Dr Jonathan Foyle scales Britain's most iconic structures to reveal the buildings' secrets. Jonathan's journey takes him to Coventry Cathedral.
Browse content similar to Coventry Cathedral. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
I'm hanging 120 feet over the ruins of old Coventry Cathedral
and enjoying the view of its replacement,
a building which stood for a post-war age of optimism and architectural invention.
This is Climbing Great Buildings,
and throughout this series, I'll be scaling our most iconic and best-loved structures,
from the Normans to the present day.
I'll be revealing the building's secrets and telling the story
of how British architecture and construction
developed over 1,000 years.
The next step in my journey through the evolution of British architecture
brings me to Coventry.
The new cathedral designed by Sir Basil Spence and built from 1955,
sits alongside the bombed ruins of the original medieval church.
The new cathedral became a symbol of a nation rising from the rubble and ashes
after the hellish devastation of the Second World War.
I've been given unprecedented access to reveal the secrets
behind Coventry Cathedral's construction.
I'll zip from the old bell tower
to tell the story of the cathedral's resurrection
and reveal why the bombed building was neither rebuilt nor bulldozed
to make way for a replacement.
LUCY: I think it's great that they left it here, actually.
I'll scale a tapestry the size of a tennis court
to come face to face with the most incredible rendition of Christ,
crafted from over a thousand different shades of wool.
Looms in every sense, I think.
And along the way, I'll find out how a trip to the dentist
inspired the design of this modern masterpiece.
As ever, top British climber Lucy Creamer and a team of riggers,
along with intrepid cameraman Ian Burton will be joining me on my vertical adventure.
Coventry Cathedral is, in fact, two cathedrals.
There's the new cathedral over there,
but this is all that remains of the old cathedral, St Michael's,
a parish church built into the first quarter of the 15th century
one of the masterpieces of late medieval architecture in Britain.
It was elevated to cathedral status in 1918,
just 22 years before one fateful night changed the face of the city.
AIR RAID SIREN
On the 14th November 1940,
40,000 incendiary bombs rained down on Coventry
killing over 600 people.
This beautiful medieval city was engulfed in a raging fire storm
that left barely a building untouched.
Over a third of the city was destroyed
but when the shell-shocked people of Coventry emerged the next morning,
they heard the bells of the cathedral ringing.
Jubilation quickly turned to despair
when they realised the main body of the cathedral had been reduced to rubble.
All that remained was the nave walls and its beautiful bell tower.
The decision to build a new cathedral was led by Provost Howard the very next morning.
Now this wasn't to be an act of defiance or revenge,
but rather peace and reconciliation, and hope for the future.
Nothing symbolised that message of hope more than a visit from a young Queen Elizabeth.
The fresh face of a nation still struggling to emerge
from the destruction and grief of war.
TV NARRATOR: 'Coventry. Paying her first visit to the city since her coronation,
'to lay the foundation stone of the new cathedral,
'the Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh,
'saw the Cross of Nails which was recovered from the charred timbers of the old building.'
The rebuilding of the cathedral
was a statement to the world that for all the horror and pain that Britain had endured,
a new, confident country was emerging,
braver, stronger and more resolute than ever.
The finest craftsmen of the age would use their skills, not only to create a monument of hope,
but also to reflect the virtues of a new Britain.
They would be bold, daring and unbeholden to the past.
In order to view the old cathedral, I'm going to zip line 180 feet down from its steeple.
Normally, I'd be admiring the cathedral's wonderful arcades and timber roofs,
but, sadly, all that remains is a shell.
But from this vantage point, I can get a real sense of what the city would have looked like
before that fateful night in 1940.
We're on a site of a gem of a medieval city. Look down there. See that timber frame courtyard?
-It's one of the relics of the medieval city.
It was packed with narrow lanes, half-timbered houses.
-If Coventry were today what is was like in 1939...
-..it would be one of the chief tourist attractions in the whole of Britain.
It would be a jewel in Britain.
It's tragic, isn't it?
