Coventry Cathedral

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The new and old Cathedral in the city of Coventry, Great Britain. Coventry was the target of massive aerial bombardment by the German Luftwaffe in WWII systematically orchestrated to eradicate the city – in a manner that served as the model for the subsequent bombing of German cities (including Hamburg and Dresden) by the British RAF. The bombed-out shell of the old Cathedral of Coventry now serves as a memorial, while a stunningly modern new Cathedral has been built next to it.  

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>What there is to see


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More background info: Coventry had long been a major industrial centre, which made it a prime target for bombings, and it had indeed been bombed before, esp. during the so-called Battle of Britain, but the city's darkest hour came in the evening of 14 November 1940 when the Luftwaffe started a bombing raid utilizing over 500 bombers and a new systematized approach. First, special planes dropped marker flares for the following wave of bombers to find their targets more easily, which then dropped high-explosive bombs to crack open buildings and disrupt water supplies. Another wave then showered the city with smaller incendiary bombs to cause fires in the "opened up" buildings, which the fire fighters couldn't put out because with the water supplies disrupted they lacked the water to do so. The whole operation lasted several hours.

This was basically the blueprint for later (perfected and scaled-up) incendiary bombings of cities in Germany by the British Royal Air Force (first Hamburg, which was devastated by a firestorm proper).

Remarkably, Coventry became a city pioneering reconciliation rather than revenge, though. It was the first to form twin city partnerships – this includes Dresden, the German city that suffered the most of all from Allied carpet bombing right towards the end of the war in 1945.

One symbol of Coventry Cathedral is its Cross of Nails – standing for its peace and reconciliation movement (originally formed from roof beam nails of the collapsed old Cathedral, later replicated and spread to a large number of other places, including: Berlin's Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church). But it also had another, rather unintended dark spark in later 20th century war history: during the Falklands War, the British destroyer HMS Coventry was sunk. On board was one of those Crosses of Nails, which had been presented to the Royal Navy by the Cathedral. It was later salvaged and given back to the church.
What there is to see: Of the old Cathedral's nave only parts of the outer walls remain. Into these some symbolic items are set: in the sanctuary, the former altar is adorned with a replica of a wooden cross – the original, on display in the new Cathedral, was formed by chance (unless you believe in higher forces) as charred beams of the Cathedral fell to the ground to form this shape. Not such an unlikely coincidence, if you think about it, given what a simple shape a cross is – the chance formation by rubble of a Buddha, Star of David or crescent and star would be a lot more astonishing. In any case, it was tied together and became a symbol of hope and resurrection.

To the side of the open complex that would have been the nave before the destruction of the church stands a sculpture entitled 'Reconciliation' – depicting a man and a woman on their knees embracing each other – a second identical such statue stands in Hiroshima.

The natural focal point of the old Cathedral, however, is the tower/spire, which miraculously remained standing. You can even go up the tower to a viewing platform.

The new Cathedral opposite is a remarkable modern structure. Modern churches, esp. their interiors, frequently fail to impress compared to old style cathedrals. But Coventry's is definitely an exception. Most stunning is its West screen glass front, which is facing the old Cathedral (so it’s always visible from the inside whenever you're facing away from the altar). What makes it so remarkable is the fact that it is composed of  glass panels onto which 66 large figures of saints and angels are engraved (it took the artist, John Hutton, 10 years to complete!) – some of the figures have a decidedly spooky, gothic even demonic appearance. I couldn't take my eyes off them!  

What's also remarkable: the whole design of the interior cleverly gives the impression that it’s bigger inside than it looks from the outside!

As you walk along the left wall, look out for the peace bell presented to Coventry Cathedral by then president of Germany Richard von Weizsäcker on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Coventry.

