40 members went on the visit to Coventry Cathedral, the first outing in the 2014 Summer Programme. On arrival, we gathered on the steps outside the cathedral for a short photo shoot. This was quickly followed by a welcome cup of coffee or tea (and biscuits) provided by a local hostelry, in a room set aside for our party. At 11.00 am we embarked on the ‘Three Cathedrals’ tour. The tour was two and half an hour long and brought to life the stories of medieval Coventry, including Godiva and the original Cathedral (the Priory of St Mary) before moving to the ruins and the new Cathedral. Our thanks go to our tour guides who were so knowledgeable and enthusiastic.
Coventry has had three cathedrals in the past 1000 years: the 12th century Priory Church of St Mary, the medieval Parish Church Cathedral of St Michael and the modern Cathedral of St Michael. History shows that Coventry’s fortune have been closely associated to that of its Cathedrals – a story of death and rebirth.
The earliest cathedral was founded as a Benedictine community by Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and his wife Godiva in 1043. Built on the site of a former nunnery, its sheer size is indicative of the wealth which Coventry acquired in the middle ages but in 1539, with the dissolution of the monasteries, it fell into decay and Coventry didn’t have another cathedral until 1918 when the medieval Parish Church of St Michael was elevated to cathedral status.
The ruins we now see are the consequence of violence in our time. On the night of 14 November 1940, the city of Coventry was devastated by incendiary bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe and the cathedral burned with the city.
The decision to rebuild the cathedral was taken the morning after its destruction – not in an act of defiance but rather as a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world. Shortly after the destruction, the cathedral stonemason, Jock Forbes, noticed that two of the charred medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up in the ruins where they were later placed on an altar of rubble with the moving words ‘Father Forgive’ inscribed on the Sanctuary wall. Another cross was fashioned from three medieval nails by local priest, the Revd Arthur Wales. The Cross of Nails has become the symbol of Coventry’s Ministry of Reconciliation. The ‘new’ Cathedral was itself an inspiration to many fine artists of the post-war era. The architect, Sir Basil Spence, commissioned work from Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Ralph Beyer, John Hutton, Jacob Epstein, Elisabeth Frink and others. Her Majesty the Queen laid the foundation stone on 23 March 1956 and the building was consecrated on 25 May 1962, in her presence. The ruins remain hallowed ground and are part of one living cathedral.
After lunch we were free to view the many visitor attraction nearby:
The Blitz Experience Museum. In November 1940, Coventry was changed forever. Out of the ruins came a story of hope, determination and courage as the Cathedral became a beacon for Peace and Reconciliation. In the Blitz Experience volunteers tell the story of that night, what Coventry was like before the Blitz and how the people of this extraordinary city coped with its aftermath.
Holy Trinity Church. Dating from the 12th century, Holy Trinity Church is another very interesting religious site with a significant history. During the 1430s, the painting of the Last Judgement, known as the ‘Coventry Doom’, was created above the tower arch to demonstrate ‘the eternal consequences of both charitable and uncharitable acts’. The picture may have been created as a result of Coventry having experienced an earthquake around that time, making church leaders think that the Day of Judgement was soon to come. The painting is the most impressive of its type now remaining in an English church.
St Mary’s Guild Hall. St Mary’s Guild Hall is the finest medieval guild hall in the country with over 600 years of history. Known to have been visited by Shakespeare, it offers a fantastic snapshot of medieval atmosphere, architecture and fine artwork. Sadly it is not open to visitors on Saturdays.
Herbert Art Gallery. Originating during the outbreak of the Second World War, it has had over a million visitors since 2008. The Herbert is a museum, an art gallery and a record archive which was named after late Sir Alfred Herbert, a former Coventry industrialist and philanthropist whose gifts enabled the original building to be opened in 1960. It is a fascinating place to explore, with all sorts of galleries, ranging from taxidermy to Old Masters’ paintings.
Coventry Transport Museum. Opened in 1980, the Coventry Transport Museum is an amazing and very exciting place to tour. It is actually the largest collection of British road transport in the world – reflecting the fact that Coventry is the birthplace of the British cycle and motor industry. The collection consists of motor cars, commercial vehicles, cycles and motorcycles. It also holds and conserves extensive collections of automobile books, photographs and a wealth of other archive material.
The Statue of Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom. The legend of Godiva, an 11th-century noblewoman, who rode naked on the back of her horse through the streets of Coventry in order to protest against the high taxes, set by her husband, the Earl of Mercia. This famous journey was immortalised in the statue of Lady Godiva, constructed in 1949 as a gift to the city. It is now located at Broadgate, a short walk from the Cathedral. Peeping Tom is situated on the wall and is part of a clockwork movement that appears on the hour to peep at Lady Godiva.
We left Coventry at 5.00 pm on what was a most enjoyable and informative visit.
Secretary’s Note. Our thanks must go to Peter Raikes for his diligent work arranging and leading this visit and for providing this detailed resume our time in Coventry; it is no understatement to say that all members of the party were in agreement that the outing had been a huge success and we all look forward to our next outing to Newstead Abbey and Papplewick Pumping Station on Saturday 12 July.