Coventry Canal Warehouses – A Successful Conservation Project!

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Our Secretary, John Payne, shares a personal recollection of one of Coventry’s most successful conservation projects. John writes:

In the 1980s I worked for the Council’s Department of Economic Development and Planning and was heavily involved with the Traditional Urban Programme. As part of that I took on the role of Project Officer for the restoration of the Coventry Canal Warehouses, which had received a grant under that programme. It turned out to be one of the most interesting projects that I was ever involved with.

At that time the old warehouses were in pretty bad shape. The timber framework had deteriorated and there were leaks everywhere. Pigeons had taken over the building and bird shit was the dominant smell.

The buildings were occupied by a strange mix of tenants on temporary licenses. There was the Canal Society who mainly used the building for the storage of canoes (the Mercia Canoe Club). Then there was a model railway club, which used one of the warehouses for a huge rail layout. A Planning Lecturer had set up a boat restoration cooperative at the north end of the buildings, but the main group of users were Art lecturers from Coventry Polytechnic, as it was then, who had formed themselves into the Coventry Artists Group and were using the warehouses as studios.

To move things forward it was necessary to set up a Building Preservation Trust. John Goodman, from Coventry Cooperative Development Agency helped them set up the Coventry Canal Basin Trust and secure charitable status. The objects of the charity are “to preserve for the benefit of the citizens of Coventry and of the nation at large, whatever of the English industrial, historical, architectural and constitutional heritage may exist in and around the Coventry canal basin at Leicester Row, Coventry in the form of buildings of particular beauty or industrial, historical, architectural or constructional interest.

The people involved in the Trust were a varied lot! The Chairman was Brian Saunders, a larger than life businessman who had previously owned Theatre One and Buster’s Nightclub (named after his dog).

The man who carried the weight of setting up the Trust and runs it even today is Alan Dyer. Alan was a Senior Lecturer in the Polytechnic’s Arts faculty. Mandy Havers, crafted life size leather heads, one of which she sold to Paul McCartney. John Yeadon is well known in Coventry for his huge dramatic paintings.

Malcolm Adkins was a Planning Lecturer at the Polytechnic. He had set up a Boat Builders Cooperative and at that time was restoring an old steam launch that had been involved in the evacuation from Dunkirk.

That original group were joined by artist Alison Lambert and a number of other young arts graduates from the Poly. With so many different personalities it felt at times to be like herding cats.

Volunteers

As well as setting up the Trust it was necessary to negotiate a lease from the British Waterways Board. The Trust negotiated a 120 year lease which leaves maintenance entirely the responsibility of the Trust. With a canal forming one boundary of the building that is quite a responsibility.

The vision for the building was not only to restore the buildings, but also to create a home for newly graduated arts students and designers from the Polytechnic. It was found that talented graduates from the Arts courses would leave the city because there was nowhere affordable for them to work. The idea was to provide low cost start up studios and workshops that young artists could rent to give them a leg up into professional practice, as well as support from their peers. Since the restoration, over 300 graduates have been provided with studio and workshop spaces in the warehouse.

The history of the warehouses dates back to the construction of the Coventry Canal in the 18th Century. The canal was a very early contour following waterway which was designed by the great canal engineer James Brindley. Work on the canal started in Longford and worked in both directions, reaching the Coventry Basin on the 10th August 1769 – 250 years ago this year!

The warehouses, were built in four phases between 1787 and 1914. They were built along Warwick Row, which at that time was the main road from Coventry to Leicester.

The Canal Warehouses were Grade II listed in March 1985 as part of the scheme. The listing particulars mention that the building was still in scaffold at the time of the listing.

The Architect for the project was Ken Holmes, a Coventry based practice best known for a number of Churches in the city. They were not known as conservation architects but quickly rose to the challenge.

The builders were another local firm called Sutches. Alan Dyer recalls the high level of skills shown by the old craftsmen, many of whom were nearing retirement age. They worked on the old timbers and created replica ones where the originals were beyond repair using ancient tools such as adzes.

They had 25 men working on the building for two years and old Mr Sutch retired after the Warehouse restoration.

The restoration of the buildings was relatively modest. The original wooden structure was restored and strengthened and the building was made watertight and liveable and most importantly the pigeons were given their marching order.

 

I remember well the official launch of the restored warehouses by Princess Margaret in 1987. When I turned up there were Police and divers everywhere, checking the drains and the canal for explosives. However I just walked in and nobody asked me what I was doing there.

We were under instructions from the Palace not to provide any alcohol for the Princess and instead we gave her a huge glass of lemon barley water. However when the press wasn’t looking Alison Lambert took her into one of the studios and gave her a nice G&T.

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Left to right: Alan Dyer, Princess Margaret, Mandy Havers and Brian Saunders

Alan recalls that the Princess lit up a cigarette at the reception. Her bodyguard walked over to the photographer and put his hand over the lens and said, “Princess Margaret doesn’t smoke”.

One inhabitant of the building, according to Alan is a ghost. “I’ve heard furniture being moved about in a room above mine which was definitely empty and padlocked. A medium visited the Warehouse and without being told about him she identified him as a worker who had fallen down into the loading bay and was killed. We are now used to hearing things being moved in empty rooms. Depends if you believe in ghosts, of course, but this one is quite benign but a bit noisy.

“The ghost has put in another appearance recently. This time watched by people on two narrowboats. He was a middle-aged man in worker’s overalls walking along the quayside carrying a shovel. They watched him till he got to the original end of the building and then he vanished. Spooky!!! But he’s a very friendly presence.”

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So what is the justification for saying that this is one of the most successful conservation projects in the city? Well, firstly it was a modest project which restored the buildings without damaging the historic fabric. Some people, who ought to know better, have argued that the buildings should have been converted to restaurants and bars to bring visitors into the Canal Basin. Well you can imagine the damage to the buildings if they had been converted in this way.

Secondly the restoration project has been sustainable. More than thirty years after the completion of the restoration the buildings are still in use doing the same job they were restored for and currently house over 40 artists, designers and craftspeople, besides a thriving canoe club and model railway club. Although not making huge sums of money, the income generated has ensured that the buildings have been maintained, that leaks from the canal have been kept under control and the building is still fit for the future.

Thirdly the project has provided affordable accommodation for several generations of young artists, allowing them to stay in the city and share their artistic skills with us. Unlike many conservation projects, the beneficiaries have been people on low income.

You might disagree, but in my opinion this was a very successful conservation project.

John Payne

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