Why, Coventry!

I’ve always liked Coventry. I first came here for a work conference at the University of Warwick. A slow afternoon had me catching a bus into town and taking a look around.

In the 1940s, Coventry was home to a number of light engineering and armament factories. Between 1940 and 1941 the Luftwaffe attempted to put a stop to light engineering in the West Midlands by dropping high explosives on in. This had the additional effect of laying waste to a large part of the city. Most significantly, the cathedral was flattened, leaving very little of the building standing. When it came to time to rebuild, they could so easily have levelled the ruins and built a new, modern church in its place. But they didn’t. The new cathedral was built alongside the old ruins, which remain standing as a monument to the city, the people and the livelihoods that were destroyed in the name of war. The two buildings are connected by a porch, which unites them as a single building. Walking around the old church, with its scraps of glass and carving still in place, reminds us of the futility of war and stands as a message of peace and reconciliation.

On this visit, our first stop was the railway station, undergoing major restoration work at the moment. There is a permanent tribute to one of Coventry’s literary sons here. On platform one there is a plaque bearing an extract from ‘I Remember’ by Philip Larkin.

Coming up England by a different line,
for once, early in the cold new year.
We stopped, and, watching men with number-plates
sprint down the platform to familiar gates,
“Why, Coventry!” I exclaimed. “I was born here”.

Philip Larkin, I Remember, I Remember

Larkin attended the Henry VIII school from the age of 8, having previously been educated at home. After a lacklustre school career, he was accepted into St. John’s, Oxford and left Coventry forever in 1940. You can see the school he attended, opposite the station on Warwick Road. The school of another famous author is a short walk towards the city. A blue plaque marks the site of Misses Franklins’ School, where George Eliot came to study in 1832 at the age of 13.

The Quadrant, Former home of Angela Brazil

There is a group of rather grand office buildings a little further North. This is The Quadrant and was once home to another author of note, Angela Brazil. She was a pioneer of girls’ school stories, where brave young women confront the everyday challenges of growing up in a strange and hostile environment. Brazil has recently enjoyed a resurgence of interest but it this is more from academics exploring the lesbian subtext than from young women seeking escape through an adventure story.

This is where Mrs. P and I parted company: she to explore retail opportunities; me to explore the Cathedral and the Herbert Museum and Art Gallery, where they have a number of George Eliot artefacts on display. They seem to be most proud of her piano, which is situated in a nice bright gallery near the shop. They were insistent that I see it so I went there first. It seems that Eliot was quite a skilled pianist but initially rejected all secular forms of music. She rediscovered her love of music later in life and her partner, George Lewes, bought her the piano for her 50th birthday.

George Eliot’s Piano

George Eliot, real name Mary Ann Evans, (she changed it to be taken seriously as a novelist) was born in Nuneaton in 1819 and lived there for most of her early life. She came to Coventry in 1832 to study at the Misses Franklins’ Academy, where she received a broadly religious education. She returned to Nuneaton in 1836 but, after the death of her mother, she and her father moved back to Coventry. She became involved in a new literary scene and was exposed to new, radical intellectual ideas. It seems that she began to seriously question her faith, and that her father was shocked at his daughter’s questioning of religious ideas. After he died in 1839, Mary Ann travelled to Europe and lived in Geneva for a while.

The George Eliot display at the Herbert Museum, Coventry

In their Social and Industrial History Gallery, the museum charts the development of Coventry through telling the story of some of the people and activities that played a part in the development of the modern city. They have a display dedicated to George Eliot and a number of her belongings on display, including her writing desk, a stationery cabinet and hand carved writing table, given to Mary by one fo her friends. There are some paintings and a maquette on display and they also have some of her letters, alongside some early editions of her work, nice to connect her handwriting with her later written work. Additionally, there are displays giving connections between her work and the local countryside. It’s a great insight into one of our greatest novelists.

Golden Cross Inn, Coventry

It was time to meet Mrs. P for lunch, so I walked back to the Golden Cross Inn. This was favourite pub of the young Philip Larkin. It is a fine old building: half-timbered with projecting upper stories. Inside, there is a great deal exposed wood, a tiled floor and some lovely old glazed screens. There was even a group of old men sharing a pint: a guarantee of quality in an old pub. We ordered fish and chips and I had a pint of Coffin Stout and it was wonderful.

We left coventry then, via Bird Grove, the house where Eliot lived with her father, which stands on what is now called ‘George Eliot Road’. The building is in rather a sorry state: currently empty, behind spiked railings, there are plans to renovate it as a visitor centre but, as with many of these plans, there is a great deal of good intention and very little money to go around.

We pressed on, deeper into Eliot country. Tonight we would be staying in her childhood home but first, the cottage where she was born.

The farmhouse is part of the Arbury Estate and not usually open to the public. Arbury Hall and Gardens, however, open every Bank Holiday weekend. As today was Bank Holiday Monday, I was quite excited by the happy coincidence and eager to take a look around. Alas, it was closed. Ah well. No point in getting angry with a virus, I suppose. We did stop at a nearby bookshop, however, which was a wonderful discovery. Astley book farm is converted farm buildings with a a vast number of second hand and rare books and I spent a happy hour combing the shelves. They even had a George Eliot section, from whichI bought a biography and her early short story collection, Scenes of a Clerical Life.

There is a tea room in the Book Farm and we sat in the garden, in the sunshine, enjoying a cup of tea and some very elaborate cakes while I perused my purchases. George Eliot is a fantastic writer and I urge you to read her if you haven’t already. Silas Marner is a quite accessible Victorian tale of redemption and Middlemarch is a masterpiece.

There are further adventures in Eliot country to come, for tonight we were staying in her childhood home before making our way to Nuneaton.

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