Nadfas lecture today on Coventry Cathedral. I have been trying to remember the only time I’ve visited there and I think it must have been in 1970, when an astonishingly good-natured games teacher offered to take a group of us on a camping holiday to Wales. She had a VW camper van painted in pale green and cream and about ten of us piled in, with tents and so on, and went off for a week or two at the start of the summer holidays. It was very good fun, though I only remember a few specific details now – let me see….
- A girl called Liz, wearing a very short skirt, in the front seat as we went through Newmarket. The front door slid open and she received an appreciative comment from a very small jockey cycling past.
- The aforementioned games teacher receiving a speeding ticket. She was asked her full name and muttered the middle name very quietly, as she disliked it. It so happened, as I was sitting just behind her, that I heard it, but I refused to tell the others when asked because it didn’t seem fair.
- We having eaten a Vesta prawn curry, sitting on the bank of a stream scraping the sticky residue off the saucepan. My trousers were never the same again – the mud got into the corduroy.
- The teacher had brought her new duvet to sleep under – it was the first one we’d seen.
- After about a week, we were all tired and flagging a bit and we went off to see the new musical, Oliver, at the local cinema. it did the trick and we came back laughing and singing.
- We wanted to go into a fairly smart looking hotel for a drink and I was sent on ahead to ask if we could come in because we all looked a bit scruffy. I was voted the most likely to succeed. I did.
- Having become completely used to direct-dial phones, I was disconcerted to find I had to go through the operator when I was in a phone box, and put in my money and press button A and so on.
- On the way home, we stopped at Stratford on Avon for a night. I managed to watch three Shakespeare plays in a day and a half. I dropped my ticket in the foyer for one of them but retraced my steps – remarkably, because it was crowded, I found it again.
- We merrily camped in the park and were investigated by the police as we were getting ready to go to bed. Girlish squeals followed and the nice policemen simply explained that camping was absolutely not permitted and … please move on first thing in the morning.
There are other things I remember of course, the waterfall at Betws y Coed, several castles, Snowdonia – it was foggy on the day we planned to go up Snowdon so we didn’t do it and time was too tight to wait an extra day, visiting the ‘sister’ convent at Rhyl, the rather delicious Welsh ice cream – but it was too long ago and I had forgotten it included the visit to Coventry.
The impressions that came back to me, at this morning’s lecture, were that I really disliked it from the outside, it seeming very bulky and blocky, with angular brickwork, but that it was stunning inside. I remember it as an uplifting place, quite noble in its atmosphere. There had been a lot of publicity a few years earlier when it opened, of course, and the modern style and artworks were pretty controversial.
For those of you too young to know, in brief, Coventry was severely bombed in November 1940. There was a full moon and the city was a clearly lit target. The cathedral was destroyed, along with much of the city centre and, after the war, a competition was held to design a new one to stand alongside the old. Basil Spence, a Scottish architect, won – the lecturer said this morning that he was in a meeting with a client on the day the result was announced and was not to be disturbed. But his secretary phoned his client who passed the phone over. Furious, Basil took the phone and, when told the news, he fainted! When he came round, he was given sherry to revive and toast his success. Later, he went to St Paul’s Cathedral to muse on the astonishing fulfilment of his dream and to realise he didn’t feel worthy of it.
He was given a pretty free rein on the fitting out, though everything had to be passed through the commissioning committee, and chose famous and up-and-coming artists, Jacob Epstein, Graham Sutherland, Elisabeth Frink, John Piper and more. The old cathedral remains have been preserved as a reminder of the waste of war and the whole is a symbol of peace and reconciliation. When Basil Spence proposed Jacob Epstein as the sculptor for the statue of Michael the Archangel at the entrance, someone objected “But he’s Jewish.” “So was Jesus,’ said Basil drily.
Apparently, the whole thing cost less than a million pounds, by the time it was opened in 1962. And that seems remarkable too, now. Anyway, the lecture has done its work – I would like to revisit soon, and LT says he has never been there. I’m hoping for a cross-country trip to visit Ludlow again – my old blog friend Badgerdaddy lives there and I had a lovely break with him about four years ago, when I also called in on friend and former blogger John near Lutterworth. So Coventry could, perhaps be called in at on the way there or back.