Central Coventry

The mission is to blog about every city in England. It has gathered pace recently assisted by my work taking me to “Central Coventry”. The title of this blog has been chosen as it is to do with the most central city in England.

 

As my meanderings take me around the country to see each city, I’m sure that there will be winners and losers. My views for each place may not be shared by all but here goes as far as Coventry is concerned which I rank down at the bottom of the list of best cities. Perhaps it was depression brought on by the rain bringing a damp end to the finale of another summer or an emotional state brought on by the civil war and battle lines that MPs were drawing up at Parliament. Whatever the cause, Coventry did not do anything to ameliorate the situation and was a major disappointment. Perhaps another visit in more favourable light and with stability in the political world to bring the mind on an even keel may do it justice….

I had been many times before. There is a family friend who lives there, and an educational childhood meant that I had been privileged to see the place from earliest days. Sadly, memories of the city itself do not abound (where is that childhood blog?).

I managed to find some free parking. As an aside, free parking in city centres might make people more inclined to visit. I strolled towards the city centre via an underground pass presumably under the ring road. It was here that the first impressions were made. One never gets a second chance to make a good first impression. Coventry’s first impression made a lasting impact and left me feeling rather uneasy and, for the first time in a while, unsafe. Homeless people were living in the shelter provided by the pathway under the road. Their ‘beds’ were made up and, clearly, there were no facilities.  Obviously, there was no bathroom and the stench of urine was pungent. Their contribution to this walkway was to leave needles for, no doubt, drug habits. What a terrible sight. As I discussed with a friend the other day, how did our society let it get to this?!

Rapidly leaving what seemed like a crime scene, I followed the signs to the city centre. I noticed a half-battered statue which looked like it had seen better days. This was another proof of the ignorance of our past. I had some strange looks as I tried to get a picture. Further investigation showed the statue to be of James Starley, creator of the bicycle. Coventry became a major bicycle manufacturer which then led to Coventry becoming a major centre in the British motor industry. This led to the formation of a British brand of car, Rover. I can still recall seeing many of these cars on the road when I was younger but as more countries have created their own car brands, so the British ones have almost disappeared, as we now import cars from all over the world. There are still some surviving parts of this legacy; Jaguar has its headquarters in this area and the transport museum shows the motor history associated with the city.

The city centre is now a polar opposite to bygone days with shops selling modern fashion brands, intertwined with coffee shops and abandoned stores. There are people off their heads screaming and shouting about needing a toilet for all the word to see and hear. All round homeless people lie waiting for the generosity of many, yet so few of that many are prepared to give. People are connected like robots, but, alarmingly, with an inability to switch off and see what is all round them. Where did it all go so wrong? What can be done? I was very harsh about Vancouver having this problem, but I also said that this city didn’t stand alone in this world.

At the heart of the city centre is a statue to Lady Godiva. Legend has it she rode through the city naked, only covered by her long hair to stand up against the taxes her husband placed on the city. The event took place circa 1066-1086, and the statue is there to remind the interested visitor the history behind the city. Although history is perhaps a big game of Chinese whispers, the legend has been remembered to this day. Leaving this statue you are immediately drawn to the dominating features of this city, the last remains of part what was once England’s finest medieval city. Hitler and the Nazi air raids led to the “Coventry blitz” or “operation moonlight sonata” and this onslaught put paid to the major part of Coventry’s past as the blitz was one of the most destructive of its kind. Coventry’s central location and supplier of many things required for the war meant it was a prime target. The devastation caused is particularly shown by the old cathedral the remains of which still stand. Sadly, a lot of the damages caused were beyond repair and a new city needed to be rebuilt.

Perhaps the best way to describe the old cathedral is walls but no roof. It is as if the roof has been blown off with the outside wall structure being defiant. Perhaps this has been left as a reminder of not just the human life that was lost in the war, but the devastation of lands. The city decided that instead of rebuilding the cathedral it would build a new one next to it. A step inside this soulless modern monstrosity confirmed my opinion that we really must appreciate those incredible cathedrals that have survived time, and carve such an identity on our cityscapes.

Located around the edges of the cathedral lie the 14th century guild hall and Holy Trinity church. Both buildings are excellent displays of ancient architecture. I would appeal to anyone to visit both, not just for a civic ceremony but to witness such architecture.

So it is with slight sadness in my heart, that Coventry didn’t steal it, but instead left me questioning the state of the world in which we live.

Terrific Tewkesbury

Whisper it quietly but I think I have just discovered one of England’s finest towns. As I’m on a mission to blog about every city in England it was surprising that I ended up here. What a surprise it was to discover this place. I am torn between broadcasting Tewkesbury’s virtues and whispering about this place to help preserve its excellence and keep it one of Britain’s great secrets. This town has a beautiful waterside setting, at the confluence of the rivers Severn and Avon. Go and learn, discover even, about the town’s rich and vibrant history. It has certainly inspired me to explore another part of England’s intriguing history.

