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There may be no smaller British county, in or outside England, than Coventry. It sits above Warwickshire in the very heartbeat of merry old as a bit of an afterthought but it had its own castle at one time, with existing defensive walls surrounding the city of Coventry besides being a rather interesting place to look around a bit. The lively city center with marvelous cathedrals, museums and entertainment venues offers something for just about everyone, young and old alike.
At one time the town walls possessed twelve gates, only two of which survive. One, once called the Priory Gate on the east, is blocked but viewable. (It was converted to a house in 1932.) Both the Cook Street Gate and Swanswell (Priory) Gate have been restored and quite possibly with stone from the original castle which no longer stands. The castle was built in the 11th century by Ranulf Meschines who was the Earl of Chester but his edifice was razed and then it was rebuilt. There is a good amount of confusion about where the castle was situated since even the second castle was used by the townspeople as a quarry for stone to build many other city structures.
There may have been method to the people’s so-called madness because by the 14th century Coventry had grown to be the fourth largest city in England. That’s difficult to imagine when simply viewing the old portion of this busy hub. A corporation was set up by Edward III in 1329 for collection of murage (a toll levied on goods coming into the city to build a defensive wall) but work didn’t really start until 1364. Construction continued in clockwise fashion around the city for two centuries with disputes arising between the citizens and the Prior of Coventry who wielded quite a bit of power. The building was steady, however, adhering to the original plan so that when it was finished in 1538 it was in many ways antiquated but adequate for its purpose. It was eight feet wide and 18 feet high upon completion. It was demolished by order of King Charles II in 1662, carried out by the Earl of Northampton arriving with 500 men on July 22nd who blasted most of it. Some gates were removed at later dates because of their condition and to make way for expanded roads. The wall which remains can be seen on the stretch between the two tower gates.
Caesar’s Tower at Bayley Lane is considered to be a part of Coventry Castle. This particular gatehouse tower possesses a vaulted ground floor which is supposed to have been used as a strongroom for the Guildhall Treasure. Today you will find this tower adjoined to the Guildhall of St. Mary, a marvel in and of itself, and has since the late 14th century. This is immediately south of Coventry Cathedral. The controversy between this tower being a part of the Earl’s castle is one which deserves speculation. The ditch nearby suggests that it is to archaeologists but some believe it was further north at Broadgate where the city center is now occupied by a shopping center. At any rate, it was heavily bombed, along with the original cathedral during WWII but only sustained minor damage. St. Mary’s was the headquarters of the Merchants’ Guild from 1342. By the 1900s its use by the mayor and corporation of the city gave it new life. Within you can view the oak vaulting of the Great Hall and a tapestry made to depict Henry VII’s visit to Coventry in 1500. There is also the Old Council Chamber which was used by City Council from 1421 to the mid-19th century, the (Black) Prince’s Chamber and you can view where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned in Caesar’s Tower in 1569.
The Guildhall is open March to October, Sun- Thurs from 10 am-4 pm and admission is free.
The city wall is easily accessible and open free to the public.
Five miles east, the most celebrated and best known Abbey in the country is situated in Binley, which is just between Coventry and Brinklow seated in five hundred acres of parkland and formal gardens. The approach along Brinklow Road is lined with lime and chestnut trees and the abbey is surrounded by a moat further surrounded by a cloistered entrance. It dates back to the 11th century when it was built as a Cistercian stronghold. It was taken over by the Crown following the dissolution in the 16th century and its handling was done by Dr. John London. For forty years the possession of it was transient until Sir John Harrington of Exton purchased it outright in 1581 which was an impressive purchase for a descendant of Robert the Bruce.
Harrington became guardian to Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of James I, who used his influence to persuade the King to put her education and boarding at Coombe Abbey, under the tutelage of John Tovey. He was ultimately responsible for Elizabeth’s marriage to Frederick V, Elector Palatinate of Germany and she spent most of her life with him as his sovereign Queen of Bohemia, only returning to England just prior to her death in 1661. (It was at this very place that part of the Gunpowder Plot, which involved Guy Fawkes and many other conspirators, were to abduct the princess. It was thwarted as well as it was planned!) Harrington died in 1613 upon returning from Heidelberg after he married her off, leaving his property to his son John who died not long after of smallpox. His two daughters, in turn, inherited Coombe in 1614. They sold it to the one-time Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Craven’s widow, Elizabeth, in 1622 to whose family it was passed down for many generations until 1922. In 1634 the second Sir William Craven became a baron and obtained a license from Charles I to enclose 650 acres of land at Coombe creating Coombe Abbey Park.
Several changes were made including a west wing addition in 1682 by architect Capt. William Winde who designed Buckingham House (later redesigned as Buckingham Palace) and Capability Brown’s redesign of the gardens in 1771 in which he added Coombe Pool, a sizable lake, by damming the Smite Brook, creating the main lake and top pool. It has remained unchanged for two hundred years! The stone-built cloisters built in 1539 are still present and you will find that Coombe is a delightful architectural mix of medieval built upon over the years with non-intrusive modernizing which is unique to its pedigree. The electric lighting was added by Countess Cornelia Craven by 1907.
For a time after, it was sold to a real estate developer by the name of John Todd who divided it up in portions which were sold at an auction. The largest main structure was bought by a so-called builder named John Gray, in 1923, who took out the east wing and sold the interior fittings of that wing to recoup the cost of purchase. He also took out a conifer plantation, known as the Wrautums, which were to provide pit-prompts during the war, leaving a large field area waste. He then leased the Abbey to the General Electric Company as a residential training center! Luckily for Coombe Abbey he died in 1958 and the family his daughter married into decided to sell the property.
The Coventry City Council saved the day in 1964 by purchasing the Abbey and 150 acres of the property and did a complete restoration of the remainder of the Abbey and opening Coombe Country Park to the public by 1966. The No Ordinary Hotel chain began to develop it into a luxury hotel in 1992 and opened doors to the public in 1995 with a visitor center facility, children’s adventure playground and themed dining venues such as medieval banquets which take place in the restored stables now known as the Abbey Gate.
Currently it is a five-star hotel which offers beautifully decorated interiors throughout with 83 bedrooms (some with unique features) and a conference/wedding venue complete with restaurants which offer private dining rooms along with excellent menus and attentive service. Besides Coventry and the parkland itself, Warwick Castle and Stratford-upon-Avon are nearby in Warwickshire.
T- 02476 450450
Ba-da Ba-da ! That’s all folks !
Thought for the day:
To me, travel is a triple delight; anticipation, performance and recollection. – Ilka Chase
You will find photos for Coventry in the larger size in a subfolder of Warwickshire when that photo album goes up soon !
Good things come to those who wait !