Walking Backwards No 8. From Earlsdon Avenue to ‘Ation’ corner

Today we have the eighth episode of Peter Walter’s series of lockdown walks “being a compendium of idle facts, hidden places and meaningless historiana gathered on walks within easy striding distance of the writer’s abode – and beyond”.

In 1915, the good folk of Earlsdon decided the time had finally come to cut down the last tree standing on the winding old country lane that had become Earlsdon Avenue.

It wasn’t a surprise. The motoring age was already nearly twenty years old. It had been more than ten years since a young man living locally had become the first person in Coventry convicted for driving too fast in an automobile. Yet the mature elm tree was standing, not on the pavement but actually in the roadway.

The tree being removed (photo courtesy of David Fry)

This kind of stiff-necked refusal to bow to changing times may well have been the sort of thing that led other Coventrians to think up a disrespectful label for Earlsdon folk, ‘All Brown Boots And No Breakfast.’

It was a dig at the watchmaking community that came to dominate Earlsdon in the decades after 1852, when thirty-two acres purchased from cow dealer William Pickering were laid out as its first eight streets. Watchmakers were a conservative breed, intensely proud of their craft, and felt themselves a cut above other artisans, notably weavers. They would indeed possess a second pair of boots, brown for Sundays, even if it meant going hungry.

These days, Earlsdon central shows little of the old farming landscape from which it sprang. On Earlsdon Street itself, café tables and chairs have replaced the neat front gardens, with their roses and railings, that once gave it a country village feel.

Earlsdon High Street (photo David Fry)

Arden Street may bear the name of a legendary forest, but its most intriguing historical feature is perhaps the old police station, where in cells out the back ‘juvenile delinquents’ were banged up at the Chief constable’s pleasure during the First World War. Round the corner, in Clarendon Street, when Rotherhams’ foreman Arthur Morgan had a house built for him in 1895, he could look out over field and brook to Hearsall Common. Now there are other streets in the way.

And so on to ‘Ation’ corner, where Earlsdon Avenue sweeps down the hill to the roundabout at the top of Albany Road. Old Earlsdon folk reckoned that if you stood here and took in all four corners of the junction you’d see Education (Earlsdon School), Co-operation (Earlsdon’s original Co-op store), Damnation (City Arms) and finally Salvation (Earlsdon Methodist Church). Must have made sense at the time.

Coventry Synagogue

Coventry Synagogue in Barras Lane

One 21st July two small groups from the CovSoc committee took an interesting tour of Coventry Synagogue, courtesy of Avi Tjordman.

The building is badly affected by dry rot and some of the floors are missing. Interestingly the original Victorian part of the building is largely unaffected by the rot, but extensions and work carried out to modernize the building in the 1960s are the worst affected parts. The rot has also spread into the adjoining Rabbi’s house.  

The building was designed by Birmingham architect Thomas Naden in the Romanesque style and was opened in September 1870. It was constructed by Coventry builders Messrs. Hallam and Co. The stained glass was supplied by Mr. Holland, of Warwick. The total cost of the building and the opening event was £1,365, which was described as being “on a modest scale, according to a limited budget”.

The official opening of the Synagogue was reported in full in the Coventry Standard. The first official words spoken as its doors opened for the first time were “Open to me the gates of righteousness; I will enter them and praise the Lord”. The opening was followed by a banquet in St. Mary’s Hall attended by all the city’s dignitaries.

The Synagogue closed in 2003.

Since June 2009 the building has been Grade II Listed. The official listing details describe the reasons for listing as follows: “This is a good survival of a rare building type – a Victorian provincial synagogue. It is largely intact and retains its original seating, ark alcove and bimah. The architectural treatment of this modest building is well-handled, with a light and spacious interior and appropriate embellishment.  The constituent parts of the original building – synagogue, rabbi’s house and vestibule – are all present.”

The Jewish community in Coventry first met in a timber-framed medieval building in the lost Great Butcher Row. This was the home of Isaac Cohen, which was demolished in 1936. They then met at rooms off Derby Lane, now also demolished, and then Fleet Street. By the middle of the C19 they were in upper rooms of a house at 16, Spon Street, and moved to Barras Lane in 1870 when the present synagogue was built, together with an adjacent rabbi’s house.

