The two Cathedrals of Coventry

When I told a friend about my plans to visit Coventry, this is what he had to say:

Coventry is a rather nondescript little city in the West Midlands region of the UK. It has two universities (University of Warwick and Coventry University), two museums and a humongous Ikea. And, yes, it also has 2 cathedrals.

I didn’t really pay attention to the rest of his description as only the “two cathedrals” part intrigued me—a city has only one cathedral, and Coventry had two? This I had to see.

So are there two cathedrals in Coventry? Well, yes and no. There are two cathedrals in Coventry—the first is the ruins of the Old Medieval Cathedral, and the second is the modern, New Cathedral. But only the latter Cathedral is a place of worship today, so in that sense there is only one cathedral in Coventry. Both the cathedrals exist side by side, with the St. Michael’s porch connecting the two.

St. Michael's Porch. The glass-fronted entrance to the new Cathedral is to the right, while the steps on the left lead to the ruins of the Old Cathedral

The spire of the Old Cathedral

Built out of local red sandstone in the 13th & 14th centuries, the parish church of St. Michael in Coventry had been a site of worship for over 900 years. The Old Coventry Cathedral was supposed to be a masterpiece of medieval architecture with tall, slender pillars which supported a carved oak roof, a host of beautiful stained glass windows, and a carved wooden pulpit (of which only the steps now remain).

When I first saw the red cathedral spire and the building from a distance, I assumed that the it was built of red brick. Imagine my surprise when I saw that the red actually came from sandstone ! Till then, I had only seen churches made of limestone, rhyolite, granite or different coloured bricks.

The Old Coventry Cathedral was bombed on 14th November 1940, which destroyed it completely, and leaving behind only the shell of the Old Cathedral and the Spire.

The ruined shell of the Old Cathedral

On that night, two of the charred wooden beams fell down from the ceiling and landed in the shape of a cross. It was considered as divine signal of hope and resurrection. When the altar of the Old Cathedral was reconstructed, a replica of the charred beams was erected with the words, “Father Forgive”, carved on the wall behind the cross.

A replica of the charred beams on the altar
Christ on trial before Pontius Pilate

Today, the ruins of the Old Cathedral also contain two sculptures, which were a later addition—a marble statue of Christ on trial before Pontius Pilate, sculpted by Joseph Epstein; and the Statue of Reconciliation. Designed by Josephina De Vasconcellos, the latter statue depicts two former enemies forgiving one another. This statue is internationally regarded as a symbol of peace and there are replicas in Berlin, Northern Ireland and Hiroshima. You cannot come away from this statue without feeling the folly of war and destruction and hate.

As I walked around the ruins of the Old Cathedral, the red sandstone seemed to throb with life. It was warm to touch—almost as if it was a living being and so unlike marble or granite, which are cool to touch.

The Statue of Reconciliation
The West Screen

When the Old Cathedral came up for reconstruction after World War II, it was decided that it should be left as it was to symbolise the horrors of destruction due to war. Instead, a decision to build a New Cathedral, dedicated to St. Michael, was taken. Designed by Basil Spence, the contemporary New Cathedral took 6 years to build and was consecrated in 1962.

The entrance to the New Cathedral is known as the West Screen and is made of glass, adorned with engravings and etchings of saints and angels. I liked the concept of the West Screen, which allows visitors to view the inside of the New Cathedral, and yet the reflection of the Old Cathedral persists. A reminder, perhaps, to look ahead with the experiences and learnings of the past.

The New Cathedral has some outstanding features like the Baptistry Window, the Tablets of the Word, the Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane, and a stunning bronze statue of St. Michael overcoming the devil.

