at the centre of the precincts – a big circle of concrete arches furnished with island stalls (mostly fruit and veg) and supporting a roof-top car park, its spaces radiating around the market hall’s central roof light. To be honest, it looks better in vintage black-and-white photographs; it’s a bit tatty, plastered in signage, hemmed in by encroaching redevelopment – and concrete doesn’t age well. But once inside it’s all colour and smells (fresh fish, flowers, coffee, fried bacon, Chinese spices) and there are some nice details: under the roof light, a terrazzo mosaic floor designed by David Embling, above the market office a ‘socialist realist’ mural painted by art students from Dresden in the 1950s. Good place to buy cheap veg, too.
• Queen Victoria Road, CV1 3HT
The City Library
Dated: 1958-60, Grade II listed.
A relatively recent addition to Cov’s collection of listed buildings, the library was originally Mecca’s Locarno Dancehall, and a key component of the city centre’s post-war precinct. In the 1970s, it was sold on to become Tiffany’s – the city’s leading rock venue of the time. When it closed, the building was left empty for a few years before being converted into a library in 1986; the original dance hall (which lost its spung floor and revolving stage) is now the library’s reading room. It is listed partly because of the jazzy glass mosaic tiles – designed by mural artist Fred Millet – which decorate the building’s exterior. They are compromised by over-sized Waterstones signage, but these rectangular abstract panels glitter in the sunlight and light up at night.
• Corner of Smithford Way and Lower Precinct CV1 1FY
[thanks to Rob Higgins for use of the photographs]
The Herbert Gallery and Museum
Dated: 1960 (and 2008). Unlisted.
The prominent glass arcade that form’s the gallery’s lofty entrance, is a recent addition to the original building which was funded by philanthropic machine tools tycoon Alfred Herbert (a Herbert lathe is on display in the museum) and completed in 1960. The new extension (designed by architects Pringle Richards Sharratt) turned the back of the building into the front, giving the gallery a more intimate relationship with the Cathedral and adding the sky-gazing arcade (with its curved ‘gridshell’ roof), a cuboid block of gallery space, a History Centre and a landscaped Peace Garden furnished with Cor-ten sculptures – altogether a pleasant place to hang out in (there is a shop and café, too). The museum is free to enter and presents, among other things, collections of medieval archaeology, items relating to Coventry’s industries and paintings of Lady Godiva. Worth looking at the outside too: note the two large Portland stone panels by Jordan Well, carved by artist Walter Richie; named ‘Struggle to Control the World Outside Him’ (catchy), they were originally made for the city centre but were moved here in the 1990s (see second pic, above). For details of exhibition and events, visit the website.
• Jordan Well, CV1 5QP
Mural at the Three Tuns pub
Dated: 1966. Grade II listed
The so-called Aztec mural in the Bull Yard shopping centre is one of Coventry’s mid-century legacies that are under threat. The Bull Yard is not pretty, but for those who like a bit of post-war Brutalism, it’s classic and doesn’t deserve to be bulldozed – which is what will happen if the preposterous City Centre South plan goes ahead. The relief mural forms an exterior – and interior – wall of the yard’s former Three Tuns pub (now an Indian restaurant); it was designed by artist-sculpture William Michael, known for his use of heavy-duty cast concrete, usually as bold architectural detail on public buildings (he was also responsible for decorative elements of Liverpool Cathedral). The Aztec mural was listed in 2009 – which might save it from demolition; one of his earlier works (also listed) formed a striking feature wall for the Lee Valley Water Company in Hatfield, and when the building was demolished, it was moved to the housing estate that replaced it. This one could be moved, too (so says the developers) but it was made for this place. Leave it alone guys!
• The Bull Yard CV1 1LH.
• For info on Coventry City of Culture 2021 visit the website. Need somewhere to stay? The Telegraph Hotel (in the former offices of local newspaper, the Coventry Telegraph, built in 1958), is the best place in town (pictured below). Check out my review in the Guardian.