A building of surprises was the description offered as Coventry Society members began their latest visit to the city’s Charterhouse. And so it proved.
A team of guides, led by the Historic Coventry Trust’s executive director Carol Pyrah and Charterhouse general manager Hannah Jones, were able to point to a number of recent discoveries on a fascinating tour of the fourteenth century monastery and its gardens.
Fragments of wall painting have emerged as corridor walls have been stripped of plaster. Unsuspected doorways have been revealed as post-medieval alterations to the building are removed and in the gardens extensive archaeology has thrown up a whole raft of surprises, including, possibly, the location of the chapter house used by the Carthusian monks to conduct their business. Excavations have even uncovered a medieval tile with the paw print of a medieval dog still imprinted on it.
The Charterhouse will open to visitors this autumn and there is still a huge amount of work to do as the contractors try to catch up after a year lost to the pandemic. But it’s already clear that the Grade I listed complex is going to be another jewel in Coventry’s heritage crown.
No other surviving Charterhouse in this country has any interior decoration, but Coventry’s wall paintings, a Crucifixion from the monastic period and heraldic images painted for its sixteenth century owner, the Earl of Leicester, are among the finest found anywhere.
As Carol Pyrah says, this is not a place with a collection of furniture to display, nor is it a museum. For visitors, the first introduction on entering the Charterhouse will be a timeline recounting its compelling story, both as a monastic community founded in the 1380s and later as a private house. Upstairs rooms will feature extensive interpretation on the building and the monastic order that created it and on its wall paintings, while there are plans to replicate the paintings on the ground floor, where it has proved impossible to construct full disability access to them.
Now that the roof has been completed and the building stabilised, work is well under way on the Charterhouse interior, with a new oak floor being installed in one room and bespoke wooden windows waiting to be installed in another.
In the autumn, work will start on the coachhouse, where top chef Glyn Purnell intends to open a high-end restaurant next year, and it is hoped that he will also be the guiding spirit for a visitors’ cafe now under construction in the Victorian wing of the main building.
Raised beds are now being installed in the gardens, as part of a project to replicate some of the work of eighteenth century horticulturist and diarist John Whittingham, who ran a well-known nursery from the Charterhouse. It’s hoped as well that at least one monk’s cell can be recreated around the cloister, where archaeologists have now identified more original medieval stonework than expected, some of it, intriguingly, in the shape of doorways.
The Charterhouse complex, inside its listed fourteenth century boundary wall, will have a number of functions, as well as being a visitor centre. It will be licensed for weddings and there are plans for a new-build conference centre close by. A place that for generations of Coventrians has appeared to be merely a lost part of the city’s story, is about to come back to life.
Text – Peter Walters, Photos – Trevor Cornfoot