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In Which I am Sent to Coventry…

A view of the Cathedral showing the back of the building with
the zig-zag walls. . .

Well, the rain has stopped (although more is forecast), and the floods have drained away, but by yesterday it was bitterly cold, the water-logged land had turned to ice, and there was a thick frost covering rooftops, cars, trees and grass. So, to cheer ourselves up, a friend and I headed off to Coventry, which has quite a good shopping centre – not as big and varied as Birmingham, but not nearly as crowded, which is a huge bonus at this time of year!

. . . And part of the front. 

It ended up being the sort of day which provides food for body and soul, because we enjoyed a spot of retail therapy, treated ourselves to coffee and cake, and wandered around Coventry’s fantastic modern Cathedral, which celebrates its golden anniversary this year. It stands alongside the bombed-out ruins of its predecessor, and is one of the most moving places I’ve been to. So, since Christmas is on the way, with its message of peace and hope, and since the main theme of the cathedral is peace and reconciliation, I took some photos there for today’s Saturday Snapshot.

Sections of the outer wall of the old Cathedral
still stand, and when the sun shines through
the empty window there’s a certain beauty.

Coventry, famed for its engineering industries, suffered terrible damage during WW2. The old Cathedral was gutted in an air raid on 14 November 1940: only the Gothic tower, the outer wall, and some broken pillars and arcades survived. But it wasn’t the only casualty. That night two thirds of the city centre buildings were destroyed, along with 4,000 homes. Around 600 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured. Rescue work was hampered by the scale of the devastation. Water, gas and electricity supplies were knocked out early in the evening; police and fire HQs were hit; roads were impassable, and the hospital damaged.

This is the original Charred Cross,
with the Cross of Nails in its centre.

However, in the immediate aftermath of the raid, two charred oak beams which once held up the roof of St Michael’s were bound together to form a cross. Another was created with three twisted nails salvaged from the wreckage, and a stone altar was made out of rubble. Services were held amidst the ruins, and it was agreed that the Cathedral would rise again, as a symbol of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and as a sign of hope and forgiveness in a time of war.

The scheme also came to represent the regrowth of the city, but it was ten years before the dream started to take shape, and at least that long again before work was complete. Architect Basil Spence won a design competition, but his vision was hugely controversial, for instead of reproducing the ornate Medieval edifice, he opted for a simpler and starker building, with clean-cut geometric lines. And instead of rebuilding on the old site, he placed his new Cathedral at the side of the ruins, clad the exterior in local red sandstone to match the remains, and linked old and new with a porch that pulls them into a unified whole.
The Jacob Epstein statue shows
St Michael poised in victory
above the defeated Devil.

Perched on the wall, looking at the empty windows and shattered stonework of the old Cathedral, is Jacob Epstein’s wonderful sculpture of St Michael defeating the Devil. Somehow the bronze looks as if it is floating in the air, and I always think that at any moment St Michael might step lightly down to earth to see what is happening in the world today.


I’m not usually a fan of mid-20th century architecture, but I think Coventry Cathedral is an absolute triumph. The blend of ancient and modern works incredibly well, while the concrete interior uses traditional Christian themes and symbols in the most awe-inspiring way . The whole thing takes your breath away.
The Baptistery Window, designed by John Piper,
symbolises the glory of God flooding into the world.
 You walk inside, and stop, stunned by a huge, abstract, stained glass window. Designed by John Piper, it stretches from floor to ceiling, and light pours through the golden yellow sunburst at the centre, surrounded by rich reds, blues and greens. It is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, and as you look and gasp in wonder and amazement, you realise there other abstract glass panels, five on each side, all equally vibrant and colourful, each set into a zig-zag angle of the walls, each rising tall and thin, like a kind of spire, from the floor to the vaulted ceiling.

The great West Screen. The darker areas of
glass are the ruined walls of the old Cathedral. 
And there is the stupendous West Screen, a great glass wall, looking out on to the ruins, which seem to form part of the design. I can’t even begin to describe how wonderful it is, but I’ll try. It is engraved with angels, prophets and saints, some standing in rectangular ‘homes’ formed by the grid which holds the glass in place, others flying across the surface. If you look hard you can find St Michael doing battle again, this time with a dragon. The window reminds me of the West Front of Lichfield Cathedral, which is covered in stone figures, and I think it’s a nice link with the past, because Lichfield and Coventry were once part of the same bishopric.

