diamond geezer

 Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sent to: Coventry
Lady GodivaIt's one of the ten largest cities in England. It's centuries older than its upstart Brummie neighbour. It's famous for 2 Tone records, car manufacturing and naked ladies on horseback. It suffered terribly during World War Two, and some would argue equally terribly at the hands of the post-war planners. It's the UK city that's furthest from the sea. It's Coventry, and I went sightseeing there yesterday. No, really, there was just enough to fill a day out. Who'd have thought?
The Coventry Pages
Historic Coventry
Coventry Days Out
Visit Coventry

Sent to: Coventry Cathedral
Poor old Coventry hasn't been lucky with its cathedrals. Twice the good people of the town have erected a monumental masterpiece, and twice it's been destroyed by catastrophic circumstances beyond the city's control. Nowhere else in the UK has been singled out like this, not on either count, just Coventry. The first cathedral lasted nearly half a millennium, but was pulled down on the orders of King Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. You can still see a few scrappy foundations in a garden beyond the shopping precinct, and in the frankly underwhelming Visitor Centre beyond.old Coventry Cathedral The second cathedral survived until 14th November 1940, on which night Coventry received the full attention of the Luftwaffe and suffered extreme widespread bomb damage. Fires spread uncontrollably from the roof of the cathedral, and by morning only a rubble-filled charred shell remained.

Today the remains of that old cathedral still stand, nave open to the sky, as a memorial to the futility of war [photo]. The walls are mostly intact, with only the occasional fragment of stained glass in the empty windows. A side chapel here, the bottom few steps of a spiral staircase there - it's a sobering thought to stand in silence and reflect on what used to be. On the stone altar a wooden cross has been erected, labelled FATHER FORGIVE, and elsewhere a series of more modern sculptures maintain the theme of reconciliation. Meanwhile, towering over all this (if a steeple can tower) is the third largest cathedral spire in the country. It survived the flames, as did a couple of other nearby steeples, and now hosts a rather dingy Visitor Information centre in the base.

St Michael and the DevilAnd so to cathedral number three. The opportunity to design a very modern replacement was given to Basil Spence, and the Queen popped along to lay the foundation stone in 1956. It's certainly in striking contrast to the original, and highly unusual in that it faces north-south rather than east-west. Old and new cathedrals meet across an elevated porch above St Michael's Lane [photo], and a remarkable bronze statue of St Michael spearing a devil is affixed to the outside of the building [photo]. Do try to concentrate on the loveliness of the sandstone exterior, because the surrounding architecture is quite hideous. St Michael looks out over a particularly nasty gym and the main entrance to Coventry University, while adjacent to the Lady Chapel is the sort of pig-ugly concrete hotel which suggests that the death penalty might successfully be reintroduced for 70s architects.

new Coventry CathedralEntrance to the new cathedral is through a tiny sidedoor past the information desk (unless you're royalty, in which case presumably they let you in through the ceremonial doors in the multi-storey window etched with angels). And, wow. This is no characterless aircraft hangar, this is a vast spiritual space lit by streams of vibrant daylight. Closest to the south door is the curved Baptistry Window, an amazing wall of stained glass [photo] towering over the rocky font (hewn from a boulder lifted from a Bethlehem hillside). Further thin windows cast their angled light up the nave, towards the spiky-topped chancel and the imposing green tapestry of Christ hung above the Lady Chapel [photo]. Even the organ pipes rise up to the undulating diamond ceiling like a battery of heavenly artillery. Everything in here is about height not breadth, and the end result is a soaring verticality as imposing as any medieval cathedral - but with a modern twist.

For a more intimate experience head off into a cylindrical side chapel for some silent contemplation [photo], or pause awhile and reflect beneath one of the many symbolic crowns of thorns. I don't necessarily recommend popping down to the crypt for a very ordinary cup of tea, just stay upstairs and soak in the ethereal lightshow. Thank God the post-war planners got one bit of Coventry spot on perfect.


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