At that time there were only around fifty men and boys, and by 1890 the congregation had shrunk to just six contributing members. It closed shortly afterwards, but re-opened in 1906, though still struggling numerically. By 1964 the Jewish population was around 240, but numbers appear to have dwindled since then.

The building had a Mikveh (ritual bath) in the basement of the hall, which is now disused and had been boarded over. Post-war alterations to the gallery and a reconstruction of the porch and vestibule were carried out by G.N. Jackson in 1964. [Sharman Kadish, Jewish Heritage in England: An architectural guide, (2006), 123-4]

Avi Tordjman, a local businessman and enthusiastic supporter of Jewish heritage, is gradually restoring the building and has started by creating safe routes with bridges across where the floor is missing. There are covenants on the building which limit its use to the Orthodox Jewish community

The following photographs give an impression of the current state of the Synagogue.

Elvis and the Cathedral

The following interesting story was written by CovSoc member Martin Williams, the Chairman of the Friends of Coventry Cathedral and was published in his monthly e-newsletter. It is re-published here with his kind permission.

Elvis Presley died on the 16th August 1977.  Three days later the chairman of the Elvis Presley Fan Club in Coventry, Ron West, telephoned the Cathedral offices with a request.

  “I am a bus driver by trade, but I am speaking on behalf of the local Elvis Presley fans. He died the other day. We want to hold a service in his memory tonight, and I am asking if the Cathedral can help us.”

 The call was put through to Canon Joseph Poole, who later wrote that two thoughts flashed into his mind as he listened. “What an honour for the Cathedral to be invited by these people to help them”; and “Of course, we must help them if we can.”

Ron explained that the service was to be held in The Climax Inn, a Coventry city centre pub, at 9.15pm that night. Canon Poole agreed to meet him there.

Dressed in his distinctive grey Coventry Cathedral cassock and wearing his black coat and hat, Canon Poole arrived promptly trailing members of the Cathedral youth club behind him. The Climax was packed. The Chairman was behind the bar pulling pints but as soon as introductions were over he thrust forward a microphone in the direction of his visitor, banged loudly on the bar and shouted – ”Silence, please, we’re going to have a service.”

Canon Poole spoke over the microphone of the ways in which the music of Elvis had helped many young people to conquer the hell of loneliness which weighed just as heavily with the young then as it does today.  “Elvis banished this loneliness.   Their admiration of him, and their affection for him, bound them together, millions of them all over the world, into a company of people who no longer felt alone.”

He read from the “Last Poems” of A E Housman – “The rain, it streams on stone and hillock…”

That was followed by Psalm 130 – “Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord…”

And before the blessing a simple prayer – “Grant, O Lord God, that the soul of thy servant ELVIS who at thy bidding has left this world, may rest in thy peace and protection, and reign in thy kingdom in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” 

Canon Poole recalled – “When I had finished speaking, there was silence still, a silence which lasted for some time.  Then a very strange thing happened. There was a sharp outburst of clapping, as sharp as rifle fire. Never before, in all my life, had I heard Divine Service applauded.”

A reporter from The Coventry Evening Telegraph was present and wrote:

“Weeping Elvis Presley fans packed a Coventry city centre pub to pay a touching farewell to their idol, who died on August 16. Hundreds were turned away from The Climax pub in The Arcade, as teddy boys and rock’n’roll fans mourned the death of the star.

  “An evening of non-stop Presley music was halted for a ten-minute service, given by Canon Joseph Poole, the Precentor.

 “It was a stupendous evening,” said Ron West, president of the Bootlace Club who organised the evening.   “During the service there was weeping everywhere and afterwards the emotion was so great that there was a spontaneous minute’s silence.”

Martin writes… I am telling this story not only because I am a fan of early rock and roll, but because the service is mentioned in a recently published book – Cymbals and Dances. Canon Joseph Poole, our former Precentor, is the author, and his work is published for the first time in 2022 through the efforts of his family and friends.