Built over the course of more than 100 years in the 14th and 15th centuries,
St Michael's was a fine example of late Gothic church architecture.
LUCY: Let's do this thing.
-It's quite genteel, isn't it?
When the decision was made to rebuild the cathedral,
the church authorities were adamant that the iconic bell tower must remain standing.
-Now, let's take stock.
That is a majestic tower. You don't see it, do you, when you're...
This is beautiful.
-..when you're on the top of the thing...
-..you can't see the wood for the trees, so to speak.
Can't see the stone for the spire.
Do you know, there's not much that's left in Coventry,
but just to look down there and get a sense of what surrounded this church,
and why all these densely-packed buildings were so ready to go up in flames.
-The intensity of the heat must have been appalling.
But one of the things that brought the church down
was in the 1890s, I think it was,
-there were some steel repairs to the timber beams...
..and when you heat steel, of course, it twists and bends.
-And it's that that pulled the walls in and made it collapse.
-So, ironically, the strengthening ended up being the weakening factor.
-Being its downfall.
The cathedral at Coventry was the only one in England to be destroyed during the war,
and it forced the church authorities into a difficult decision.
Did they simply rebuild the old cathedral in all its medieval glory,
or should they leave the ruins alone to stand as a memorial to those who had died,
and as a poignant reminder of the pain and destruction caused by war?
I think it's great that they left it here, actually.
Yeah, I think if it had been rebuilt, if these walls had been strengthened,
the glass had been put back in, a roof had been put back on.
It's one way of doing it, of course, after the war.
But you lose the history, don't you, that the building's gone through?
Yeah, and I guess you could argue it's a sense of denial that it happened in the first place.
-Whereas, this seems to accept what happened as fact.
And the new cathedral is built to say something,
to give you the next chapter in the story of Coventry.
-Quite powerful that way, I think.
At first, the church authorities decided to build a new Gothic cathedral adjacent to the ruins,
but this idea drew critics, including the then bishop of Coventry.
So rather than force it through,
they held a competition that was open to any architect.
How many competition submissions were there?
There was something like 219 submissions
that came from all over the world.
The favoured approach, generally, from the competition
was to build a new cathedral parallel to the existing ruins.
-Show me some of the entries.
There was an entry by Peter & Alison Smithson,
who were very well-known architects at the time,
who proposed a very contemporary solution,
which was a building totally within the ruins
and incorporating the tower, with a sweeping roof.
-That's quite dynamic.
-Almost like an airport design.
-It's got that...
-It is. It is.
-..sense of flight about it.
It was very well received by the architectural press at the time,
and some thought it should have won.
-Some of these designs struck me as a bit eccentric.
There was one that was totally underground,
where the architect was worried about a nuclear attack and protecting the cathedral.
-Which is exactly that. Yes.
Gosh. Underground bunker of a cathedral.
-It's cathedral as bomb shelter, it's not really a symbol of hope.
-No, it's not.
Nestled within the weird and wonderful submissions
was a brilliantly modern design from little-known Scottish architect, Basil Spence.
What was distinctive then about Spence's design?
Spence was the only one of the competition entries
that kept the ruins as their entirety,
and linked it to a new building.
The others removed a wall, the south wall or the north wall and added the cathedral,
still maintaining the space,
but all of theirs linked in one way or another to the ruins as they stood,
which meant an alteration to the ruins.
So that was the major difference.
After receiving praise for the spirit and imagination of his design,
Spence was chosen as the winner,
and for him, it was a realisation of a long-held dream.
Several years earlier, whilst fighting on the beaches of Normandy,
a fellow soldier asked him what his ambition was.
Spence replied simply, "To build a cathedral."
The cathedral ruins are extremely important to the people of Coventry
who held regular open-air services here.
So Spence's decision to keep them in their entirety was hugely popular.
He believed the new cathedral should grow out of the old
and the ruins would remain as a symbol of remembrance for the fate of the city.
If the ruins offered remembrance,
then Spence was determined that his new cathedral would represent hope.
