When people ask me why I love Boston so much, one of my usual responses is that I love how steeped the city is in history. After all, it was among the first cities to be established by settlers coming from Europe, it was one of the key cities in founding the United States as we know it today, and there are abundant historic monuments throughout the city that document events that you read about in grade school. That sense of history is quite dwarfed, however, by what one can find in the English countryside.
Yesterday, Alexandria and I went on a day trip to Coventry – about an hour by train northwest of London. We decided upon this destination about a week ago, and planned to go there based on Stoneleigh Abbey (a magnificent country house that inspired Jane Austen) being nearby. However, ten minutes after booking our train tickets, their website updated to say that they would in fact be closed on Sunday, September the fifteenth. A little bit put off, we decided to look into what else the area had to offer, and we somehow ended up – with nearly no planning worth mentioning – having an absolutely amazing adventure (my favorite day here so far!).
We began by hopping off of the train and taking a quick bus to Kenilworth, heading toward Kenilworth Castle. The bus dropped us off at what hardly even appeared to be a bus stop, and in front of us stood a magnificent field with a small path winding through it. Down the path a little ways we found what turned out to be the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, built in the Middle Ages and destroyed during the Reformation, with a beautiful cemetery incorporated into the ruins. A local woman saw us taking photos of the ruins and asked if she could take a photo of the two of us together. She was excited to find out that we were from so far away, and gave us directions onward (following the same path until we found the castle, which we could not miss). Everyone in both Kenilworth and Coventry seemed extremely friendly and happy to speak to Americans, which is quite a change from what I’ve found in London, where people generally tend to keep to themselves. They began conversations of their own accord, and simply seemed glad to have someone to talk to. A symptom of small town life, perhaps? Whatever the reason, it was really nice for both me and Alexandria. We continued along the path, picking wild blackberries along the way as we breathed in the fresh country air.
We found Kenilworth Castle right where the local woman said we would. This castle was first established in about 1120 by the Normans, though elements were added on by different monarchs over the years. Much of the castle was dismantled during the English Civil War in the 1600s, although before this occurred, monarchs from King John to Henrys III through VIII to Elizabeth I lived or vacationed here, important decisions were made and sieges fought here, and festivities including jousting tournaments took place here.
Exploring these ruins was such a treat. The hike up to them was absolutely beautiful, and the castle itself – though very little of it is still standing – was magnificent. We walked through it, seeing areas that were once the great hall or apartments or storage rooms, and climbed to the top to have an amazing view of the surrounding land. Although the top of the staircase in the picture above may not seem too high, it certainly was – and it especially felt like it in combination with the strong winds!
To make this site even more beautiful, English Heritage has worked to restore the Elizabethan gardens as they once were.
When we had gotten our fill of the castle, Alexandria and I asked the men at the ticket desk for lunch recommendations (which these kind people were thrilled to give), and we set off to find the Virgins & Castle pub. This pub, the oldest in Kenilworth, was founded in 1563! And because this was the town where William Shakespeare’s mom and girlfriend (lover? mistress?) lived, there is no doubt in my mind that the Bard himself ate there at least a few times. The food was wonderful; I had a steak and ale pie, and Alexandria has what she claims were the best sausages she’s eaten in her entire life. Those salesmen gave some amazing advice!
We finally left Kenilworth, taking the bus back to Coventry. This town was once seen as a charming medieval monastic area, home to many beautiful churches. It was heavily bombed in its own Blitz during WWII, and the damage is very apparent to this day. However, a lot of beauty still remains. Simply following signs pointing us where to go, we found a street of buildings from the 11-, 12-, and 1300s, which had all been moved to this one area of the city. The buildings still function as clothing stores, restaurants, and salons, and a great big Ikea looms above them from a few streets over.. talk about anachronistic!
Nearby we found the St. John the Baptist Church, also built during the Middle Ages. There was a man inside who was absolutely thrilled to see a couple of young people (this seems like a fairly elderly-centric town) somewhat interested in the history and art of the church. He gave us a private tour that was at least twenty minutes long, pointing out every unique architectural element in the place (of which there were many!). There were carvings of theatre masks and water spirits and little demons hiding in crevices in the stonework due to some eccentric architects hired over the years. During the war, three bombs fell all around the church, but none were direct hits. The stained glass windows were blown out, but efforts were made to collect the fallen shards and preserve them in new, mostly colorless, windows.
We then visited the Holy Trinity Church, which is a thirteenth-century church in the city centre. It features a Medieval painting of the last judgement, which – though dull and somewhat faded – can still be seen in its original form. Here, too, the stained glass windows were blown out, and some elements were saved, though the other windows have been commissioned by contemporary artists. We were told, as well, that Charles Dickens came to this church for worship on at least a few occassions.
Finally, we visited what turned out to be the most arresting site of our trip: the ruins of St. Michael’s Cathedral. This cathedral was directly hit during the WWII Blitz. The shell of the building was all that remained, and Winston Churchill had the idea of leaving the ruins standing as a memorial and testament to the damage caused by the war. Today, these ruins are still strangely haunting. The cathedral stands without any interior architecture, and all but a few shards of the stained glass windows are gone. The spire remains, and inside the empty cathedral a number of commemorative statues have been placed (including Jacob Epstein’s Ecce Homo) alongside the few piles of ruins and architectural elements that were left after the bomb. The story goes that after the war, nails that once supported the structure of this building were put together into the shape of crosses and sent to the Germans as a symbol of forgiveness; I get shivers just thinking about it.
Between Kenilworth and Coventry, there was a lot that we got to see – despite not going to Stoneleigh Abbey as originally planned. But in that one day, I stood where Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth I, Winston Churchill, George VI, and so many others have stood and been inspired. Personally, I loved the charm of Kenilworth more than the now fairly industrialized and grungy Coventry, although both had amazing histories to offer. And who knew that a day so unplanned could turn out so well? Alexandria and I must simply make a magnificent travel team!