CovSoc Visits the City Walls and Burges

Twenty four fortunate CovSoc members were able to attend a city centre visit on the day that lock-down was eased, Monday 17th May. This is the first members’ visit since 2019.

The visit was hosted by the Historic Coventry Trust and led by Carol Pyrah the Executive Director of the Trust. She was assisted by Graham Tait, Assistant Director and Francesca Marsland, the Heritage Engagement Co-ordinator. Trust Chairman Ian Harrabin also joined us on the tour.  The group split into three and visited the two city gates and the Burges / Hales Street area.

The City Gates

Completed around 1385, Cook Street Gate was one of the earlier gates to be built. Swanswell Gate was completed a little later in 1440 and was then known as Priory Gate, having originally served as the entrance to the prior’s land. At over two miles (3.2km) long, 12 foot (3.6m) high and nine foot (2.7m) thick the city wall was an impressive fortification, and Coventry was regarded as the best protected city in the country outside of London.

During the English Civil War Coventry supported the Parliamentarians, and even denied Charles I entry into the city in 1642. As a result, after the restoration in 1662 Charles II ordered Coventry’s city walls to be destroyed. The walls were torn down, but the 12 gatehouses were left intact and many were converted into houses. With the city’s 18th and 19th-century expansion the other gatehouses were gradually lost, leaving only Cook Street and Swanswell still standing.

Swanswell Gate was converted into a cottage in the mid 19th century and has subsequently been used as a shop, an artist’s studio and a hub for the West Midlands police. Both gates were restored in the early 20th century by city philanthropist, Alfred Herbert who also created the surrounding garden in memory of his second wife, Florence.

With support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Coventry City Council Cultural Capital Fund, Coventry & Warwickshire LEP and the Architectural Heritage Fund, Historic Coventry Trust is currently restoring both buildings, removing them from the Historic England Heritage at Risk Register. In addition to sympathetic repairs, each gate is being internally adapted to holiday apartments, giving guests the opportunity to closely experience a special part of the city’s history.

We were not able to enter Cook Street Gate as the stairs have not yet been constructed. However we had a thorough tour of Swanswell Gate. We were impressed by the quality of the workmanship and the attention to detail. It is anticipated that the work will be completed within the next two months and the Trust will then rent out the accommodation to interested people.

The Trust are also working with the City Council to get Lady Herbert’s Garden back into active public use and to reduce the vandalism and antisocial  behaviour there.

Burges and Hales Street

Burges is a medieval street which once ran north from Coventry’s marketplace and Hales Street was created in 1848. This historic area has been restored as the national demonstrator project for Historic England’s High Street Heritage Action Zone programme.

Burges is one of the few traditional historic high street areas surviving in Coventry.

The name “Burges” probably derives from “Between the Bridges”, first documented in 1223, and the two bridges were located at either end of the street; crossing the Radford Brook to the north, and the River Sherbourne to the south. The area was known as St John’s Bridge from the early 1300s and from the 1860s as Burges.

Historic maps show the buildings laid out in characteristic medieval ‘burgage plots’; with shops and houses fronting onto the marketplace and narrow strips of land behind containing outbuildings and gardens. Palmer Lane is documented as early as 1225 and was where pilgrims lodged when visiting St Mary’s Priory. “Palmer” comes from the palms, Christian symbols that pilgrims used to carry. Today it contains the only visible stretch of the now culverted River Sherbourne.

The medieval streetscape of Coventry remained largely unchanged for centuries as the long medieval burgage plots were gradually filled in with smaller court dwellings. In 1794 Burges was widened; the shop fronts on the eastern side of the street were rebuilt in brick, hiding the earlier timber framed buildings behind the new façades. The library wing of the Old Grammar School was demolished around 1800 and its gardens were lost when Hales Street was built in 1848.

Road improvements for the congested city in the early 1930s saw the demolition of the western side of The Burges, as well as the medieval timber framed buildings along Butcher Row, for the construction of Trinity Street. During the Second World War (1939–45) air raids damaged several buildings.

Many of the buildings are locally listed and they all sit within Lady Herbert’s Garden and The Burges Conservation Area. By 2019 many of the buildings were in poor condition, with modern shopfronts, replacement windows and external security shutters. In May 2019, Historic England provided a grant of £2million to support regeneration of the area, building on an existing grant with funding from Coventry City Council. This project was the national demonstrator for Historic England’s £93million High Street Heritage Action Zone programme.

Working closely with the Coventry BID and local owners and businesses, the Trust developed designs for repair and restoration of the buildings and started work on site in February 2020. A year later and the street has been transformed, with new roofs, restored sash windows, repaired historic shopfronts and new shopfronts using traditional designs and materials. At least seven of the businesses have invested in major internal refurbishment to complement the scheme.

As well as looking at the scheme we called down Palmer Lane to look at the rear of Burges and see the area which is shortly to be de-culverted and converted into an attractive landscaped area.

Join the Coventry Society to participate in the next society visit, to the Charterhouse, on 14th June.

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