And past and future are literally linked by a connecting wall
between old St Michael's and the porch of the new cathedral,
the setting for my next climb.
I'm going to scale 70 feet
to see how Spence managed to reconcile two buildings
built 500 years apart.
I think a lot of school kids get brought to Coventry.
-I was brought here when I was...
-Yeah, I was too.
-..but a teenager.
I think I was about 11 or 12. You came as well?
Yeah, I was. First year of school. Secondary school, yeah.
All right. Let's get jamming.
The west entrance is dominated by the immense plate-glass window,
but, as we climb, Lucy notices another of the cathedral's most striking features.
So what do you think of this canopy, then, Dr Foyle?
Well, I think it's a clever idea,
because you've got the roofless ruins of the old cathedral,
and then you've got the fully vaulted and roofed new cathedral,
-quite dark and enclosed.
-So I guess this is a transition between them.
It's a clever bridge, I think, between the two things.
-I'm not sure I like it, actually.
I don't know, I just feel it almost overshadows the old cathedral.
Yeah. Whether that sort of slightly cranky, typically '50s, '60s form,
-might look equally at home in a bus shelter or a cathedral.
That might be what's sort of taking it away for me a little bit.
I like the idea, but the effect, five out of ten. SHE LAUGHS
Do you know, I can see you turning to architecture after this.
You'll have to retrain, it'll take you seven years.
Yeah, I'll just take seven years out of my life.
One of Spence's chief concerns
was to ensure a sense of continuity between the two cathedrals.
One of the ways he achieved this, was through his choice of building material.
Climbing up to this level, you feel you're in a canyon of this pink stone.
It's quite remarkable how the old cathedral meshes with the new one
just by virtue of this material.
And it's a deliberate choice by Spence.
He was fed up, in the '50s, of what he called, "glass boxes" and "cubes",
quite the fashion then, not entirely disappeared today.
And his fellow architects were a bit dismissive of his choice of Hollington, the local stone,
which provided the original stone for much of Coventry's medieval buildings.
It really harmonises well.
Well, you can see some of the glass boxes
that Spence talked about in the '50s.
-The kind of fairly cheap solution to rebuilding a city
when, frankly, the country was, more or less, bankrupt.
-But hey, he can't have totally hated glass, look at that, there's about four acres of it.
The defining feature of this entrance has to be the huge expanse of engraved plate glass,
known as the West Screen.
It's a beautiful re-imagining of a traditional cathedral entrance,
with religious figures and saints high up,
looking down on the worshippers
as they enter the cathedral to give thanks to God.
Should we zip across? Is that the word?
Well, this is a Tyrolean, technically it's called a Tyrolean.
-So shall we...
-..shall we "Tyrol" across?
-Should we do a little "Tyrol"?
-Let's get "Tyrolised", shall we?
Spence initially approached world-renowned glass sculptor John Hutton in 1952,
but it took nine years until the windows were fully realised.
Hutton spent the intervening time experimenting and inventing new methods for glass engraving,
which resulted in these incredibly beautiful, translucent figures.
And they're so big, as well. They must be about eight-foot high, or something.
-Something like that. They're superhuman in scale.
But they're so busy, the way in which these great trumpets are being blown,
and these characters spiralling through space.
There are 66 figures, in all.
And you've got the Virgin, look, in the middle,
and there's Christ, and so there's saints and angels swirling around,
a real celestial vision.
We've also got an amazing view, a reflection, of the old one, as well.
-Now that's clever.
-It acts like a kind of mirror.
-You never get away from the idea of this ruin and resurrection.
-It's clever, that.
So, Lu, what do you think of them?
I actually quite like it.
I can appreciate the artistry, that's for sure.
I don't think I would have done when I came here as an 11-year-old, but I like it.
I think there's something convincing about
trying not to make angels and so on look too human, cos you only...
You just end up thinking, "Well, how do the wings fix to your back?"
So to turn them into these dynamic lines, I think, is-is...
Cos it's all about energy and emotional power, after all.
-It is, yeah.
