A few months ago, I visited Coventry on business. At first glance it was a very uninspiring place – the city centre is a textbook example of the sort of dull, unimaginative post-war planning that involved a lot of concrete, resulting in what was apparently one of the first large-scale pedestrianised shopping precincts in Europe.
The reason for this is that in November 1940, Coventry was flattened by the Luftwaffe. Over 4000 houses, three-quarters of the city’s industrial plants and the city’s old medieval heart were destroyed, and of the buildings that were left standing afterwards most were deemed so unsafe that they had to be knocked down.
All that was left of the fourteenth-century cathedral was a roofless shell and the spire.
When the city was rebuilt, it was decided that the remains of the cathedral should be preserved as a permanent memorial, with a new, modern cathedral being built next door.
I somehow managed to get to Coventry early for my meeting, so I decided to take a look around the cathedral. The old one, that is. Open to the elements, it has the feel of an old castle courtyard. Where the altar once stood is a wooden cross; the wood is from two of the old roof timbers, found amid the ruins (having fallen in the shape of a cross) not long after the bombing; the words “Father Forgive” are inscribed on the sanctuary wall behind. A memorial to those who died on the Home Front during the war is nearby. Forgiveness and reconciliation were key themes in the rebuilding.
I don’t know of many war memorials that commemorate the sacrifices made on the Home Front, but I will say this: A visit to the bombed-out shell of Coventry Cathedral is a sobering reminder of the realities of war, and as memorials go it is both beautiful and breathtaking.
Some time later, when I had a lunch break, I returned to the cathedral and turned my attention to the one part of the old structure that’s still standing – the spire. At 295 feet, it’s the tallest structure in the city (and indeed the third-tallest cathedral spire in England, after Salisbury and Norwich), and it’s open to the public.
Now I cannot resist the chance to climb a tower at the best of times. For £2:50, I got to climb to the top for a view over Coventry – including such sights as the university, the ring road and, somewhere in the distance, Birmingham. Another cathedral visited, another tower climbed.
Elsewhere in the city, there wasn’t really much to see. That said, Coventry city centre does have a statue of a naked woman on horseback.
This commemorates Lady Godiva, the wife of an eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon nobleman who ruled these parts. Legend has it that when he was obliged to raise taxes, Godiva made him promise that he wouldn’t if she rode naked through the city. He called her bluff, but she wasn’t bluffing – riding naked through the city is, apparently, exactly what she did. Out of respect (she had, after all, just saved them from a tax hike), the townspeople averted their eyes as she rode past – all except an apprentice who became the original Peeping Tom.