Sunday, 13 November 2011

Spon St - The Newest Ancient Place in England

In the historic town of Coventry, England there is a particularly attractive road of timber-framed buildings - the type which are often (although not totally accurately) referred to as "Tudor".

Spon Street is an active, commercial area which lies within the city's ring road and appears to be an oasis of untouched architecture preserved amidst a plethora of concrete tower blocks and shopping centres. But despite its wonderfully authentic appearance, this olde-worlde place is something of a lie.

Coventry was a prime target for the German bombs during the Second World War but Spon Street fared surprisingly well. In the decades after the war, the area's historic buildings saw the emergence of a new enemy: the town planners. Coventry went through a period of redevelopement which saw the tearing down of many ancient structures including those at the western end and in the middle of Spon Street. A new ring-road was in development which would completely bisect the street and result in further obliteration of the city's heritage.

By the mid-1960s, the destructive path of 'progress' was being met by growing concerns that the original heart of Coventry was being lost. Particularly significant timber-framed houses and shops were threatened in a number of streets including Gosford Street, Far Gosford Street, Jordan Well, Much Park Street, Spon Street and Spon End. A plan of action was devised.

But rather than preserve the scattered ancient sites themselves, it was decided that the structures could be moved and collected together in one place. This proposal would allow construction schemes to continue around the city without the unadaptable old shops standing in the way of property developers.

Having been fortunate during the blitz, Spon Street's east end still retained a good concentration of old buildings, albeit in varying states of disrepair. It was decided that the best of the remaining shops and houses would be renovated in situ and suitable buildings from the other threatened streets could be relocated there.

Whilst this plan was somewhat questionable, it at least secured the preservation of buildings which were in danger. However, following further appraisal, a number of the structures were then deemed unsafe and were subsequently demolished. After an analysis of the logistics, it was decided that others couldn't be dismantled as proposed, and they too were bulldozed. Ultimately, the only properties relocated from outside Spon Street would be three from Much Park Street.

On the 8th August 1969 a conservation area was declared and the first work undertaken in the "Spon Street Town" scheme was the restoration of one of Coventry's oldest buildings, pictured right.

From the early style of its roof construction and the curved braces in the front wall, it can be dated back to the 1300s. The front block was originally two separate workshops, each with an open hall at the back. The street door opened into a through-passage and there was a ladder stair to the upper chamber.

With the aid of gifts of materials, the work was carried out betweet 1969 and 1970 by Coventry Corporation.

Over on the eastern side of the city centre, Much Park Street was an area which had been struck by both neglect and the German bombs. The photo below right shows the street as it is today, with a Coventry University building now standing on the corner, and the Herbert Art Gallery beyond. But at the end of the 1960s, there were still a number of old buildings lining the street, as can be seen on the left-hand image.

This view shows the north end of the street, where three timber-framed structures were earmarked for rescue - they are shaded in red on the black and white photograph above. The building on the left of the road was numbers 122 and 123, whilst the tall one in the distance constituted numbers 8, 9 and 10. Hidden from view behind this was number 7.

Below left is a photograph taken further up the street in which properties 8, 9 and 10 dominate the view. This was one of the very few surviving three-storey jettied buildings of Coventry and it dates from around 1500. The decision was made to save it, and so over a period of four years it was dismantled and restored in Spon Steet, with work completed in 1974.

As a medieval city centre building it is larger and richer than the indigenous buildings which now surround it in its new location. Internally, the building was more or less mirrored down the centre, with passages at either end and a room at the rear. Half was open through two storeys to the roof, and the other had an upper floor. The cellar on the old site, lost to redevelopment, was even earlier in date than the building, and from which a carved lintel was preserved and re-incorporated into the new incarnation of the fa├žade.

The old photo above shows that half of the upper jetty was not present in the sixties, and the front of the left side of the upper floor is a modern construction. At the end of this short terrace, and all but hidden in the black and white photo is number 7 Much Park Street.