-I think it's totally appropriate. I like them too.
-Should we head down?
Yeah, I like it.
Upon entering the cathedral, it may appear like a huge well-proportioned aircraft hangar,
a vast, empty room with plain concrete walls, a functional space.
But the more you look around, the more the traditional elements begin to reveal themselves.
Inside the cathedral you see the basic elements of a great English church.
A big nave, its long, central vessels separated from its aisles by tall columns
reaching up to a vault.
And it's a long view too, in the way that medieval churches were long,
focused on the altar, housed in its separate space called the chancel.
So it is, more or less, a traditional design.
On the other hand, it contains some unusual features.
To walk into a medieval cathedral you'd expect to see rows of stained-glass windows.
In fact, here, you just see solid panels of wall,
and then medieval columns rose on big bases, right up to the roof...
Well, here...they're not on bases, at all, a little bit of bronze.
They seem to be upside down, as they taper outwards, as they grow.
And they support unusually slender-looking rib vaults.
These are made from concrete,
and somehow span in a very airy and delicate way, with wood between.
Now, all this novelty meant the traditionalists were outraged,
but Spence argued that true tradition lay in responding to the opportunities of your own age,
much as the builders of Durham or Lincoln had done
in making THEIR contribution to architectural evolution.
That's what he saw as true authenticity.
Even the traditional stained-glass window
was given a thoroughly contemporary reworking by Basil Spence.
For my next climb, I'm going to scale this 80-foot high window
to explore the detail it's impossible to appreciate from the ground.
This area's called the Baptistery.
Yeah, I was wondering what this piece of rock was.
Yeah, it's a font. From a chunk of rock from Bethlehem.
-And it was brought by people of different kinds of faiths,
you know, free, they provided transport across Europe for it.
-And so, to bring a bit of rock from the Holy Land.
-It's marvellously primitive too.
-I like it.
-It's not sculpted into any particular image or symbol,
apart from a scallop shell on the top.
It hasn't been sort of finished off too precisely.
You're a fan of it, then?
I am, I have to admit, I do like lumps of rock.
Taking four years to complete,
the Baptistery Window contains 198 individual hand-painted glass panels.
These panels are abstract in design.
They don't portray any immediately recognisable figures or scenes.
Spence was more concerned with creating a mood than biblical storytelling,
and these panes shine down on the nave floor,
creating an astounding pattern of glowing colour.
In keeping with the cathedral's message of hope and resurrection,
the overriding motif, is of the Sun glowing benevolently upon those being baptised.
The big impression for me, at this height,
is that every one of these panels is its own work of art.
-Yeah. Completely individual.
-Yeah. Cos from a distance it becomes part of a big colour scheme.
-You've got the red, the earthy colours.
Reds and browns and blues and greens, it looks like fire and elements and things.
-And then, there's that extraordinary Sun-like yellow-white in the middle.
And then, blue, celestial blue above.
-I like the fact that there's no right or wrong.
There's no squinting to see the name of a saint on a little label underneath them.
-You could look at it for hours, couldn't you?
The beautiful, intricate glasswork is the creation of John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens,
but the surrounding stonework is Spence's own creation
and he made a conscious decision to offset the glass with a very simple, almost industrial framework.
Spence said that medieval builders
-created their windows with hand and chisel and hammer.
-The stuff that was available to them.
And so the finely carved mouldings are a result of their technology.
Now, in the 20th Century, you know, he's got great stone saws and so on,
it's all industrial, machine-made stuff.
-So he's respecting the age in which he's creating this.
And I rather like the fact that it is mechanistic and precise in the outline,
and all of the attention is given onto this stained glass.
-It's got such soul and atmosphere.
I like the contrast between the two things.
From this unique position, 70 feet up, I realise that the blues at the top of the window,
which I'd always assumed represented the sky,
could have a completely different meaning.
-I'm enjoying those purples and blues.
-It's like a big bath, isn't it?
And so there's the scallop shell.
Gosh, look at that. It looks like a pebble, now.