In this close-up you can see some of the engraved figures,
and the turreted edge of part of an old wall.

Light from the screen and windows is directed towards the High Altar and the tapestry behind it. Christ in Majesty was designed by artist Graham Sutherland and is (according to the Cathedral’s information booklet), the size of a tennis court. It was woven in France, took 10 years to complete, and you could write a book on its symbolism. But the same could be said for almost every object inside the Cathedral. Everything seems to be a work of art, and everything seems to have a meaning.

The Graham Sutherland tapestry is an
incredible piece of work.

Even if you are not religious, you should visit Coventry Cathedral. It is unlike any other cathedral I’ve seen, but it is beautiful and awe-inspiring, and the juxtaposition of the modern building against the Medieval ruins is very, very moving, as is the fact that this grew out of the devastation of WW2, and that the church community and the people of Coventry found it in their hearts to forgive, and to move on. Not only that, but a Community of the Cross of the Nails has been established in a bid to establish peace between nations through communication and understanding.


It’s three years or so since I last visited, and an £8 entry fee has now been introduced. I have mixed feelings about places of worship doing this, because whilst accepting that cash is needed for maintenance and restoration, I feel they should be accessible and free.

For more Saturday Snapshots see Alice’s blog at For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice’s blog at http://athomewithbooks.net/

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Author:

I'm a former journalist and sub-editor who loves needlework, reading and writing, and is still searching for the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything. Until I find the answer I'm volunteering at an Oxfam Book Shop and learning about Creative Sketchbooks!

31 thoughts on “In Which I am Sent to Coventry…

  1. Again, you live in glorious history, and so fortunate to have such a beautiful place to go just to get cheered up. The charred cross is so poignant. You're most wise to visit Coventry in this time of the year then. Thanks for this inspiring post. Thanks to your post, Coventry is now another must-see for me next time I visit the UK. 😉

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  2. You have such a gift for sharing not only great photos but such fascinating info too. You would make a very good docent!
    The size of that tapestry is unbelievable – thankfully you included people in the shot to give us some perspective. Wow.

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  3. Thank you Arti. Poignant is a good way to describe it – there really is such a strong sense here that the the terrible events of the war should never be forgotten, but that there should be forgiveness rather than revenge.

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  4. The cross is tremendously powerful I think. And imagine what faith people must have had to create a new cathedral from the ashes of the old, and to be so caring and seek reconciliation with Germany – after the war they established links with their former enemies.

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  5. I've been to Coventry Cathedral once. It was a school trip, many, many years ago. It looks just as I remembered it! As a teenager I was quite critical of modern church buildings, but I thought it was beautiful and so moving that the ruins had been left next to the modern cathedral.

    I'm not too happy about entrance fees either and prefer it in places where they leave it to your conscience to make a donation towards the upkeep.

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  6. Apparently people who want to pray don't pay, so I suspect some say that, then look round, but it seemed wrong to lie in a Cathedral! Lichfield is free, and both the Birmingham cathedrals, so you can go in whenever you want, and all three seem to be quite busy most of the time.

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  7. Thank you for the comment. The stained glass has to be seen to be believed. The light pours through the central yellow circle, and the colours around it are so intense. I could stand and stare at it for hours.

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  8. What beautiful pictures! I've been enthralled with Coventry since reading both the novel Coventry and Connie Willis's books Blackout and All Clear. I also wanted to give you a head's up to click over to my blog and enter the Essay Challenge giveaway. 🙂

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  9. Louise, the glass in that window is really, really beautiful. I have to admit I had no idea what a baptistery is, even though I've been there before, so I looked it up and found it's the area around the baptismal font. Obvious really I suppose!

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  10. Thank you Staci. The tapestry is on a grand scale, and the background is the brightest green I've seen. I had to walk backwards and forwards trying to find the right spot to view it – too close, and I could only see a bit of it, and too far away and I couldn't see it clearly because I'm so short-sighted!

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