Joseph Poole was described by Provost Bill Williams as “the greatest liturgist in the Church of England this century.” He devised experimental services for Coventry Cathedral that introduced into worship many actions in services that we take for granted today. He believed in the importance of involving laity in worship, so during the Communion around the high altar lay representatives stood alongside the celebrant. 

The Peace was first tried in Coventry Cathedral as an experiment; we now take it as read. “In so many ways, Joseph’s extraordinary liturgical imagination prefigures much of the liturgical developments within the Church of England in recent years, and for this, and for much else, we here in Coventry feel rightly proud, as well as deeply thankful.” (Canon Adrian Daffern, Precentor 2003-2010)

The new book explains what church liturgy means and explores ways in which the church’s historic and traditional prayers can be adapted to modern language use and can achieve even greater impact today.   The book includes examples and anecdotes.

Cymbals and Dances costs £22 and copies are available at the Cathedral sales desk or they can be ordered direct from the Poole family at – cymbalsanddances@gmail.com.

Canon Poole photo guide (left to right): Canon Poole conducted the first baptism to use the Bethlehem font. He is seen relaxing on the Cathedral Choir’s visit to Ottobeuren, and also speaking with a member of the Cathedral Choir that he founded. The photographer caught both Canon Poole and his wife, Judith, at a social gathering in St Mary’s Hall.

Walking Backwards No 7. Up Woodway Lane to the Boat Inn

Today we have the seventh episode of Peter Walter’s series of lockdown walks “being a compendium of idle facts, hidden places and meaningless historiana gathered on walks within easy striding distance of the writer’s abode – and beyond”.

A ferret has gone missing in the hedge line where the M6 motorway rubs shoulders with the Oxford Canal, and on every upright post is plastered the owner’s laminated mobile phone number, pleading for it back.

As this was traditionally mining country, it’s tempting to ruminate on that old stereotype, a collier’s love for his ferret. But the mines that once scoured this landscape, Wyken Main, Craven and Alexandra, disappeared two generations ago. Now this corner of north Coventry edgeland has reverted to an older name, Sowe Common, and is part of an eight-mile swathe of riverside walk and nature reserve that loops down the eastern side of the city to Whitley.

In horse-drawn days, Woodway Lane plodded on to meet Shilton Lane and Lenton’s Lane at a junction with a string of houses but no name. These days, it’s intersected by the M6, thunderous even in lockdown but oddly absorbing from thirty feet above.

Bridge 9 on the North Oxford Canal

From the green pedestrian bridge over the motorway it’s only yards to Sowe Bridge No 9, one of several old bridges crossing the Oxford Canal in quick succession. The canal itself inches along, the colour of chicken soup, undisturbed by boat or paddle. But it’s companionable on the towpath, among strangers, and social distanced conversations leap from tai chi and Leofric, Earl of Marcia and his missus, to the location of Wyken Main colliery. Where was the old pit, which had been going for more than a hundred years and employed 400 men when it closed in 1910?

Somewhere in the fields behind the Boat Inn, apparently. The pub, once a line of mid-Victorian cottages, is today a good distance away from any water, despite the name, and the modern industrial estates of Alderman’s Green separate it from Wyken Pool, formed by mining subsidence from the old colliery in the middle of the nineteenth century and now the biggest expanse of open water in Coventry.

Wyken Slough Nature Reserve

Even in this landscape, with its canalside hedges of hawthorn and its memories of old industries, the modern world intrudes. An official notice tacked to a lamp post informs us all that BT wants to put up a ‘telecommunications pole’ in the vicinity, presumably to improve the wi-fi round here. But maybe not everybody approves.

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security”, proclaims another, marginally less official-looking notice which has, during our walk, mysteriously materialised on another canalside post.

The words of America’s founding father Benjamin Franklin leave a powerful impression, but there’s no further explanation. Are they aimed at BT or at the government for its lockdown? Or has it got something to do with that ferret?

Coming Soon – City Centre South!