Baptistry Window. John Piper, who designed this glorious window, perceived his multi-coloured creation as "the light of truth breaking through darkness and confusion". It consists of 200 glass panels.
The Tablets of the Word are a simple summary of the Christian faith. There are 4 tablets on either side of the Cathedral. This is the view of the 4 tablets in the South Nave.
Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane
St. Michael overcoming the Devil. You can see part of the Baptistry window to your right

The New Cathedral has 4 chapels, each one distinct from the other. To be honest, I was not at all impressed with the New Cathedral (though it did have some stunning individual features like the Baptistry Window). Somehow, it just did not have the atmosphere and vibes that a place of worship should have. In spite of this, I would recommend everyone to visit Coventry as the Cathedrals are a study in ancient and contemporary places of worship and visiting both gave me a chance to appreciate their individual features.

The Coventry Cathedral (s) is (are) not on the list of tourists visiting the United Kingdom. But I would highly recommend visiting this place at least once in your lifetime. And if you would like to escape the touristy crowds, this is the perfect place to go. And yes, there is always Ikea ! 😉

The paved approach road to the Old Cathedral

I end this post with this beautiful picture of the approach to the Coventry Cathedral. Doesn’t the road beckon to you? If you are still not convinced, click here for a virtual tour of the Coventry Cathedral. That should convince you!

In 2012, the New Cathedral will celebrate its Golden Jubilee—a celebration of death and rebirth. It would be the perfect time for planning your visit to Coventry and participate in the golden jubilee celebrations of the Cathedral.

P.S. I had visited Coventry in June 2009 and had not really meant to write about it here on this blog. Till I met Suma Narayan, co judge at a competition, and discovered that she too had visited Coventry and had been charmed by the Cathedrals. This blog post is dedicated to her. 🙂

18 thoughts on “The two Cathedrals of Coventry

    1. Coventry is not what you call a tourist hot spot. I hardly saw about 10 other people on a Saturday afternoon. All the crowds were at the local Ikea store. 😉

      But seriously speaking, I never really experienced crowds while travelling through England, even in London. Even the most crowded places could never compare to the Indian crowds. The only time I experienced tourist hordes was at Stonehenge.

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  1. Dear Sudha,thank you. How beautifully the account reads! And how well you write!
    I did not visit the New Chapel at all; I had no interest in looking at anything after I saw the old Catherdral. I absorbed all the prayers in its walls, the sighs of the supplicants and the jubilation of an answered prayer: and I heard the crackle and roar of the flames as they viciously incinerated everything they could and the weeping populace standing around viewing the destruction…and what still stood triumphantly aloft.
    I still haven’t recovered from the poignant pathos of “Father Forgive” .
    Which is why I have built two of my stories around the Cathedral.
    I have not been able to find publishers for my book, so I have decided to publish it myself.Any tips, pointers and hints you can provide will be gratefully received.
    Once again, thank you for the dedication.

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  2. With an account of Coventry Cathedral like yours, I almost feel that I am standing there and looking at the ruins. When someone asks me whether I have been to England, I will reply with an authoritative account of Coventry and the other places that you have described so beautifully in your posts. As long as I am not asked to show my passport, I am sure I will get away with it!

    Keep it up. Yeh Dil Maange more!

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  3. Hello Sudha,
    One of the places I visited when I went to England in 2011 was William Shakespeare’s birth place because I so liked a travel review I read in readers digest long ago. Now if I ever I go to England again, I would plan a trip to Coventry 🙂

    Well written

    Karthi

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    1. Welcome here, Karthi, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. And very happy to know that if you ever visit England again, you would plan a trip to Coventry. Have you read my other posts on places in England? You just might want to visit those places as well, if you haven’t visited them already. 😀

      I love England Karthi, and in my opinion is the best travel destination in the world. Now if only it were not so expensive !

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      1. Yes I did Sudha, After I chanced on you blog I read most of your posts on England. And among those I liked the one on Coventry the best 🙂

        I fell in love with London during my week long stay (too short). I want to visit other parts of England, but the world has so many places and experiences to offer that I have difficulty in priorotising where I want to go next…. And one has to consider the budget too!!!

        Karthi

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    1. Thank you, Deej, for such lovely words of praise. Likes you, my writing is experiential and personal and from my context. And in my opinion you don’t need any courses. However, in my offline avatar, I teach academic writing: so you are welcome to join any time 😉

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