Old and new : Coventry Cathedral

Poor Coventry, it is certainly not the prettiest of cities. Walking its dreary, grey streets on a wet Tuesday morning does little to raise the spirits. Glum folk shuffled past me, shielding themselves from the wind and spitting rain, as well as the ghastly surroundings around them. I too shuddered at the cold masses of concrete that assaulted every view and made the eyes grow sore.

Thank goodness then for Coventry’s stunning cathedral. The city has had three of them during its long, rich history and substantial remains still survive of the first two. The outline of the first- the 11th-century priory church of St. Mary- is now open to the air and (sadly) vandals. Other than the sight of graffiti and smashed interpretation screens this is a fine place to sit and think for a few moments. Somewhere nearby lie the remains of the church’s benefactors – Earl Leofric of Mercia and his wife, Lady Godiva, she of naked ride fame. With this in mind I hoped that she and I would not share the dubious distinction of baring it all in public, and had she had a shrine there it would have been wise to seek advice there should the worst come to pass.

Leaving such dark thoughts of defeat aside my exploration continued into the second cathedral, that of the later medieval St. Michael. This large parish church was raised to cathedral status in 1918 with great pride, but was almost entirely obliterated during the Coventry Blitz of November 14th 1940. Only the spire, tower and outer walls survived the onslaught that night, which also claimed the lives of around 600 citizens.

It was incredibly sobering, standing in that open space, surrounded by strong walls but still open to the wind and rain. This is still hallowed ground and services do still occasionally take place here, as well as Mystery Plays and musical performances that no doubt benefit from the striking backdrop. Some might call this defiance in the face of such terrible destruction, but if there is or was any it is not evident here. The message of FATHER FORGIVE on the high altar is movingly dignified, as is the crude wooden cross: a replica of two charred medieval roof beams discovered lying in cross-form the morning after the bombing and erected on the altar. The decision to build a new, third cathedral was taken in the still smouldering ruins the same day.

And so construction the new cathedral began under the eye of architect Sir Basil Spence. He urged that the ruins of the old building should form part of the re-born cathedral, blending old and new to reflect both wartime suffering and post war optimism. My own optimism was sky-high at the prospect of licking the place, but given its tragic history I admit to feeling a pang of guilt as well. A lick may be jolly good fun but it is not terribly dignified, both for the licker and lickee. I blame Adam.

Feeling the pinch of recent excesses I almost baulked at having the pay the £8 admission charge. My plans quickly changed to getting the job done and jumping on the next London train. However, at that very moment two things happened that made me think again: firstly my conscience kicked in, reminding me of the time and effort taken getting here in the first place, as well as the fact that it was shameful not to see the inside of such a unique and beautiful building. Secondly, a threatening text from the Tax Office buzzed onto my phone, reminding me of the great efforts they were going to in order to force me into poverty. Screw the bastards, they could take my money but they weren’t going to stop me licking Coventry Cathedral!  Joyfully handing over my money at the entrance I took further delight in agreeing to Gift Aid my ticket, thereby denying HMRC of yet more undeserved coinage.

Having lost so much in their Blitz, it is clear that the people of Coventry have put all of their love and effort into making their cathedral as beautiful as possible. It is packed full of architectural brilliance and breathtaking works of art. The enormous glass wall, engraved with images of saints and angels, is a different take on the classic West Front model and allows the interior of the cathedral to be viewed from the porch outside. Another triumph of glass lies only a matter of metres away, next to the baptismal font: the enormous stained glass window reaches from floor to ceiling and has almost disco-like, psychedelic quality to it.

Art could be found at every turn: tapestries, mosaics, paintings, murals, sculptures- it was like an Anglican art gallery. This really should have come as no surprise, as cathedrals have long had the role of housing fine works like these. The gargoyles, grotesques and Doom paintings of medieval cathedrals were the artworks of their time, to be seen and, in some cases, feared. No such feelings of dread here however, where everything shone, sparkled and dazzled.

Perhaps the World’s smallest congregation (consisting of just me) then sat and listened to possibly the World’s smallest and oldest woman. Whilst inspecting an intriguing Norwegian organ a little squeaky voice filled the nave and for some unknown reason I felt compelled to sit. Stood on a box at the lectern was the old woman in question, reading a passage from the Bible with great passion. Seeing as the microphone was still a good foot higher than her (despite the box) this was an impressive feat, although she appeared in danger of falling from her platform at any moment. When she had finished her reading I came to her aid and actually picked her up and placed her back on solid ground. She was as light as a feather and made me feel like a giant.

Leaving the rescue of old women aside, it was time to lick. Given that Coventry Cathedral is so unique it seemed that even a photo taken of me licking the toilet block would have been sufficient proof for Adam. Ironically though, the quirky angles of the building made the task more complex than expected. A jutting piece of wall ruined an otherwise top-drawer scene of me with tongue pressed against a section of the great stained glass window. Balancing the camera on the font nearby would have worked brilliantly, but this was a step too far. Another ambitious attempt was made outside, at the foot of the gigantic sculpture of St. Michael vanquishing the devil. Failure here was down to the fact that despite it being a cracking photo the camera’s zoom could not pick up the pinkness of my tongue in any of the pictures. In the end I had to admit defeat and go for this bog-standard photo-by-entrance sign. This was disappointing, but the proof of the lick is infinitely more important than an artistic composition. How I longed for a companion to help with taking such a photo! I considered asking the tiny old lady, though the camera was almost as big as her and a step ladder would have been needed for her to operate it.

Coventry Cathedral was a great surprise. Much like Guildford, I had been prepared to despise it for its modernity. What I found however was a radically unique cathedral that blends old and new quite like nowhere else I have ever seen. Past tragedies are commemorated but not over-mourned and the whole building exudes an atmosphere of forgiveness. I just hope that that they will forgive me for licking it.