SHE LAUGHS: It does.
-Yeah, now we're up here, Lu.
I've completely changed my mind about what I think the blue looks like...
-..or stands for. Yeah.
-Cos I thought it was quite celestial, you know, this blue.
But all those ripples across it, totally aquatic.
Of course, the whole thing is a Baptistery,
so it's all about water and immersion, and truth comes through water.
-Talk about immersive.
Absorbed in this thing, in this colour.
I think it's so rare that you experience pure colour and light like this.
This is incredible.
You can see why, throughout time, the stained glass window's never really lost admirers.
You just can't beat it for sheer opulence.
The stained glass isn't the only place
where Spence reworked and modernised a traditional feature of a cathedral.
The concrete and vaulted ceiling at Coventry
has echoes of the great ribbed vaults of cathedrals like Durham and Lincoln,
but there's a big difference.
Conventional Gothic vaults spring from the walls
as integral parts of a great skeletal structure.
Not so, in this case.
Here, the vaulting is totally separate from the roof, serving no structural function.
I'm going to get above the vaulted ceiling and beneath the roof, to get a better view.
Medieval stone vaults are incredibly heavy
and their weight is transferred often via buttresses through the walls and down to the ground.
But Spence's concept of a vault was totally different.
This weighs very little because it's purely ornamental,
it doesn't even touch the sides of the building,
it's only fixed at both of the long ends.
Now, to create this lattice network of concrete,
he had the help of the most gifted engineer of his generation,
and that was Ove Arup.
And Arup suggested that the columns, 60 feet high,
should carry mushrooms over them.
So if you imagine that there is an umbrella like structure,
so that the whole thing is self-supporting.
It's a very, very clever solution
and one of the best examples of mid-20th century engineering.
That meant that the roof could perform its own function quite independently.
So these reinforced concrete trusses
hold 29,000 square feet of copper and take care of themselves.
Whilst Spence's vision for the rebirth of the cathedral delighted and intrigued most,
not all of his ideas met with universal approval.
I'm making my way across the roof of the cathedral
to see one of its most contentious features.
That is an 80-foot-high bronze fleche,
designed by the cathedral's engineers, Arup, as a modern take on the city's medieval steeples.
But it wasn't universally popular.
When Spence was giving his fundraising lectures,
explaining that you can find such things on French cathedrals,
a lady stepped forward and said she found objectionable what seemed to be a design for a radio mast.
The waggish Spence replied, "Well, we can't leave it out, madam.
"It's to receive messages from Heaven."
Television may have been in its infancy,
but the church authorities knew a good PR stunt when they saw one.
The world was wowed when, rather than simply carry the fleche up to the roof,
they borrowed an RAF helicopter to lower the 80-foot spirelet into place.
It announced the rebirth of Coventry Cathedral was complete.
And it's from the roof that we can see another very unusual feature of the cathedral.
Unlike the straight walls of most churches,
here, they're zigzagged.
The inspiration for this striking feature came from a somewhat unorthodox source.
Spence worked day and night over the designs for the cathedral, and ran himself down.
At one point, he had an abscess in his gum
and his dentist gave him a local anaesthetic, which rendered him unconscious.
The dentist was concerned, but when Spence round, he told him he'd had a dream.
He'd walked through his cathedral
and turned around at the altar and saw that the walls of the nave were zigzagged,
and it's that that gave him the inspiration.
The dentist suggested he might charge him for the idea.
And what these zigzag walls enable,
is one of the most beautiful wonders of the cathedral.
As we've seen, from the entrance, the nave seems like a concrete box,
but when you look from the altar, at the other end of the church,
the cathedral reveals itself as a riot of glorious colour.
Each pair of these stained-glass windows portrays one of the five ages of man, from birth to death,
and they combine to create a magnificent golden glow upon the high altar.
Sitting upon this simple concrete slab,
is another symbol of Coventry's rebirth
and a link from past to future.
The Holy Cross which surrounds nails reclaimed from the wreckage of the original cathedral.
