DISCOVERING YOUR LOCAL HISTORY
By Ann Evans
Photos by Rob Tysall, Tysall’s Photography.
September is the month for making the most of your local Heritage Open Days. Every year around 40,000 volunteers turn out to help organise 5,000 events across England celebrating our history, culture, traditions and architecture.
These open days provide a fantastic opportunity for people to visit places which are often not open to the public or they have an admission fee. Every year more new venues join in and an estimated 3.5 million visitors discover more about their country’s history.
For example, this year over 300 church bell towers were offering hands-on demonstrations. Secret gardens celebrated the tercentenary of Capability Brown. All Landmark Trust sites were free to access for the festival as well as a number of National Trust historic properties.
The theme for this year is Treasure Your Treasures, calling on visitors to champion the history on their doorstep at a time when many Heritage Open Day organisers have concerns about the future of their local heritage sites.
Festival Patron, Loyd Grossman CBE launched the 2016 festival last week with the words: “Lets open the doors! Heritage Open Days is an exercise in public consciousness. You can’t love and protect something unless you know about it.”
Heritage Open Days was established in 1994 as England’s contribution to the European Heritage Days and has since grown into the country’s largest heritage festival. It is coordinated centrally by the National Trust with funding from players of People’s Postcode Lottery. But it is the thousands of organisations and individuals from all walks of life who make the festival happen.
Here in Coventry the festival began with a very special event. Not only was the city celebrating the anniversary of 1,000 years of Coventry’s history but also a feast day to St Osburga, the first woman of Coventry and the annual Dame Goodyers Daye – a day to remember Lady Godiva.
Coventry is fortunate in having its very own Lady Godiva. Pru Poretta has taken on this role for the last 30 years and is a true ambassador for the city. The event began with a colourful and multi-cultural procession from Godiva’s statue in Broadgate to the new Cathedral. Performances of song and dance followed along with the unveiling of the 1000 year tapestry.
Coventry artist Jane Morgan designed the tapestry which involved 20 panels each showing key events in Coventry’s history such as Godiva building the first church, the Guilds, royal visits, the Reformation, the Civil War, right through to the Second World War and peace and reconciliation.
Hundreds of people, communities and local organisations put in hundreds of hours to create this work of art.
Over the Heritage Open Days period visitors could go behind the scenes at many different places around the city, including the Council House, the 14th century St Mary’s Guildhall, the 16th century Ford’s Hospital Almshouse, the 12th century Old Grammar School and dozens of other historic places of interest.
My personal favourites included the Priory Undercroft and Visitor’s Centre which hosts remnants of St Mary’s Cathedral and Priory along with a medieval building. These important links to the past were unearthed by Channel 4’s Time Team, led by Tony Robinson back in 2001.
The Priory Undercroft and Visitors Centre has been closed since February 2016 due to spending cuts. But inspiring communities led by Carole Donnelly put in a bid to take on the centre and run it as a Community Interest Company. And subject to full Cabinet approval in early October, the Priory Undercroft and Visitors Centre should once again be open for the world to see and appreciate.
Another absolute treat for me, was to go behind the Godiva clock. This landmark clock in the city centre features a wooden Godiva on her horse who rides out on the hour every hour while Peeping Tom peeps out, eyes bulging. It’s an unmissable attraction that most Coventrians know and love. The clock and mechanism date back to 1871 when it was located in a tower at the City’s Market Hall. Post War development saw it re-located in Broadgate along with its wooden figures. It has been in operation since 1953.
I can’t wait to see what treasures will be open to the public next year.