The History Anorak

The History Anorak

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Sent to Coventry

A fair in the old cathedral ruins
On the night of 14 November 1940 the German Luftwaffe carried out a bombing raid on Coventry and dropped incendiary devices across the city. It was considered a legitimate target because of its concentration of engineering firms:  cars, bicycles, aeroplane engines and munitions factories.

There was a story that Britain knew the German bombers were on the way because messages sent by the coded Enigma machines had been intercepted and translated. It was not possible to stop the planes without letting the German government know that Bletchley Park, the UK government's signals base, had cracked the Enigma code and so Coventry was sacrificed. The story has been denied by some former Bletchley Park workers, but like the lady once said, they would say that, wouldn't they?

Inside the new cathedral
At the time Coventry city centre was a well preserved medieval town with many original buildings still surviving. Among them was the magnificent cathedral. Its lead-covered roof was a serious victim of the incendiary attack. As the metal was hit, it melted, burned and dripped through the timbers onto the floor below. This devastated the building, which was more or less leveled overnight. Only remnants of the walls, and the tall tower survived, mainly because the floors below the spire were stone and were impervious to the heat.

The charred cross
The following morning as workers sifted through the wreckage they found two burned timbers lying in the form of a cross in the wrecked nave. The two were fixed together and the whole thing raised up to act as a symbol of the city's resurrection. That cross still stands in the modern cathedral that lies alongside the remains of the original. Surviving medieval roof nails were also collected and formed, in threes, into smaller crosses. One stands on the old altar at the eastern end of the old building.

In a single night more than 4,300 homes were destroyed, two thirds of the buildings in the city were damaged and a third of the city's factories were wrecked, including the main Daimler production centre. More than 560 people, including nine police officers, were killed.  

Coventry has, over the years, become a symbol of peace and reconciliation. A new cathedral, designed by Basil Spence, was constructed in the 1950s alongside the ruins of the old church. It is rich with symbolism, not just because of the charred beams and nails. In the Chapel of Unity are hundreds of paper birds which represent the story of Sadako Sasaki who contracted leukemia after atom bombs were dropped on her home city of Hiroshima. She planned to fold 1,000 origami cranes but didn't finish them before she died.

Thursday, 20 July 2017


The Humber Bridge spans the Humber estuary just outside this year's City of Culture, Hull. To mark the city's place as a centre of culture a number of its structures have been given listed building status - including the bridge, which is now officially Grade I.

At the time of its construction, (it opened in June 1981) it was the longest bridge of its kind in the world. As a measure of architectural development it now stands at only eighth. It's a significant landmark and recognised for miles around. It has come to symbolise the city, appearing on many of its publicity materials.

Before its construction the route from bank to bank across the estuary went via Goole and passed across a rather smaller swing bridge. The leading roads had high accident rates and often faced difficulties in poor weather.

The view from the deck
The central span is 1,410 metres (4,626 feet - or around 200 yards short of a mile) and is suspended between two towers 155.5 metres (510 feet) tall. although both towers are vertical they are further apart at the top than the bottom, owing to the curvature of the earth.

Oh, and everyone locally remembers the summer of 1976 when the area around the bridge (and much of the rest of East Yorkshire) suffered a plague of ladybirds. The insects settled on the bridge, wriggling into small crevices and setting work back weeks while constructors cleared them away from sensitive parts of the structure!

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Arbor Low

Arbor Low, Derbyshire is a prehistoric henge monument, that is, it consists of a circle of stones set inside a circular ditch with a bank enclosing the complete structure.  It is unclear what henges were used for but it seems likely that whatever went on there was designed to be seen only by a few chosen people. The bank around the monument would have made it impossible to see activities within the stone circle from outside. Perhaps observers sat on the inner side of the bank, but it would still have been available to only a restricted few.

Bank and ditch arrangement
The site is a Neolithic one, built around 5,000 years ago from locally quarried limestone. Superimposed on it is a burial mound dating from the Bronze Age, which was excavated in the 19th century and found to contain two urn burials.  The stones would originally have been upright but they are all now fallen over. There are a number of entrances to the circle that show as gaps in the bank and there is some evidence that a processional way might once have led from the south because there is a linear earthwork close to the southern entrance.  About 250 metres away on a horizon to the south west is another Bronze Age burial mound called Gib Hill. It too lies over an earlier monument, a Neolithic long barrow that probably pre-dates the circle.

Arbor Low stands on private land behind a farm at the top of a fairly steep hill. The view from the site is extremely dramatic as it is possible to see for a very long way. Whoever built the site must either have wanted the mound to be visible from a great distance or to be able to see anyone approaching it.
(This post was originally published as part of the HistoryAnorak website.