And above this, hangs the majestic 74-feet-high tapestry of Christ,
which is the setting for my final climb.
He's an imposing character, isn't He?
-I guess it's only right.
SHE LAUGHS Yeah!
-But, to get up to this tapestry and face that really dominating figure...
..it's going to be quite extraordinary, I think.
Oh gosh. Look at that view, Lu.
This is where you really appreciate all of that stained glass and the zigzag walls.
Wow. That is fantastic.
The tapestry, which is almost the size of a tennis court and weighs nearly a tonne,
was designed by a little-known, but deeply religious artist,
Basil Spence came to know of Graham Sutherland
after he visited a tapestry exhibition and saw some works by the artist.
And he thought that if he won the commission for Coventry Cathedral,
he'd like Sutherland to create a tapestry for it.
But he, at first, imagined a large East Window in this space.
And then he had a masterstroke, that the tapestry, if it filled the wall,
could be the dominant image in the entire church.
If so, it would be the largest tapestry of its date in the world.
And that's just what happened.
This magnificent rendition of Christ and the story of His birth, death and resurrection
mirrors the experience of the city of Coventry.
And looking back down the nave,
you understand how all the elements of this magnificent cathedral
combine to tell this central story.
The way He was portrayed in the glass was, of course, as a child, sitting on the Virgin's knee.
But look at Him, I mean, full grown, bearded.
-It's like His own life has been shown in progression through the cathedral.
And when you look back, of course, you see the ages of man in the windows behind you.
-So the whole thing...
-That really is incredible...
-Yeah, the whole...
-..seeing it from here.
The whole way in which the cathedral talks about the passage of life,
and the idea of resurrection, birth, death, renewal and so on,
it's very powerful.
-It all adds up, I think.
The French company responsible for crafting this tapestry
used traditional techniques.
It took 12 expert weavers over two and a half years to create it
on a loom that was over 500 years old.
I-I just can't get over how...HOW this was made.
It just... It's a wonder of needlecraft.
LOOMS in every sense, I think.
SHE LAUGHS It's amazing!
Apparently a thousand different colours of wool.
You can sort of see that, though, when you're close up, the diff...the shades and...
-It really does just look like a painting.
They must have had to use an aircraft hangar to make it in, or something.
I just cannot get over the size it. It's really incredible.
Coventry Cathedral manages to do something remarkable,
it manages a balancing act and yet retains its own very strong character.
The old cathedral is left alone,
respected as a monument to what the people of Coventry went through.
Next to it is this building, which is very much of its age.
It uses technology which is pioneering.
And you know, this vision, this incredibly well-thought-through,
this well-crafted monument to hope and renewal after World War Two,
is not just for people of one faith,
although it speaks strongly for that faith,
the point is, reconciliation.
And so, from the stone of the font through to the carving of the glass,
it's people of different faiths and nations
who've all contributed to create this marvel of the 20th century.
How steel, glass and concrete translated the lessons of the past into a vision for the future,
at the Lloyd's building in London.
Subtitling by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Dr Jonathan Foyle, architectural historian and novice climber, scales Britain's most iconic structures, from the Normans to the present day, to reveal the buildings' secrets and tell the story of how our architecture and construction have developed over 1,000 years.
The next step of Jonathan Foyle's journey takes him to Coventry Cathedral. Built in 1955 after the original cathedral was bombed in the war, this modernist masterpiece came to symbolise the hope and rebirth of a nation.
Jonathan, aided by top climber Lucy Creamer, abseils 295 feet between the ruins of the old and new cathedrals to explore how Basil Spence's experiences fighting on the beaches of Normandy shaped his design for the cathedral. On his climbs throughout the building, Jonathan scales the cathedral's immense etched window that utilised the most cutting-edge techniques in its creation and reveals why it's called the west window when it sits in the south of the building. He discovers a world-record-breaking 74-foot-high tapestry that weighs nearly three quarters of a ton and incorporates 1,000 different shades of wool, and reveals how a trip to the dentist defined one of Coventry's most striking features.