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Godiva, Spires and Trains

Whilst preparing for the "Stroll in Godiva's Footsteps" guided walk which I shall be giving this week I have been looking at different interpretations and renditions of the Godiva story. The most famous is probably Alfred, Lord Tennyson's 1840 poem, "Godiva" ,part of which is quoted on the plinth of the statue in Broadgate.


Tennyson opens his poem by explaining that he is looking at the view of the three spires of Coventry from Warwick Road bridge at the city's railway station:


I waited for the train at Coventry; I hung with grooms and porters on the bridge, To watch the three tall spires; and there I shaped The city's ancient legend into this: Not only we, the latest seed of Time, New men, that in the flying of a wheel Cry down the past, not only we, that prate Of rights and wrongs, have loved the people well, And loathed to see them overtax'd; but she Did more, and underwent, and overcame


Tennyson goes on to recount the story of Godiva's naked ride through Coventry to relieve the people of the tax imposed on them by her husband Leofric (who had set down the ride as a challenge to her protests against taxation).


The station was close to its present site and the view of the spires would have been similar to that of today when looking down on the city from Warwick Road. Tennyson would have been amongst the first passengers to have visited the station - originally buit in 1838 and expanded and slightly relocated in1840. He comments on the "progress" of the steam age and "forward looking" attitudes :


"...... we, the latest seed of Time, New men, that in the flying of a wheel Cry down the past......"


These attitudes were not necessarily shared by all of the population of the Coventry which Tennyson was looking over. At that time the three spires of Christchurch (Greyfriars), St Michaels and Holy Trinity sat as part of one of the most preserved medieval towns in England. The craft industries of ribbon weaving and watchmaking were still based in family workshops. The emergenge of the city's first steam loom was met with rioting and subsequent transportation of the rioters (including some sentences which were reduced from the death penalty after widespread unrest).


Although lagging behind some of the towns of the Midlands and the North in the take-up of new manufacturing techniques, Coventry wasn't without influence in the development of the "industrial revolution". The completion of Coventry Canal had seen the final piece in the jigsaw of pioneering engineer James Brindley's vision of connecting the navigable waterways of the Severn, Trent, Thames and Mersey into a national network to take coal and raw materials into the factories and bring goods to the markets of the major cities and ports (and to take most advantage of a growing empire). The Coventry Canal Company was largely financed by local colliery owners looking at moving their product more efficiently around the country. Although the newly emerging railways were to have a huge impact on the transportation of goods, the canal network was still seen as an option commercially where speed was not of the essence right up to the end of WWII.


The railways became more important to Coventry as industrialisation caught up in the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the twentieth - particularly with the rise of the motor and arms industries. The Cammell-Laird Ordnance works at Red Lane was the largest factory space in Europe when opened in 1906 and had a railway running through the centre of the factory. This was to become a spur of Coventry's industrial loop line which connected the area's collieries, factories and power stations to each other and to the national rail network right up until the late 1980s when components and cars still made their way to and from the Peugeot factory at Humber Rd (which had seen various incarnations including Humber, Rootes, Chrysler, Talbot and Peugeot). Jimmy Hill Way now follows part of the loop line's route. Another of its points was at "Three Spires Junction" which was close to Coventry Station and to Tennyson's view of the three spires as he penned the Godiva poem.


I have found that when researching and contemplating Coventry's history it is very easy to jump off on tangents. As shown above from starting to look at a poem about Godiva I ended up exploring (and revisiting) aspects of more recent industrial heritage.


Several times recently I have been asked whether I'd thought about putting some of my writings on here into print. I see this blog as being part of my "Coventry Ramble" project which I hope will culminate in a publication about all things Coventry and include personal and family experiences of city dwellers across the generations. More to come soon .........




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