I recently spent a Saturday taking in some of Coventry's offerings during the Heritage Weekends event. My first stop was the Canal Basin as I was keen to take the opportunity to have a look in the building that houses the weighing equipment that was used when calculating tolls on goods coming into and out of the basin.
I took one of my pretty regular walks from my house in Wyken to the basin via the canal and as is my habit considered the history and my own, family and others experiences over the years at sites along the way. During this particular journey many of my thoughts were geared to how the canals and railways served the industries of our city.
Starting off the journey in my own Hermitage Road my thoughts went back a bit further than the industrial age. One of my current "projects" is to attempt to find out as much as I can about the background of my road's name which is linked to a hermitage (a hermit's dwelling) having been sited nearby during the time that the area was part of the Caludon Castle estate. I am hoping to find out more about the hermit (or hermits) that lived here.
Within a few minutes I had reached the Ansty Road and was walking alongside the field which locals call the "Annex" although formerly named St Margarets Park. Next to the Annex (opposite the Walsgrave Pub) are the former offices of Youell builders. Weighing equipment on the site was used to weigh out coal from the Craven Colliery and is mentioned in directions given to reach the greyhound stadium in an advert in a local newspaper from 1928. This was at the time that the stadium which stood at what is now the end of my road opened to the public.
My journey continued across Barras Heath. When I was a teenager some of my friends worked at the Wholesale Market which stood alongside the field. I would sometimes get up at ridiculously early hours on a Saturday morning to see if there was any casual work (hauling potatoes and the like) only in honesty to be relieved to find none and return home to bed! The wholesale market was one of the locations served by the Industrial Loop railway line.
My walks around this area always get me considering the derivation of the street names "Pinners Croft", "Duke Barnfield" and "Parsons Nook". I would guess that they refer to former owners and features of the fields onto which housing to accommodate workers at the nearby Ordnance works was built.
The location of the now much scaled down (and far less lively!) wholesale market is on Swan Lane next to the marina which once housed a fleet of 40 boats owned by the Co-op dairy to deliver milk to locations along the canal.
The Ordnance Works (as the name suggests!) was dedicated to the production of armaments. During the time of WW1 (coinciding with the opening of the loop line) many of Coventry's factories were given over to supporting the war effort. One of those was the Humber factory (served by the southern end of the loop line). My grandma started work there during the Great War as a 13 year old girl (her future husband being involved at the sharp end fighting at both Ypres and the Somme). It is worth reflecting on some of the aspects of our relatively "recent" history when considering current accounts of conflict and the potential thwarting of girls' education in Afghanistan that it was not so long ago that the lives of our own youth were diverted in the direction of war and young girls could find themselves working long hours in factories rather than having a formal education prolonged much beyond primary level.
When opened in 1906 the Ordnance Works was the largest factory space in Europe. Its guns were moved via canal and rail - the evidence can still be seen at the aptly named Wharf Road at the end of Smith Street (off Red Lane) where the rail lines can still be seen coming out of the factory space onto the road. This railway spur led to the industrial loop line link (and pre-1914 Foleshill railway link) serving Wilkins & Websters brickyard just across the Stony Stanton Road.
Wilkins & Webster supplied all manner of building materials from that site. They also supplied coal (as agents to the Craven Colliery) and advertised that their goods could reach all locations via road, rail and canal. The site had actually provided building materials for hundreds of years being the location of Harnell Quarry. The quarry was the origin of much of the sandstone used in many of Coventry's medieval buildings. The later use of the location for the manufacture and supply of bricks is reflected in Broad Street's older name of "Brick Kiln Lane".
Red Lane is an apt name for the site of the Ordnance factory as Lenin had referred to it in his works! Also interesting is that the now demolished large pub, the Barras Hotel, which overlooked the Barras Green from Swancroft Road was known locally as the "Bolshie". My
enjoyment of walks along the towpath started at an early age taking long walks with my dad. He would refer to one of our regular starting points as "the back of the Bolshie". One explanation of the name was that it was once a meeting place for the local Communist Party. I'm not sure if this is the case but intend to delve a bit further in the near future.
Continuing along the towpath I pass the Shri Sidhu Vinayagar Denasthanam Hindu temple on George Eliot Road. During the mid 80s I had a one year contract with the now defunct West Midlands County Council as a labourer working on several local projects including improvements to the canal towpath and stripping of materials which could be salvaged from the canal side Cash's factory ahead of demolition.
The current temple site was then used as a yard for building materials and a training centre for those working on these projects (one week per month was spent there learning the rudiments of such skills as brickwork, block paving, drainage and plumbing - all very handy although I never really "mastered" them but were helpful when taking on labouring jobs with more skilled workmates later. The project was part of a government funded response to the riots of the 80s aimed at the regeneration of inner city areas whilst offering work to the unemployed. The response to those riots also provided much of the funding which was to save the historic buildings on the basin (then in a state of disrepair) from threatened demolition - not for the first time (as discussed below).
Another of my brief stopping points was the bench at the "rope & mooring" sculpture next to Bridge 3 which carries Foleshill Rd across the canal bend. This bridge shares a feature with bridge 2 (a little further round close to Cash's houses). If you look closely there are (now bricked up) window shapes which were cut out of the brickwork on both sides of the bridges. These were to allow easier access when using pumping equipment to get water out of the canal to fight fires during WW2 bombing raids.
The blitz could have given an eventually crushing blow to our local canal network as one of the most favoured sites for a new cathedral to replace the ruined St Michaels was the site of the canal basin. This plan would have seen the buildings of the basin demolished and the canal filled in. Another (now almost unimaginable!) part of the plan would have seen the demolition of the ruins of our "old" cathedral ahead of redevelopment of that area. I currently offer guided walks in both of those locations ( "Canals, Coal, Cloth & Cars" and "The Bard, the Blitz and the Tudors") - neither would have been possible if those post war plans had gone ahead!
My walk to the basin continued past Cash's houses - a legacy of the ribbon weaving industry and Coventry's textiles heritage. Just past Electric Wharf is the site of "Motor Mills" where the British car industry was born. Originally the building had been a textiles factory. A further reminder of the role played by cloth in our city is the name "Drapers Field" - the location of the Canal Basin. I shall shortly be publishing another post which I am working on looking at the role of the Drapers Guild and the history of the Drapers Hall buildings. This follows a discussion with tour guide, local historian and local councillor, Roger Bailey, in town a little later that afternoon and a discussion speculating on the background of a hidden feature in the present Drapers Hall (more to come on this!).
The main reason that I wanted to visit the Canal Basin on that day was to view the weighing equipment housed in the Weighbridge office building. The equipment although now redundant is still in operational condition. Ian from the Canals and Waterways Trust gave me a description of how the equipment worked and told me that maintenance tunnels to the weighbridges had been found below the building but were now filled with rubble. The weighbridges (one of the two remains) were used to weigh materials in and out of the Basin to calculate tolls due.
Also open on the day was an exhibition by the Coventry Railway Model Club which is housed in one of the Basin's old warehouse buildings. The system of ropes and pulleys which were used to bring merchandise in off the boats and out onto waiting carts (ahead of a visit to the weighbridge) can still be seen alongside and above the staircase which led up to the exhibit). Another bonus was to see the Gosford Green station signs which were used as a backdrop to one of the exhibits.
I passed the site of the Gosford Green Station and goods yard on my way home. The new "Richard II Loop" footpath will follow part of the industrial loop line (and its connection to the line to Rugby) from this point. There was another weighbridge housed here behind the last building in the terrace on the Binley Road which faces Gosford Green. A fitting location towards the end of my "loopy" walk!