Hugh Dennis joins Stoke’s big dig

These days the only visible reminders of the old Biggin Hall are the street name, Biggin Hall Crescent, and the nearby pub, the Biggin Hall Hotel.

Actor and comedian Hugh Dennis caused a stir in Stoke last month when he turned up at Biggin Hall Crescent and asked residents if he could dig a hole in their gardens.

The television performer was joined by a team of archaeologists who were filming an episode of The Great British Dig: History in Your Back Garden. It appears that the team were looking for remains of the medieval Biggin Hall, which is thought to date back to the 13th century.

It is often assumed that all traces of the original buildings were long-lost and that any remaining fragments would not have survived after the area was cleared for housing.

Digging in Stoke. Photo by Kate Mottershead

The photograph shows the dig in progress, after which some of the findings went on display at the Coventry and North Warwickshire Sports Club.

We are told that archaeologists in the team, led by an expert from York University, will now be compiling a report about the dig. An episode of the programme is expected, but no date is known for the broadcast.

The series, produced by Strawberry Blond TV and commissioned by Channel 4, began earlier this year and aims to unearth the hidden history buried beneath our lawns and flower beds.

Hugh Dennis has said: “The Great British Dig is a fantastic format which combines finding out about the history of where you live and the surprising things that lie under your own back garden. It’s kind of a community archaeology project.”

Previous programmes have featured garden digs in Newcastle looking for the remains of a Roman fort, and a dig in the gardens of Masham, North Yorkshire, where the team were searching for a hidden Viking burial ground.

These days the only visible reminders of the old Biggin Hall are the street name, Biggin Hall Crescent, and the nearby pub, the Biggin Hall Hotel.

John Marshall

Biggin Hall – not just the name of a pub

The Biggin Hall Hotel today: Grade II listed Photo: John Marshall

To the Stoke folk who enjoy a pint of Marston’s Pedigree at the Biggin Hall, it’s a fine local pub. But few of the drinkers at the pub with the funny name – why Biggin? – will know that it is associated with history stretching all the way back to the Domesday Book.

Biggin, also written as Bigging, is thought to come from a Scandinavian word for habitation or building. And the ancient parish of Stoke was originally made up of two hamlets, Stoke itself, and Bigging. The Domesday Book records that land there was held by someone called Thorkil who in turn sub-divided it between Wulfric and the more modern-sounding Ralph.

Some time in the Middle Ages a large moated house, the original Biggin Hall, was built near what is now the junction of Biggin Hall Crescent and Lindley Road.

It may have been the house of the Deyville family in the 13th century, but nothing is known of its occupants until the 17th century when William Partridge, a doctor, lived there. By 1766 it was owned by the drapers’ company of Coventry and let to a farmer.

Farming stopped there in the early 19th century and in 1817 some excavations were carried out at the site, and traces of an ancient building and a chapel were found.

By that time what was left of the hall was used for meetings and by the Sunday school.

It was demolished after 1840 and by about 1885 only part of the moat and a cow-shed marked the site. The Biggin Hall pub was built in 1923, some 430 yards from the original building. And as the area was developed for housing, all traces of hundreds of years of history gradually disappeared. All that’s left is the funny name thanks to the pub which, fortunately, is now recognised as special, and not just by its regulars.

Six years ago Historic England awarded it a grade II listing because of its features including its large inglenook fireplace. Listing gives it the protection that the original hall never had. But will it last for as long? Only time will tell.

Charles Barker.

Information from The Illustrated History of Coventry’s Suburbs by David McGrory (Breedon Books, 2003 – re-issued in a second edition by DB Publishing, 2018) and The History of Stoke by The Rev TA Blyth (1897). This is a slightly updated version of an article first published in Avenews, the Stoke Park residents’ newsletter, in May 2018.

A fine example of Brewers’ Tudor style

The Biggin Hall Hotel, named after the medieval Biggin Hall, is a fine example of a new style of urban pub architecture that surfaced in Britain during the inter-war years.

It seems that licensing authorities in the 1920s had grown tired of traditional boozers, with their Victorian and Edwardian reputation for drunkenness and disorder.

Something new, more respectable, was required, and brewers were quick to adopt an “improved” style of public house, more fitting for the growth of middle class suburbia.

