It may seem to be stretching a point to include a place seven miles from the city centre in a book on Coventry, but Coombe Abbey has a special place in the heart of many Coventrians and its future fate certainly falls into the terms of reference of this book. The future of Coombe as a public facility is a cause for great debate now that the City Council has gone into partnership with private enterprise to develop the house as a hotel, and to put aside some of the grounds as a golf course. Much depends on the treatment of the house as anything which cheapens its appearance would affect the character of the very thing that characterises the park. Yet the house is desperately in need of renovation and the public never has had easy access to the building itself. But the gardens have always been open and even if not as immaculate as shown in these pictures, they were not substantially different nor were there any no-go areas. If this was lost in the development then that would be a cause for concern.
Built as a monastery in 1150 very little now survives from Coombe Abbey’s days as a religious institution, but this view shows, at its lowest level, the original cloisters that still exist today. However, most of the east wing above it was only constructed in the last century by William Eden Nesfield a famous Victorian architect. This wing had a lifespan of just sixty years when it was pulled down in the 1920’s. It is the modern plans for the reconstruction of this wing that have attracted some of the criticisms of the council’s redevelopment plans. An extension to the building to provide more hotel rooms is important for the financial viability of the project, so it would seem an imaginative approach to use the original designs of a much praised architect to bring back to life part of Coombe’s past. Doubts have been expressed, however, that the quality of the materials and the faithfullness to the original will produce an honest rendering. For the moment we can only wait and see.
The view of the south front shows even more clearly the contrast between the earlier parts of the house and the Victorian addition on the right. Whatever the architectural merit of the Nesfield addition in itself, it is a matter of opinion as to its harmonious relationship to the rest of the building. When these pictures were taken the house was still in the hands of the Craven family who had owned it for the previous three hundred years. In 1921 they sold it to John Gray, a builder grown rich on developing areas of Coventry; the original Courtaulds factory was one of his projects. It was he who demolished part of the house to make it more habitable, although even in those days there was money in bits of old houses! Gray died in the early 1960’s and Coventry made one of its better buys of the Abbey and 150 acres for £36,000. The most unchanged face of Coombe, to those who knew it in the early years of the century is the West Front. The second picture shows the classical lines of William Winde’s work of the late seventeenth century. But at that time there would have been no moat there. Moats are normally associated with antiquity but the one at Coombe was part of the Victorian developments.