The image below left better shows number 7 it in its original location. The neighbouring three-storey building is already missing from the photo, indicating it had been dismantled first (despite records which state that number 7 was the first to be taken down). Reconstruction and restoration was completed in June 1972. In its new home in Spon Street, number 7 was positioned at the beginning of the row on the site of the Old Plough Inn. When its former neighbour arrived a couple of years later it was positioned on the opposite side of the road, further up.

Modern rendering had concealed most of the original timbers but once restored, the wooden beams provided a striking welcome for anyone entering Spon Street.

This building dates from the late 15th or early 16th century and the front half was a workshop sited over a stone vaulted cellar. Above it was a room known as a "solar". Contrary to common misconception, this word is unrelated to the sun, but refers to solitary activities such as reading, which could be enjoyed there by the head of the household, away from noise and smells on the ground floor.

After reconstruction of number 7 there were various modifications made, such as the window on the upper floor solar becoming one and the stairs being altered. The original spiral stair position is still evident inside from the trimmed joists.

A passage down the left of the building gave access to a hall at the back, and at one time lead to further buildings. The hearth at the rear is still in its original position, and one of the bays within the hall was open to the roof, where smoke marks can still be seen.

The third and final building to be relocated from Much Park Street was numbers 122-123. Formerly the Green Dragon Inn, it was dismantled in 1972 not long after the others. But unlike the others, it was not re-erected very quickly. It took until a decade later before relocation was completed.

The photograph above shows the original site on the left, and the new location in Spon Street is seen on the right. The colour photo was taken a few years ago when it had become a bar aptly-named "1420", although this is an optimistic estimate for its age since the rear is probably circa 1450 and the front likely to be 1550.

Extensive restoration work was carried out to return the building to something like its earliest appearance, with the removal of the brick-work and other later modifications. Projecting out from the top of the roof is the frame of its previously neighbouring building. This was an earlier and much grander three-storey structure destroyed on Much Park Street during the war.

Spon Street prior to the arrival of number 122-123 can be seen below left in which the white 16th century Old Windmill pub stood next to the brick-built Rotherham's Social Club.

After the Social Club was knocked down, the timber-framed building was reassembled in its place in the early 1980s. This comparison is a great illustration of the strange backwards development of Spon Street, and perhaps it will confound architectural historians in a thousand years.

Although 122-123 was the final building to be imported from Much Park Street, it was not the last to appear in the new version of Spon Street.

Before the ring-road sliced through the street, it continued west and contained several other half-timbered houses. In order to allow redevelopment of the area, two more old properties were dismantled and shifted a quarter of a mile east to their present locations.

The building which had constituted numbers 142 and 143 Spon Street is relatively modern by the standards of the others, having been built around 1700. It was dismantled in 1971, and reconstruction was completed in 1974. In the above photo it can be seen with its present reddish-brown frontage and timber grid pattern. Its new site was next to an extant structure which was restored not long after.

Once the restoration had been completed, this impressive white building constructed between about 1450 and 1500 showed off twin gables as seen in the above photo.

It was virtually unrecognisable at the start of the 20th century as demonstrated by the black and white photo on the right. The shape and position of the gables are completely lost amidst the built-up Victorian frontage.

Thankfully this building was restored in 1977 and then again in 1985, resulting in the magnificent sight we have today - truly representative of its prime status amongst the original buildings of that street.

The most recent - and probably final - addition to the Spon Street project was made two decades ago. The central black and white photograph of the montage below shows the original location of a structure which had been numbers 54-57 at the western end of Spon Street.

That area now has been claimed by modern flats, and the present site is identifiable by the same tower block in the photo below left.

The older half of this set of buildings dates from the early-mid 15th century. The other half dates from about 1480. The entire structure was dismantled in 1973-74 and kept in storage for nearly two decades. Finally, in December 1988, work began on reconstruction, and the project was finished in January 1990.