According to English Heritage, these better class public houses were generally more spacious than their predecessors, often with restaurant facilities, function rooms and gardens, and were consciously designed to appeal to families and a mix of social classes.

Biggin Hall Hotel can be seen in the centre of this photograph of Binley Road in 1926. Photo courtesy of Rob Orland

Their key target, clearly, was the respectable middle class family, rather than the heavy-drinking working man.

The Biggin Hall Hotel, opened in 1923, was typical of the new style. It was designed in 1921 by the architect Thomas Francis Tickner for the brewery Marston, Thompson & Evershed.

Tickner was based in Coventry and designed a number of buildings in the area, including the main Portland stone Memorial in the city’s War Memorial Park.

His design for the Biggin was in keeping with the fashionable style of the period, which became known as “Brewers’ Tudor”, incorporating as it did an extravagant mock-Tudor grandeur.

“This style reached its height of popularity in the 1920s and 1930s,” says English Heritage, and “was intended to evoke romantic notions of a Merrie England and employed half-timbering and internal wooden panelling.

“Although the Biggin Hall Hotel did not provide overnight accommodation, by calling it a hotel, it was considered to have status and respectability, broadening the class of its clientele.”

This part of Stoke was growing rapidly during the period, with new housing and nearby industry, particularly the GEC which became a major employer. The Biggin Hall Hotel sat neatly within this newly established suburbia, with its mix of social classes. It had a touch of elegance and a feeling of urban affluence.

Opposite the pub at that time was the Triumph Recreation Ground, which included a cricket pitch, tennis courts and a club house. This area, too, was later developed for housing.

John Marshall

These three stories appeared in the September 2021 edition of the newsletter of the Stoke Local History Group.

Affordable Very Light Rail Track Unveiled

The new track was launched at a conference at Warwick University

VLR takes a step forward.

We have reported previously on the project to create a Very Light Rail (VLR) network for the city. The project took a step forward last week with the showcasing of the new track system.

The Warwick Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick and its partner Ingerop and UK subsidiary Rendel have successfully created, designed and built the novel track form. It is designed to sit just 30 cm inside the road surface. This makes it easy to install and remove, significantly reducing the impact on utilities. This potentially could save millions of pounds lost to excavation and moving gas, electrical and telecommunication systems. The new track is expected to cost as little as £10m per km compared to current tram tracks, which can cost upwards of £25m per km, and up to £100m per km in city centre locations.

The track form has been developed in parallel to a zero-emission, battery-powered lightweight shuttle vehicle developed in partnership with TDI, which will  become autonomous, working like the London Underground system, where there is no timetable and passengers can hop on and off.

The vehicle is lightweight, and there will be no overhead power supply which is both costly and can have a negative impact to the city-scape.

Councillor Jim O’Boyle, cabinet member for jobs, regeneration and climate change believes that Very Light Rail has the potential to transform public transport in Coventry and in smaller and medium sized towns and cities, enabling the next generation of clean, green transport.

Coventry VLR is being led by Coventry City Council and supported by a number of partners, including the Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership, Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership, Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council and the European Regional Development Fund.

CovSoc’s Response to the Council’s Proposed Destruction of the Coundon Wedge

Two weeks ago, we reported on the consultation being carried out on the City Council’s proposal to build 350 houses on the Coundon Wedge. Below is the response to the consultation submitted by the Coventry Society:

“The Coventry Society objects to the proposed development on the Coundon Wedge. We recognize that the site is identified for housing in the Coventry Local Plan but as the site is owned by the Council it is not obligatory that it is developed and the development proposal could be withdrawn or delayed until a later year. Our comments are as follows:

  • The Coventry Local Plan is due to be reviewed in 2022. There is considerable doubt about the population projections for the city and recently some questions have been raised about the transport modelling. It is therefore untimely in the extreme to be putting this site forward for development now.
  • There is no shortage of building land in the North West of the city. The local plan makes provision for the development of 5500 houses in Keresley and Eastern Green and planning permissions have already been granted for some of this development with larger numbers than stated in the local plan. There is therefore no pressing need to build on the Coundon Wedge at this time.
  • The city already has a significant number of Brown Field sites that should be developed before taking pristine agricultural land for development. There is already a five-year building land supply in the city and therefore the development of this precious site at this time is not necessary or appropriate.
  • The Coundon Wedge is precious, important and significant to the residents of the NW of the city and in the city as a whole. We were not happy that the land was taken out of the Green Belt to enable the extension of Jaguar, but we understood the importance of that company for the city’s economy – it was a special case. However, developing that land for housing, especially when so much other land is available, does not have the same justification. In our opinion the Local Plan was at fault in allocating the land for development. The Jaguar reservation should not have been seen as a precedent for development.
  • The land in question is attractive Arden landscape with considerable ecological value. The City Council is prominent in the development of strategy to address climate change. Foregoing the development of this site would be a demonstration of that commitment.
  • The development of this site will bring the Council into disrepute and damage its reputation for integrity and environmental care.”

If you share our concern for the Coundon Wedge we hope that you will make your own comments on the proposals. The consultation is open until until Sunday 10th October. You can access the online consultation and make online comments at:

https://letstalk.coventry.gov.uk/brownslane

There is more information that can be downloaded from:

https://letstalk.coventry.gov.uk/6555/widgets/28015/documents/14915

Planning Reforms – postponed or cancelled?

The Government’s planning reforms” Planning for the Future”, proposed last year, are now on hold. Despite there not being any official announcement, articles in the national and professional planning press indicate that the Government has slammed on the brakes. The recent sacking of Robert Jenrick and his replacement by Michael Gove further signals a U-turn.

The current government regularly excoriates the planning system for delaying house building and frustrating their target of 300,000 houses built each year. Thus in the foreword to the planning white paper last year – which proposed radical changes to the planning regime – Boris Johnson said that Britain’s planning system is “outdated and ineffective….a relic from the middle of the 20th century” that was artificially constraining the country’s potential, preventing homes being built, businesses expanding and people moving to where they could get the best jobs. The Government proposed a “radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War”. The reforms were said to be central to the Government’s commitment to “build back better” after the pandemic, and its mission to level up the regions.

The planning system, in place since 1947, was to be abandoned and replaced by a zonal system of allocating land for growth, renewal or protection, a new process of applying for planning permission, and very severely constrained opportunities for residents to object to new houses. The Government was to give each Council a mandatory housing target for inclusion in their local plans.

Every government since the 1970’s has promised to ease planning restrictions and every government has bowed before the democratic imperative of voters not liking it. In the current case there has been a threefold retreat. First, in December last year, Tory MP’s rebelled against a “mutant algorithm” that led to a disproportionate increase in construction in the Party’s south-east heartlands. Robert Jenrick announced an update which would push housebuilding into the biggest twenty cities (including Coventry). Second, the voters of Chesham and Amersham, in delivering a victory for the Liberal-Democrats, spoke for residents across the south of England in their opposition to allowing developers to choose where to build (often the green belt), rather than through more democratic plan-making, and to Jenrick’s Stalinist national plan for statutory housebuilding targets for every English council. And thirdly, Robert Jenrick has been sacked for causing all this consternation in the Tory party.

It is not as if the Government hasn’t been advised. Their own Oliver Letwin in his independent report of 2018 on how to close the significant gap between housing completions and the amount of land allocated or permitted for housing found that rather than the planning system holding back development the biggest obstacle to new building are the volume house builders holding back projects because they don’t want an increase in the housing stock to lead to a reduction in prices.

The Coventry Society made a detailed response to the Government’s consultation on the White Paper last October. Reproduced below are the first five paragraphs of our response. Our views were similar to those of many Civic Societies, professional planning bodies and local authorities.

“The White Paper appears to us to be a solution looking for a problem. We do not have the same concerns about the current planning system as the Government’s advisers do. The wholesale restructuring of planning appears to be justified on the basis of achieving the Government‘s housing targets.  To us this seems to be a metropolitan / SE of England problem based on previous housing trends.

“The title of this white paper “Planning for the Future” is a complete misnomer. The exercise has a far more narrow focus on making more land available for housing, based not on planning for the future, but simply following past market trends. There is no vision for an alternative more sustainable future which addresses the urgent need to respond to national climate change targets.

“A recent report by the CPRE, on the basis of Government data, has demonstrated that there is brownfield land available now for the construction of 1.3 million homes, in locations that are more sustainable than building on greenfield sites as planned in the White Paper. We are concerned that the proposals in the White Paper will remove the incentive for the re-development of this brownfield land.

“If the problem is housing supply, then the solutions needed are to find mechanisms to unlock the land held by housebuilders in land banks (estimated to be sufficient for more than a million houses) and to stimulate the construction of Local Authority and Housing Association properties. The only time that the Government’s housing target has ever been met was when there was a significant local authority house building programme.

“These proposals were formulated in the pre Covid era and there is now a unique degree of uncertainty in the property and development world, the implications of which won’t become clear until we emerge at the other side of this crisis. To reshape our planning system based on a potentially outdated scenario is foolhardy. Surely there is a need to wait until the economic effects of the pandemic are more obvious, the relative strength and direction of property and investment markets clearer, and the resources of local authorities to cope with sweeping changes are defined?”

So where are we now?

Firstly, during the pandemic the Government has quietly gone about reforming planning by changing permitted development rights and the Use Classes Orders.  Individually they may not add up to much, but collectively they will change the look and feel of places – shops can be changed into houses; two stories can be added to detached blocks of flats; cafes and pubs extended onto streets, for example. The quality of the urban environment is under threat as established protections are removed.

Second, and of greater importance, we have a new Secretary of State, Michael Gove, in a newly retitled Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. From press reports, he appears to have put the white paper planning reforms on hold. However, without a ministerial statement to that effect uncertainty is created for all – local authorities, local communities and developers. The House Builders Federation still believe that they have the Governments ear and remain convinced that some of the proposals will still be delivered. In Coventry the City Council is committed to triggering a Local Plan review “no later than November 2022”. But what will be the regulatory context for it, and what (if any) housebuilding targets will be mandated for it?

Michael Gove has a proven record as a reformer – at Education , Environment, Justice and the Cabinet Office. Will planning reform be his priority? His first statement suggested otherwise: referencing the Levelling Up agenda to tackle regional inequalities he said that this is “the defining mission of the Government”. Is planning part of this?  We wait anxiously for some clarity via a Government announcement rather than leaks to the press!

Will the Mysteries ever be played again in Coventry?

CovSoc founder member Paul Maddocks reflects on this question

Engraving from a drawing by David Gee of what the Coventry Medieval Plays would have looked like.

The Coventry Mystery Plays date back to the Medieval period and are perhaps best known as the source of the Coventry Carol. Performances of the Coventry plays are first recorded in a document dating to 1392–3.

The plays have been revived many times over the years. Coventry was a centre for plays and performances during the Medieval, Elizabethan and Jacobean periods and it was known as one of the main centres in England for drama.

As Mystery Plays became more complex and popular, they required elaborate sets and holding them indoors became impractical, forcing a move outdoors, into the churchyards and public squares. The performances were combined and held annually, the presentation occurring on the 2-3 days before Corpus Christi, usually in June. Presented in English, the peak of the Mystery Plays was from 1375 to 1560.

The Festival of Britain in 1951 restarted the tradition of performing the Mysteries in Coventry, Chester and York. Coventry Cathedral started to perform the Mysteries on a very small budget, but they were more like the original performances that were done in Medieval times. Over the years they got more ambitious with the involvement of the Belgrade Theatre and having a small number of professional actors among the local cast. Special lighting and sound were introduced but it was mainly performed within the Cathedral ruins. So not really on the streets of Coventry.

The name ‘Mysteries’ has been about for many years but has slowly been forgotten since the last performances in Coventry was in 2006, which I had the good fortune to be in. It was one of the most ambitious with a large water feature down the middle of the Cathedral ruins with a water fall at the high alter end and the great flood and Noah’s ark sailed down the centre then it was loaded with animals and sailed away.

Photo of Coventry Mystery Play, Noah’s animals from the 2003 performance.

Cities like York and Chester still put on performances of the Mystery Plays so why not Coventry?

In 1987 Chester Mystery Plays became a registered charity which guaranteed to promote and produce the Chester Mystery Plays at five-yearly intervals. In 2004 medieval mystery plays were being revived at Canterbury Cathedral, starring actors Edward Woodward as God and Daniel MacPherson as Jesus, joined by a cast of 100 local people.