At the heart of the city lies the imposing feature of the town scape. The Abbey! A step inside immediately blows your mind, as it’s almost as impressive as the abbey near to my home in Sherborne. As I’ve mentioned before, when you think of abbeys in this country you would think of them all being ruins as a result of the dissolution, but not this one. It has retained its relevance at the heart of the city with its Norman tower, 12th century ceilings and stained glass windows. The abbey’s survival is, in large part, down to the town buying the abbey from Henry VIII for 435 pounds.

I’m not going to write a history lesson about the War of the Roses or the main people involved. This is mainly due to the fact I need to give myself a history lesson first of all. I know that it was the red versus the white rose. I can remember the name Richard III as being king in this era, and I’m aware of a saying,  ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.’ So the only real knowledge I have is of the passionate cricket match that is served up, it seems, at least twice a year between Yorkshire (white rose) and Lancashire (red rose) and how this has been more than just a sporting rivalry stretching back some 600 years. Some serious research must be made to discover more about yet another fascinating part of our history. Perhaps if those people in Hollywood who can’t think of any decent films to make could start looking at British history for inspiration rather than subjecting us to all their remakes.

Tewksbury was the location for a significant battle in the War of the Roses. It surprises me that these two northern counties fought here for supremacy and not closer to their home, but this might have something to do with the return of an exile from France. Something else to research and try to understand – were the shires much larger back then? Or were there less of them than the current number of counties in England. The scene of the battle was played out to the south of the town. The area where the battle took place is known to this day as ‘Bloody Meadow’. Each year the site plays host to re-enactments of the event although they are always scheduled for a time in the year after the anniversary of the actual event no doubt to draw the most crowds. Surely a return visit to Tewkesbury in July of next year is a must, as the medieval town comes alive with wannabe actors reliving those famous tales.

I presume that such a festival brings about an incredible display of colour as a large number of flags relating to the noblemen who fought in that battle adorn shops, inns and houses throughout the town. Does this splash of colour remain all year round? The Tewkesbury Battlefield Society is responsible for all of this colour and information and has done a fine job.

These streets are Tudortastic. Anyone who loves old architecture should strive to visit this time warped town. The layout and buildings have been preserved.  The town seems to have barely altered throughout the ages as black and white timber framed Tudor buildings line the streets, their upper storeys overhanging lower ones to create a truly special high street. Throw in the colourful flags and you have quite the picture. I was amazed at how many different buildings there were and upon a little research was blown away to understand there are some 345 listed buildings in the town. It was also noticeable that the high street had no ‘to let’ signs out. We must surely be looking at what this place does right to ensure filled shops.

The fact that the town is surrounded by flood plains, rivers and meadows means its expansion hasn’t happened and it has retained its long and narrow profile. Instead it has left a tiny footprint of times gone by, and one of the land’s finest townscapes! I beg everyone to discover this wonderful town; you will probably be blown away just like me. For now, though, I will posit that not enough of our incredible history is covered in our education system (I can understand why people don’t want to complete an exam in history, but as we need to reidentify ourselves as a nation, we shouldn’t ignore our past. Perhaps British history should be made a core subject throughout all year groups). I will go now to discover its history and secrets for myself, and, as a local old couple remarked to me, try not to attract too many visitors here.

Wonderful Wells

I’m very fortunate that my job takes me to some of England’s more intriguing places. Today I was in Wells, my destination being blessed in glorious spring sunshine had to be appreciated both before and after work. I noticed it described as “a hidden gem in the heart of Somerset”. No truer words have been put on an advertising leaflet. Even though the film Hot Fuzz was filmed here, locals and tourists don’t flock to Wells to explore; their loss and my gain.

 

England’s smallest city doesn’t disappoint! Dominated by its grand and impressive cathedral and bishop’s palace, this city leaves the mind to wonder at its very existence. How? Why? Why here? The ‘when’ is quite clear as there are plenty of plaques to say that this or that was put up in this or that year with most reading a date in the 15th century. The two dominating parts of this city are slightly more than a stone’s throw from each other but are clearly linked through religion. It looks like bishops lived well back then!! But it is the why that remains unanswered by a casual stroll through what is nothing more than a small town but has city status. Like some of its neighbouring towns it offers no reason for its presence. It doesn’t appear to have been a strategic position in yesteryear battles, there is no castle, there are no signs of industrialism, confirmed by its lack of railway.

Bishops Palace

Firstly, the palace resembles a castle with its impressive moat. First impressions may well have confused more people than I but this is rectified upon entrance through an imposing gateway to read the informative signs. It is the home for the bishop of Bath and Wells. It’s fortifications, moat, drawbridge and portcullis wouldn’t look out of place at most castles around the country. Such a well-fortified home for a religious leader. Why? Does this highlight even more how much religion once played a huge part in this country’s history and how little it will play in its future? Step inside these fortifications and wonder where is the missing keep? Instead one is greeted with some ruins, and what looks like a stately home.