The magnificent building now stands as numbers 1 and 2 on the corner of the street (pictured left), overlooked by the gigantic edifice of the Ikea store.
Over a period of four decades the current version of Spon Street has emerged from the once-neglected shops, as timbers were revealed and frontages were reconstructed. The commendable restoration work sits alongside the less desirable relocated projects, all of which come together to create what is today something of an enigma.

When admiring Spon Street, it is important to understand its evolution. It is not simply a preserved area, it is something that has been assembled, as if from a kit. It is a collection of real buildings positioned out of context - remodelled and reworked to fit a new vision.

Just a few days ago I sat in what had once been the Green Dragon Inn and gazed out from the ancient windows at the beautiful, jumbled dwellings. I would usually be in awe when sitting in a five-hundred-year-old building, looking at structures which were even older. But I knew that that particular view had not been created until after I was born. The building and its timbers were real, but the soul of the place was new. No ancient tales exist in which men and women walk down Spon Street and enter that pub, as I had done. Colour television has been around longer than the building and its street have been acquainted.

There is no doubting it is a beautiful place to walk, and each building is fascinating in its own right. It may not be a desirable way of preserving pieces of the past, but it is at least preferable to not having them at all.

I suspect that in a thousand years when Coventry is discussed by historians, Spon Street will be used to demonstrate the attitudes of the 20th century towards architecture and planning, rather than those of the 15th century to which many of the buildings once belonged.


  1. I'm in awe. What a wonderful job you've done on the history. I had a different feel for the buildings, though, than you because as you described how the smoke stains could still be seen and the curving of the braces, I felt like I was there, and I could picture the history. And while the word "soul" didn't enter my thinking at the time, that's what I was picturing. The building's soul.

    Perhaps I was being fanciful and it would be different in person.

    To me, however, somewhere within the lie, the truth is revealed for if they had not been preserved and put back together like a 'kit', we wouldn't know about their existence. I think the soul remains intact within the parts of the whole. That smoke stain and curved braces are the tattoos of the past.

    Outstanding job with the subject! Loved it.


  2. The half timber houses with the curved beams in photo #2 look just like a house in Wenham, Massachusetts - the Claflin- Richards house. The New England house dates from the early 1600s, but perhaps it was built by an immigrant from Coventry in Old England? It is uncanny how similar the braces appear!

  3. Excellent article - I'd heard of Spon Street but didn't realise it was so entirely 'created'. Would love to hear of other examples of early moved buildings in the UK particularly - as this will form a section of Avoncroft's new introductory exhibition opening next spring - exploring when did the movement to 'save' historic buildings originate (save as in move rather than protect/restore). We know of examples such as the Hop Pole Inn (moved in Bromsgrove in 1860s) Selly Manor moved early 20th century and the building moved in 1911 to Cannon Hill Park as a refreshment room and named the Golden Lion Inn. We'd appreciate any other examples where the building was moved to a new site rather than a museum.

    1. In 1890 a timber-framed building was moved from the centre of Halifax, West Yorkshire and rebuilt on the fringe of the Shibden Estate outside town. Called Daisy Bank, its a private house and still there today. Another timber building was moved from Cripplegate, Halifax to Shibden Park, but was demolished after vandalism in the 1970s. Finally, a cruck barn from Barden Scale in Wharfedale was moved to Shibden Hall Museum but sadly lost in a fire.

  4. Just found this and was very interested as my great x3 grandfather a watch case maker and silversmith lived with his family at number 3 in the late 1800,s. Do yiu know what haopened to no.3?

  5. I've found your page a bit late, but it's really interesting! My great grandfather, John Horobin, was a licensed victualler at The Plough Inn, 9 Spon Street, until 1900. In fact, I have a couple of photos before the building was bombed, which shows that the original building was not medieval. The ones next to it were medieval, but not 9 Spon Street. It was a taller brick building with tall, arched windows. I received the information from a history centre assistant at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry.