HS2 on the Brink

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We have commented adversely on HS2 before. Cutting 2 out of 3 of Coventry’s fast trains to London and Birmingham as proposed by HS2 cannot be compensated by any amount of tinkering. Now it’s been admitted that the costs would be vastly more than HS2 claimed, the government has rightly commissioned a review that promises to examine every option from carrying on and spending more than it’s worth, to scrapping it totally.

Unfortunately the “independent” review was carried out by the original chair of HS2 so he could hardly criticise the bad decisions made during his tenure. The government declined to publish the review before the election but leaked details include a recommendation to go ahead despite the ludicrous cost. Boris Johnson let slip during the election campaign that it would be built.

The problem is that people in HS2/DfT who made bad decisions in the early stages cannot afford to admit they got it wrong. It will take courage to change the personnel and start again on an integrated railway worth building.

We could have agreed with the EU a derogation of the rules for interoperability that dictated continental “fat” trains and a disastrously segregated railway, due to our uniquely small loading gauge, but since we’re leaving EU anyway the government can blame EU for the mess that HS2 is in and start again with a sensible plan.

Fortunately there is an “oven-ready” plan to get everything that HS2 promised (and largely failed), and much more, with less cost and less destruction.

Colin Elliff, a retired rail engineer, treated CovSoc members to his alternative proposals a couple of years ago. See www.highspeeduk.com  It may be that Colin’s time has come after 10 years of campaigning against the painfully inept HS2. Coventry hopes so.

Walking in the Air!

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It is 31 December 1999, the eve of the new Millennium.

All over the world, computers are about to freeze, unable to cope with a date that has the figure 2 at the front. In just a few hours time, planes will come tumbling from the skies as their systems pack up, at a loss to calibrate what a new Millennium means.

And in humdrum Coventry, some lunatic has come up with the idea of celebrating this moment with a tightrope walk between two medieval spires.

Join us this New Year’s Eve as we take you back to that bizarre and unforgettable evening, twenty years ago, in the company of some of the people behind that lunatic idea.

It’s happening in Coventry Cathedral this December 31 (a Tuesday) and it begins at 5pm with a Q and A session ‘Where were you 31.12.99?’. We’ll follow that with the first screening in two decades of the films made of the tightrope walk and the celebrations that night by Coventry’s marvellous Talking Birds theatre company, set to music specially commissioned for the event and played on the Cathedral’s organ.

The whole event should be done by 6.45pm, leaving you plenty of time to get to the New Year’s Eve event of your own choosing.

It’s FREE too, although it might be wise to secure a ticket from Talking Birds website and bring a little dosh to make a donation to the Cathedral’s work towards peace and reconciliation.

As a member of the original team, yours truly will be there, trying desperately to drag from his dodgy memory some detail about what happened, in case he gets asked what he was doing on that night.

Join him and tell your friends to come too.

Peter Walters, CovSoc Committee Member

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Millenium Eve Tightrope Walk

The Flying Pioneer of the Midlands

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Stanford Hall, near Rugby, could have been one of the most important historical sites for Aviation if it was not for a tragic twist of fate.

The story begins in the 1890s when mechanical engineer Walter Gordon Wilson teamed up with Percy Sinclair Pilcher, who was a naval architect, to build an internal combustion engine light enough to power an aircraft.

Percy Pilcher was a keen glider fanatic who had already experimented with several aircraft and on 30th September 1899 he invited observers from London and the provinces to Stanford Hall. He was going to show them his new tri-wing aircraft powered by their new lightweight aero engine.

But on the day the weather was poor which made taking the new aircraft up a bit risky. So not wanting to disappoint the crowd and hopefully giving time for the weather to get better, Percy flew his ‘Hawk glider’ but at the height of about 30 feet a bamboo part of the aircraft broke causing the tail to collapse and he plunged to the ground.

Percy Pilcher was badly hurt and he died from his injuries two days later. The project was abandoned but the question is ‘would Percy have flown the Tri-winged aircraft some days before to make sure it worked before showing it off in front of the London official observers?’. The demonstration was intended as a serious attempt to show the assembled potential investors just what his flying machines could do.

Logic suggests that he would almost certainly have tested the powered tri-plane to ensure that it performed as he wanted before displaying it publicly, especially to an invited audience of notables. Sadly no photographs were taken of this event and with the lack of independent observers it was not recorded as the first man-powered flight. It would be a full three years before Orville Wright flew the world’s first successful airplane, the ‘Wright Flyer’ on 17th December, 1903.

Lawrie Watts, an artist from Coventry whose work appeared in various technical journals, was very interested in Percy Pilcher ever since he was an apprentice at Armstrong-Whitworth, where the apprentices were detailed to make a replica of Percy’s ‘Hawk’ glider. When it was finished around 1953 it was presented to Lady Bray and hung in the stables at Stanford Hall near where Pilcher had had his workshop.  It’s still there!

Lawrie became the Curator of the Museum and was involved with restoring the glider fifty years afterwards in 2003. In 2004 the BBC TV programme ‘Horizon’ did a film about the Percy Pilcher story. They took the replica ‘Hawk’ Glider out of the museum and into the grounds of Stanford Hall and filmed it attached to a cable (invisibly) suspended from a crane. An actor dressed for the part, impressed everyone by quickly learning how to guide the ‘Hawk’ by moving his body weight, just as Percy Pilcher would have done.

A full size model of the Tri-winged airplane was made and filmed flying along a runway at Cranfield during filming of the BBC documentary in 2004, see photograph. Due to it not having a full airworthiness certificate it was not allowed to take off or go any higher than a few centimetres off the ground, but it did fly. The reason the BBC got involved was due to a very well written and researched book called ‘Another Icarus’ by Aeronautical specialist Phillip Jarrett. This chronicled Percy’s life and the documentary was based on this. They wanted to see if Percy could have been the first man to use powered flight: if so it would make Stanford Hall famous in Aviation history.

One of our committee members, Les Fawcett, is a volunteer  at the Community Growers Scheme at Stanford Hall and is proposing a society visit there next summer. If we include a tour of the Grade 1 listed hall there’s a hefty £8 fee per person to cover the guide. Alternatively we could visit the grounds for a smaller fee and see everything but the interior of the hall, guided by the head grower. Which would members prefer?

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Happy 200th Birthday to Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot)

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As the bi-centennial year of the birth of Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot, draws to a close there is still time to see an exhibition about her life at the Herbert Museum and until 5th January you can see the original manuscript of one of her most famous works, Middlemarch.

The Herbert are Celebrating George Eliot’s 200-year birthday with a new display featuring the original manuscript for one of her most famous works, Middlemarch, on loan from the British Library as part of the ‘Treasures on Tour’ programme.

To highlight the famous author’s connection to Coventry, the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum exhibits this work alongside other artefacts in a new display, ‘Exploring Eliot’s Coventry’.

The draft manuscript from the British Library is the only known surviving handwritten copy of Middlemarch and it is on display at the Herbert until Sunday, January 5 2020, when it will move to Nuneaton to be displayed for a further eight weeks.

The loan of Middlemarch forms part of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme, working with partners across the UK to share its collection of over 170 million treasures, inspiring the next great idea or moment of joyful discovery.

Visitors will also get the chance to see her writing desk, a copy of the original painting of Eliot by Durade, her stationary cabinet and writing board which would have been used in creating her famous works and the statuette which sat on her desk at Bird Grove in Foleshill, Coventry, as she wrote.

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Alongside Eliot’s personal items and clothing, there are original copies of local studies on the author and reproductions of the real-life residents who inspired characters in her works.

There’s also the chance to see beyond her work to the inspiration she took from Coventry and her friends in the city, including Cara and Charles Bray who she visited frequently at Rosehill in the city.

Ali Wells, Curator of Natural Sciences and Human History at the Herbert, said: “This is a fantastic opportunity for people from across the region and literature fans everywhere to come and get a better understanding of her connection to the area and the impact she had on literature as one of the leading writers of the Victorian era.

“Eliot spent many of her early formative years in Coventry, attending Miss Franklin’s Boarding School in the city – with the original school bell which was used at the time shown in the exhibition – and then later living with her father here until the age of 30, so the city has had a substantial impact on her life.

“She took a great deal of inspiration from the people she met during her time in the Midlands including one of her neighbours called Mrs Robinson, who became the inspiration for her character Mrs Pettifer in Scenes of Clerical Life.

“Eliot’s work is such an important part of our history as a region, so we’re glad to be able to celebrate 200 years of the impact her work has had and we’re looking forward to welcoming visitors from far and wide to help us celebrate!”

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The Organ from the Forum Cinema on Walsgrave Road.

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The Forum Cinema, on Walsgrave Road, closed and was demolished in 1962. Its Conacher organ was sold to the then Northampton Grammar School for Boys. Amazingly most of the organ has survived, despite a fairly rocky progression through the years. It is now in the care of the East Midlands Cinema Organ Association.

The organ was built in 1934 by the Peter Conacher firm of Huddersfield. It was a custom model as opposed to their four “Standard” instruments that a cinema chain could buy. This unusually was a standard practice at the time. Various firms would offer standard installations and only the big chains such as Odeon and Gaumont would pick those. Seemingly all the smaller cinemas went for off menu options!

The organ has three manuals, comprising of 8 ranks of pipes. Originally it had a wooden art deco surround and piano attachment that was playable from the organ console. The console was designed by noted organist Reginald Foort. It played in the Forum from 1934 until the demolition of the cinema in 1962, with a brief amount of down time in between when the chambers suffered extensive flooding.

In 1962, it was decided that the cinema was to close, and be demolished. At this time a number of cinemas were either closing doors, or converting to Cinema Scope and having their organs removed. The Northampton School for Boys was in the middle of constructing their new school hall, and their Head of Music being a fellow of the Royal College of Organists, wanted an instrument for the new hall.

They were tipped off to a number of instruments in the Coventry area being up for grabs. The Conacher wasn’t their first choice, and they were first headed to the Gaumont. Upon arrival they were told, allegedly rather rudely, that the organ had been bought earlier that day by a church, and to leave the premises! Fortunately, the chap who tipped them off as to the Gaumont, had also heard that the Forum was to close and wanted to get rid of the Conacher, so over they went, found the organ to be a very fine example by a lesser known builder, made an offer and within a few weeks, were in removing the instrument in between film shows.

Upon removal to the school, it was sadly decided that the art deco surround was not in keeping with the new 1960s school hall, and was sadly left in the cinema to face the wrecking ball. The bench was also lost at this time. The console was unsympathetically “modernised” and clad with horrendous 1960s wood effect formica. However the important thing was that the organ itself was safe.

The organ suffered from poor installation at the school from day one, both due to the fact it was just “chucked” in as found in the cinema without any thought given to restoration. It was installed into chambers that were unsuitable, with a glass roof that was open to the heat of the sun all day, meaning that tuning was not something that could be accomplished on the instrument.

In the early 2000s, it was decided after 20 years of silence, the organ was to be removed from the school hall and sold on. This is when Roger Greenstead of Browns Organ Builders of Canterbury came into the story and purchased the instrument from the school. At this time, both the original piano, and the cathedral chimes were retained by the school to form part of the music department. Unfortunately since then the piano has been destroyed and no one knows the fate of the chimes.

In 2018 Carl Heslop was sub contracted by Roger Greenstead to carry out some of his tuning work in the London area (Carl being a full time organ builder also). Carl says “Knowing my interest in cinema organs, Roger told me of the Conacher. Over the next two weeks I went to view the instrument and decided although in a bad way, it was very important to save it.” This was due to the fact that of the original 9 instruments built by the Conacher firm, this was one of only three that were left intact.

“I spent the next few weekends trailing to Canterbury to pick up the organ, and bring it back to the midlands, putting it into storage in Melton Mowbray.”

The organ is currently undergoing a full program of restoration, including the console being fully stripped down and repainted. Sadly the original sides were lost as mentioned earlier, so the organ is to remain a plain console painted steinway black, as is rather popular with some organ consoles.

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It is expected that the refurbishment will take two years and the organ will then be re-installed in the ‘New Forum’ near Melton Mowbray. It had been hoped to find a suitable venue for the organ in Coventry, but unfortunately nowhere suitable could be found.

Refurbishment will probably take two years. The Association aim to present it musically and also make it available for private practise and tuition.

New Apartment Development on Corporation Street

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Proposed development on Bishop Street, opposite the Old Grammar School

Two key sites that have remained in temporary use since World War II in the heart of Coventry’s city centre are set to be transformed into apartments as part of multi-million pound plans.

Complex Development Projects (CDP), the company behind the Coventry Telegraph Hotel which is due to open in October 2020, has submitted planning applications for the two sites. All three projects are on a 300m stretch of Corporation Street, which bounds the main shopping precinct.

Both developments face on to Conservation Areas and the projects are intended to repair the wartime damage, in time for the city’s tenure as UK City of Culture in 2021.

The Well Street proposals face onto The Burges Conservation Area which is being restored by Historic Coventry Trust as part of the Government’s Historic High Streets Programme.

The development will cost £7.5 million and will provide 40 high-quality flats for city centre living. The project also includes 4,500 sq ft of retail and office space on the ground floor and, if planning permission is secured from Coventry City Council, work would begin in spring next year.

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Proposed development on the corner of Hill Street and Corporation Street

The other project completes the terrace of 1950s buildings that includes the Belgrade Theatre.

The new Mid-Century Apartments, designed in 1950s style, are to be built on a site that was designated for a cinema in the post-war plan.

The £3.5 million scheme would provide 14 one and two bedroom apartments facing south-west over newly landscaped gardens with a restaurant and terrace on the ground floor. The project also includes the former Jaguar pub which will be converted for use by the Belgrade Theatre and a further two apartments.

The Mid-Century Apartments and gardens will improve the setting of the Grade I Listed St John’s Church, which is one of the city’s medieval gems that will be boosted by the city’s growing tourist economy. The church was used as a prison for Royalists in the Civil War and is the origin of the phrase ‘Sent to Coventry’.

Ian Harrabin, of CDP, said: “The two schemes are intended to repair the damage of the past and build on the success of The Co-operative development by further revitalising this part of Coventry city centre.

“The Well Street project is designed to provide a transition from the historic Burges area to the new high-rise student schemes to the north – a bridge between old and new.

“The Mid-Century project celebrates the architectural quality of the city’s post-war redevelopment that has largely been overlooked until recently. The Coventry story of a great medieval city, reborn in the 20th Century is unique and a major part of the celebration of the city in 2021.”

Councillor Jim O’Boyle, Coventry City Council’s Cabinet Member for Jobs and Regeneration, said: “The development of the city centre after the war was never completed and left us with a few eyesore sites.

“I am very pleased that these two small sites are planned to be developed in a way that enhances some of our most important heritage.

“Now that many of our historic buildings are being restored, it is good to improve their setting, which in places isn’t the best. It’s important that we put on our best face for 2021, when the eyes of the country will be on Coventry.”

Paul Maddocks, Chair of the Coventry Society said “The Coventry Society was consulted on the plans and welcomes the proposed developments, in particular the provision of high quality residential flats. The society welcomes the return of a residential population into the city centre rather than just more students.

“The Society recognises the quality of the design of the mid century apartment buildings as an end to the terrace, in the style of the period but not simply replicating the terrace. It would consequently act as a full stop like the Belgrade as originally intended.

“However the retention of a landscaped area was seen to be very important as there is no other public greenspace in the western part of the city centre. The retention of the park allows distant views of St John’s and Bond’s Hospital along Corporation Street and creates a nice setting for St. John’s church.”

George Demidowicz on the Old Cathedral

OldCathedralAt the November Coventry Society meeting on the evening of 11th November, George Demidowicz the former City Council Conservation Officer gave a talk about the archaeological discoveries in the Ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral which he was involved with.

In a nutshell – under the floor of the ruins are two medieval chapels that have been suffering from water ingress over the previous ten years. The Cathedral wanted to make repairs to them, dry them out and then open them to the public. To do that they needed to lift the floor that was above them – remove the damaged membrane, insert a drainage system, lay down a new membrane and then put the flag stones back.

Whilst doing all that – they found the exterior wall of the 1250 chapel, then the exterior wall of the 1350 church. This was followed by flagstones from the 18th century which would have made up the floor, the charred remains of the choir stalls destroyed in the  fire of November 1940 (which bizarrely still smelled of burning). Of special interest was the finding of a window which in 1250 would have been facing down towards the cemetery. When the church was extended between 1400-1450 it was no longer a outside window.

While they were doing the work and digging they were able to work out how the church grew over time, being extended in length and width with different chapels being added until it grow to be one of the largest parish churches in the country.

St. Michael’s Church became a Cathedral in 1918 and was burned by incendiary bombing on 14th /15th November 1940, but still stands as an emblem of peace and reconciliation. The new Cathedral designed by Basil Spence was opened in 1962 adjoining the old and the two buildings together act as one Cathedral.

The two medieval chapels are still drying out slowly and hopefully the Cathedral will be able to open them up to the public again in the near future.

The plan above sets out the latest thinking on the development of the building over the years.  For further information you can buy the book from the Cathedral with the full details and photographs.

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