In this feature I give an introduction to links between Coventry and some of the “greats” of English literature – including William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Philip Larkin . I cover sites and stories asociated with these autors and poets in two of my guided walks “A Literary City” and “The Bard, the Blitz and the Tudors”. Details and booking information for the walks can be found on the walks page of my website Godivasfooteps.com.
I first got a taste for literature whilst a pupil at Caludon Castle Comprehensive School where I developed a taste for the works of John Steinbeck and George Orwell in particular. The stories came to life and were made relevant to late 1970s life in Coventry by our English teacher Peter College (one of two teachers that I remember as having a knack of being so entertaining in interspersing their subjects with interesting stories that you seemed to be learning without really noticing it!).
During visits to my friends Linda and Steve in California I have been lucky enough to drink in a bar on Oakland waterfront – Heinolds First and Last Chance Saloon” which was the scene of the start and end point of many of Jack London's adventures (he is another one of my favourites), visit Cannery Row in Monterey (the name and setting of one of Steinbeck's short novels) and to have taken part in a guided tour of some of the haunts of San Fancisco's beat poets.
It is not necessary, howevever, for me to venture so far as America's West coast to be able to walk in the footsteps of some of English literature's best known and influential writers. My secondary shool was named after the nearby ruin of the same name – Caludon Castle. In my guided walk “The Bard the Blitz and the Tudors” and also my YouTube video of that name I investigate strong ties between the Berkeley family resident at the site and William Shakespeare.
There are also links between Caludon and Thomas Malory author of “Mort D'Arthur” - a medieval romance conveying the legend of King Arthur. Despite his subject matter it seems that Malory didn't live a particularly honourable life. A quote from “A History of Caludon Castle” published by John Clarke tells us “Caludon is pulled from relative obscurity by a most unexpected figure: Thomas Malory, before he wrote Mort D'Arthur, a major work in early English literature,wasa felon and poacher who caused much damage in Caludon Park”
Remains of Caludon Castle
Whilst major refurbishment works were being carried out at Caludon the Berkeleys were invited to take up residence at Hales House – the former Whitefriars Monastry. This was one of several prominent former religious buildings aquired by John Hales after the dissolution of the monastries. He launched King Henry VIII school on the site (an establishment in more modern times to be associated with Philip Larkin). Hales later moved the school to the building which we now know as “The Old Grammer School” in the road which is now known as Hales Street. Both the grammer school and Hales House were visited by King Henry VIII's daughter Queen Elisabeth I during her reign.
On Much Park Street is the building which was originally the gatehouse to Whitefriars monastry. There is a scene in Charles Dickens' “The Old Curiosity Shop where the main characters Little Nell and her grandfather are sheltering at a site based upon this building. At the time when the novel was written Whitefriars was being used as the Coventry Union Workhouse (fitting in micely with some of Dickens' themes).
Charles Dickens had visited Coventry on several occasions – the most widely reported being to perform readings from “A Christmas Carol” at the Corn Exchange in Hertford Street. The site where the Corn Exchange stood is best remembered by me as the Dog & Trumpet – a basement bar which I frequented in the late 70s / early 80s that was one of the established venues for Coventry's varied and vibrant musc scene of that time. Dickens' visit was at the invitation of Coventry MP Joseph Paxton to raise money to improve literacy and to put literary works within the grasp of Coventry's poor.
The Corn Exchange Hertford Street - Venue for Charles Dickens readings from "A Christmas Carol"
Paxton was the architect of Coventry's London Road cemetery – the location of a memorial to him. He also designed gardens for stately homes, the glass stucture known as the Crystal Palace (home of the “Great Exhibition”) and Merseyside's Birkenhead Park (which acted as the blueprint for New York's Central Park). The cemetery contains the graves of many of Coventry's prominent industrialists and engineers. It is also the resting place of Charles and Cara Bray whose home between St Nicholas Street and the modern Radford Rd gave its name to the “Rosehill Circle”.
The circle were considered to be a ”Bohemian”goup of reformers, philosphers and writers including Mary Ann Evans (best known as George Eliot). Mary Ann first came into contact with the Brays whilst living at Bird Grove in Foleshill (much of her work was influencd by the weaving industry in Coventry and Foleshill and by the beliefs and works of those she met through the Rosehill Circle. Bird Grove still stands in George Eliot Road in Foleshill (which was later incorporated into Coventry).
Mary Ann attended school in Warwick Row in Coventry. That site is at the diagonnaly opposite end of that road to the former home of Angela Brazil – children's author of “jolly hockey sticks” type schoolgirl fiction. Brazil like Cara Bray was considered as a willing host and great supporter of animal welfare charities (which ranks them both highly in my opinion!). Brazil was an influence on Philip Larkin who also tried his hand at “jolly hockey sticks” works under the pseudonym of Blanche Coleman (so Mary Ann Evans wasn't the only author connected with Coventry to cross gender lines with pen names!).
Close to Warwick Row is Coventry Station. The staion (albeit on a site slightly removed from the present one) was the setting for Larkin's poem “I remember, I remember” where he remembers what didn't happen during his Coventry childhood”! It is also the setting for the opening lines of Tennyson's “Godiva” poem. Part of the poem is displayed on the plinth of the Godiva statue in Broadgate – the starting point of my “A Literay City” walk and the relaying of more stories of my home town and its many literary connections......