Photo Chester Mystery Plays in Canterbury Cathedral

Oberammergau in Bavaria, Germany, is also famous for its Mystery type plays. The town is not very large and is located on the River Ammer. It is best known for its Passion Play, presented during the first year of every decade. Originating in 1634, after the English Mystery Plays had been closed down, the Oberammergau play has dramatic text, singers and music, expanding on scenes from the Old Testament depicted for the audience by motionless actors. These scenes displayed the links between the two Testaments.

The small town needed a very special open-air theatre; it was built in 1875 and was unveiled in front of King Ludwig. Since then it has been modernised. It has 4,800 seats for viewers, and space for 1,500 local people to participate on the stage. If you happen to be in Oberammergau during the play years (2030, 2040, 2050), get a seat early as they expect half a million visitors each year. But be realistic – the Oberammergau play has a running time of 7 hours, broken only for dinner.

What has always fascinated me is the question did William Shakespeare, actor, playwright and poet see the Mystery Plays in Coventry?

The Answer is YES it looks like he did.

Shakespeare must have seen the Coventry Mystery Plays as there are numerous references to them in his works. Coventry’s Devil in the Mysteries was famous and acted as ‘Porter at the gates of Hell’ and is also recalled by ‘Drunken porter to the gates of Hell’ in Macbeth. In the mysteries, as in the quote, ‘the devil pares his nails with a wooden dagger.’ In The Tempest, Shakespeare refers to the dissolution, destruction of the great globe itself. The image of the massive paper globe being burned in Coventry’s Mystery Plays was remembered by everyone who saw it.

Hamlet’s famous advice to players, telling them not to rant and ruin the play saying ‘It out Herods Herod. Pray you avoid it’ can only allude to Coventry’s Herod in his helmet, painted face and wig and falchion sword who ranted like a mad man. In directions from the Pageants themselves, a stage direction states, ‘Here Herod ragis in the pagond and in the street also’. Coventry’s Herod in the Shearman and Taylor’s Play was remembered by all who saw him, including Shakespeare.

A falchion sword

Shakespeare was thought by some to be acting with the Queen’s Men when they played the city every year from 1585 for six years.

Coventry Mystery Plays would first be performed in St. Mary’s Guildhall to get official clearance to perform them out on the Coventry Streets. This was so that the Mayor and Council could censor any references to city council officials and well to do personalities of city society. This was due to the fact that sometimes the performances were like a pantomime with current and local references, lampooning officials.

Each guild would put on a short section of the Bible, then the action would move on to another guild who would perform their part. The plays were done on pageant wagons which were pulled around the streets stopping at different locations. Each Trade Guild would have their own pageant wagon which they would decorate and store throughout the year.

So did Shakespeare perform in Coventry?

Coventry Corporation accounts prove that the city paid for performances of different plays in St. Mary’s guildhall, sometimes also called the Council House. Amongst the different players Shakespeare is believed to have served in the Earl of Worcester’s Men when they played Coventry in 1576, 1578, 1579, 1582 and 1583. In addition, he performed with many other groups such as the Lord Chamberlain’s Players, Earl of Warwick’s players and the Earl of Essex’s Players, all of whom performed at the Guildhall.

How many times he played here we will never know. What we do know, however, is that Coventry with its Mystery Plays and regular visits from players and musicians was one of England’s great centres of culture. One intriguing thought is as Shakespeare rehearsed and played in St. Mary’s guildhall he would knowingly be surrounded by many people who inhabited and were to inhabit his plays: Richard II, the Great Talbot, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III to name a few. Probably nowhere else, in any other building he played, could he see images of all these people around him, in stained glass windows, tapestry and paintings. The question is did the Guildhall actually influence his future plays?

Shakespeare definitely played Coventry as a man and could have visited the city in his early youth. It would be nice if this fact was highlighted more in this City of Culture 2021/2022 festival.

Coventry was the catalyst of one of the greatest British playwrights and it seems a lot of his grounding and inspiration could have come from Coventry.

York Mystery Plays on the streets of York

For further information look at ‘Secret Coventry’ by David McGrory. The book goes on to tell of more accounts of performances in Coventry and other connections with William Shakespeare.

For further CovSoc articles on this subject – https://www.coventrysociety.org.uk/news/article/call-for-the-return-of-the-mystery-plays.html and https://news.coventrysociety.org.uk/2018/10/19/shakespeare-comes-back-to-coventry