In a separate exhibition room towards the back of the Cathedral, the original wooden cross (see above) and another Cross of Nails are on display (amongst other objects).
When I visited in summer 2008 there was a special picture exhibition in the Chapel of Unity to the side of the main Cathedral's nave. Its topic: Hiroshima & Nagasaki – it consisted primarily of drawings by survivors accompanied by excerpts from their harrowing stories (in some gruesome detail), but also a few photos, including a rather shocking one of a US soldier who had served on Bikini and developed "malignant lymphoma" from radioactive contamination which grossly disfigured him. The exhibition was accompanied by posters and leaflets of nuclear disarmament campaigners calling for Britain to abolish its nuclear arms. A strong political point made inside a cathedral. I was impressed. Presumably, however, it was only temporary exhibition.

Another detail that impressed (esp. the linguist in me) was: by the entrance, the Cathedral offers leaflets with basic information about the building – in a truly stunning range of 20 languages!!
Location: in the centre of Coventry, West Midlands, ca. 20 miles east of Birmingham, Great Britain. Coventry is often said to be the centre point of England (which is not strictly speaking true, but out of Britain's major cities Coventry is the one furthest away from any coast).
Google maps locator:[52.408,-1.507]
Access and costs: quite easy, and nominally free, though donations are requested.
Details: being located in the relatively small centre of the city, the Cathedral is within walking distance from anywhere in central Coventry. It's in the north-eastern part of the nearly circular city centre rimmed by the inner ring road. The main entrance is on Priory Street to the east, but can also reached via Priory Row from the west.

The new Cathedral is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. – access to at least some parts will naturally be restricted, or impossible, during services. There's no admission charge to the new or old Cathedral as such, but visitors to the new Cathedral are "requested" to leave a donation of 3 GBP, which is not too much to ask for.

The old Cathedral's remains are freely accessible at all times – except for the tower/spire, for which a fee of 2.50 GBP is levied (access from the visitor centre, 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on weekdays, and 10 a.m. to 12:30/12:00 and 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at weekends).
Time required: depending on whether there are any exhibitions that might keep you longer, otherwise between 30 to 45 minutes should easily suffice for having a good look around. If you want to climb the tower add extra time (and calories) for that.
Combinations with other dark destinations: see Great Britain. The closest other site within reasonable driving distance would be the National Memorial Arboretum, north of Tamworth, about 20 miles north-west of Coventry.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: in general see Great Britain. Coventry itself is not the prettiest of cities in the country and has few other sights; neighbouring Birmingham (despite its lingering bad reputation amongst outsiders) has a lot more to offer.
  • Coventry Cathedral 01 - old spireCoventry Cathedral 01 - old spire
  • Coventry Cathedral 02 - old and newCoventry Cathedral 02 - old and new
  • Coventry Cathedral 03 - green victoryCoventry Cathedral 03 - green victory
  • Coventry Cathedral 04 - kind of scary foot and mouthCoventry Cathedral 04 - kind of scary foot and mouth
  • Coventry Cathedral 05 - WWII ruinsCoventry Cathedral 05 - WWII ruins
  • Coventry Cathedral 06 - former nave - now memorialCoventry Cathedral 06 - former nave - now memorial
  • Coventry Cathedral 07 - open-air altarCoventry Cathedral 07 - open-air altar
  • Coventry Cathedral 08 - ReconciliationCoventry Cathedral 08 - Reconciliation
  • Coventry Cathedral 09 - new next to oldCoventry Cathedral 09 - new next to old
  • Coventry Cathedral 10 - a plethora of languages catered forCoventry Cathedral 10 - a plethora of languages catered for
  • Coventry Cathedral 11 - interiorCoventry Cathedral 11 - interior
  • Coventry Cathedral 12 - cross of nailsCoventry Cathedral 12 - cross of nails
  • Coventry Cathedral 13 - German peace bellCoventry Cathedral 13 - German peace bell
  • Coventry Cathedral 14 - glass frontCoventry Cathedral 14 - glass front
  • Coventry Cathedral 15 - almost modern gothicCoventry Cathedral 15 - almost modern gothic
  • Coventry Cathedral 16 - listen upCoventry Cathedral 16 - listen up
  • Coventry Cathedral 17 - ghostlyCoventry Cathedral 17 - ghostly
  • Coventry Cathedral 18 - amazing glass artCoventry Cathedral 18 - amazing glass art
  • Coventry CathedralCoventry Cathedral


©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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