Secondly, the impressive cathedral, a spectacular example of British architecture. This cathedral gives the city its rights. Stand and admire this grand and impressive building from the greens to the front, marvel at the level of detail on the outside alone. Ponder the hours and effort that must have gone into making this cathedral

look so amazing. The western front facade is dominated by small figurines. We are so blessed in these isles with amazing heritage that it is all too easy to take these buildings for granted. Anything looks more beautiful in the sun, this was confirmed in my springtime visit as the sun waved its magic wand and lit up this majestic building. Standing there my breath was taken away.

Vicars Close

To the north of the cathedral is the charming Vicars close, a fascinating parade of similar houses and constructed way back (actually 1363 as a notice proudly displays). Walk to the end to get an impressive view of the cathedral with the forefront of the picture dominated by these ancient houses and chimneys.

My visit inside the cathedral took place back in Autumn last year. Stepping inside these buildings I marvel and wonder why they were designed this way. To have such high ceilings seems like a waste of space or was it part of an acoustic design? Perhaps a visit when this place is in full choir or song may prove the theory, not that I expect to see these places over packed with worshippers.

I would challenge anyone to discover some of these beautiful buildings and lovely locations that this country has to offer and let me know where my meanderings should take me next.

 

Springtime at Saltram

My latest NT blog is of plain looking Saltram in springtime. Idyllically located on the banks of the estuary it is easily seen why the Parker family purchased the estate. The house, however, looks so plain and ordinary at first sight with no grand and elaborate designs, and strangely enough from the inside doesn’t give a view of the estuary.

Inside the house I was greeted and welcomed by a proud volunteer; he was keen to explain the greeting by the god of mercury, wealth, travel and roads who looks down on the visitor from the ceiling. From here access to the rest house is through one of 4 doors, each doorway guarded by one of the 4 elements, fire, water, earth and air.

An unaccompanied walk around the house normally allows me to do my own thing, but today it draws my attention to room wardens (or theirs to me), who seem so keen to engage in conversation about the house. One in particular talked about how the interior design is down to Robert Adams. His eye for detail is evident in everything in the house but it’s the ceilings that are the most impressive feature. Maybe a fact that confirms that not all beauty is on the outside but on the inside.

As I was informed on my visit it perhaps wasn’t the house that they were after when they brought it but the grounds of the estate. It’s hard to argue with that as I meander my way around them in glorious spring sunshine, tear drops and blue bells awash the ground like an artist’s pallet. Add to this the grass and weeds that can’t be touched so as not to ruin the spring flowers. Having read the signs and notices I didn’t jump in to get my picture, unlike the kid on a school visit.  The walk along the tree path is a tunnel of green as the trees take full bloom now spring is in full swing.

Maybe with more time on my hands I may have found the river from the grounds, or taken one or bigger estate walks; instead I had to drag myself away to ensure I beat the bank holiday traffic. Sadly, I failed but consoled myself in the memories of another National Trust adventure, and a new place discovered.

History at Hughenden

View from the main garden

I’m finally starting to take full advantage of my National Trust (NT) membership. Living my manic lifestyle, finding the time has been difficult to use it to the full. With the long Easter weekend there was an opportunity to get out and explore should the weather had been kind. Who would have thought that I’m becoming fascinated with history! In England we’re blessed with an abundance of history that we really shouldn’t ignore.

Memorial in church

Until today I had never heard of Disraeli so this trip to Hughenden Manor was worthwhile. The house and grounds (though disappointing on first appearance) were crowded as there was an Easter Egg hunt under way. I will not go off on one about commercialisation of religious festivals as there was much to learn about an illustrious, though, to my way of thinking, stomach churning, creepy, former Prime Minister. There is much evidence on display to confirm my impressions. Evidently Queen Victoria thought that he was wonderful, and this is seen in a memorial in the church. And yet, in a perverse way, it is the TV series covering young Victoria’s life that has sparked my interest. It may well be, based on the numbers in the house and grounds, that I am not alone.

The house didn’t have the wow factor that some of the NT properties have that I have visited but it did have some interesting things going for it. The inside of the house was well maintained; the ground floor was mainly family pictures; in certain rooms there were inscriptions printed on the blinds. There was also a lot of information in the house regarding politics and Disraeli.

Portrait of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the Disraelis’ Bedroom

On the upper floor there were more pictures; these were different though as they were gifts from the queen. These could be spotted by the crown crowning the frame. The first room on the top floor has a timeline of his life. When we were there a passionate West Indian man spoke about Isaac Disraeli (his father) falling out with his fellow Jews at the synagogue and getting his children baptised into the Church of England. At the time this was a vital decision that enabled Benjamin to become Prime minister in adult life. Look around at the walls to see Disraeli quotes. Two of these appealed to me as a traveller, “Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen” and “One secret of success in life is for a man to be ready for his opportunity when it comes”.

Springtime

The final stop was to look downstairs to see how ‘Hillside’ was used in the construction of maps used in World War 2. Tight, congested and overcrowded it was time to leave. It was then time to witness an adult playing stuck in the mud by parking his car on some wet ground rather than the huge amounts of kids running around. The building and gardens looked dank but then so has been the weather of late. Wait for the summer as the gardens will look tremendous.