The article was written by Coventry Society member Mark Cook, following an invitation to give an ambulatory presentation as part of the “Arts and the urban commons: new visions for a phoenix city” symposium organised by Spatial Practices in Art and ArChitecture for Empathic EXchange (SPACEX) at the LTB Showrooms in early July. Mark led a group of about 60 people on a short walk and exploration of the area between Bull Yard and City Arcade.

Mark explains the listed Michell sculpture in Bull Yard

Bull Yard, Shelton Square, City Arcade, Market Way… soon to become “City Centre South”

The area around The Litten Tree is due to change. All the current buildings in City Arcade, Market Way, Shelton Square, Bull Yard and the bottom half of the west side of Hertford Street will disappear to be replaced by a major redevelopment under the working name of “City Centre South”, to be carried out by a singe developer.

At the other end of Greyfriars Green (which is a Conservation area) lies the nearly completed expansion of Coventry station (The 60s building is listed) and the struggling redevelopment of Station Square as the Friargate business quarter, but let’s not get distracted by that…

It’s a huge part of the city centre, and, as the main pedestrian gateway from the railway station, one with massive impact on the city.

“City Centre South” gives us an opportunity to reflect on change in the area: how and why it happens, and with what consequences.

It’s not the first such proposal in recent times. In 2009 Jerde Partnership produced a masterplan for the next 15-20 years that, with across the board relief, was scuppered by the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

The Back Story

Medieval

Once the growing city of Coventry was walled, most of the area we are looking at lay outside the city walls built between the 14th and 16th Centuries. Greyfriars Gate lay at the junction of Greyfriars and Warwick Lanes, unsurprisingly, providing a provided route to and from Warwick. The reason for this was that the land outside the wall flooded regularly “Poddy Fields”

Georgian and Victorian

The walls and most of the gates were demolished by the mid C18th, partly to improve transport links, and in the 1830s, Greyfriars Lane was “bypassed “ by the wider Hertford Street, leading straight to Broadgate. The City’s miltary barracks were established behind Hertford Street and Smithford Street.

The coming of the railways followed, and changed the focus of Greyfriars Green, that now formed what we could describe as Coventry’s bourgeois Villa quarter towards and around the new railway station.

Twentieth Century

Behind the façade of Warwick Row, next to the Barracks, arose one of Coventry’s early cycle factories. By this time improved drainage enabled more building, although flooding occurred well into the C20th. The cycle industry developed though motorbikes to cars. It’s tempting to imagine the new market in the Villa dwellers that Rover may have had in mind when they built their car showroom on Warwick Row, before the first World War. The existing factory lay behind the showroom.

That building was bought by the City Council to act as the food and rations office during World War two. It also hosted the emerging City Architects department. When Donald Gibson left the building for Broadgate House, he had it converted into a 1950s store to match his architecture elsewhere in the city centre.

Post World War two

Part of the Gibson plan was to separate land use into zones and move heavy industry out of the city centre. The Barracks had been used as an outdoor market since the 1920s and kept that use until the new circular market was built, it was replaced by a multi-story car park. A new City Arcade was built next to the new market. This phase of redevelopment was led by Arthur Ling as City Architect, a far more modern approach than Gibson, more in line with Gordon Cullen’s “Townscapes”. He added Shelton Square and Bull Yard to the area, and continued Gibson’s commitment to the incorporation of public art.

Looking at Shelton Square

The completion of the pedestrianisation of Hertford Street was left to the next City Architect, Terence Gregory.

Suggested reading

Coventry The making of a modern city 1939-73, Jeremy and Caroline Gould, Historic England (2016).

Coventry New Architecture, Grant Lewison and Rosalind Billingham (1969, out of print).

https://news.coventrysociety.org.uk/2022/06/17/city-centre-south-retail-exodus-commences/

https://tribunemag.co.uk/2021/12/coventry-capital-culture-second-world-war-modernism

https://www.dezeen.com/2018/03/12/owen-hatherley-opinion-coventry-uk-city-of-culture2021-post-war-architecture/

The group visit City Arcade

Mark Cook, June 2022

All photos courtesy of Jamie Gray, SPACEX