History Column - August/September 21
The River Sherbourne by Gary Godderidge
The river what? I hear you ask. Well yes, rivers and Coventry are rarely mentioned in the same breath, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the small meandering river that cuts its gentle way unseen beneath the city centre is insignificant and irrelevant, dominated as it is by the concrete monoliths that cover and surround it, but you would be wrong.
For without the River Sherbourne, Coventry would not exist. Yes, that’s right; this great city owes its very existence to this watery gem hidden away from the public consciousness, almost as an embarrassment, in favour of the splendour of the cathedrals and the dominant ring road.
The River Sherbourne is soaked into the very fabric of the city and is truly Coventry’s very own river rising as it does in the fields of Hawkes End, just north of Allesley, and swelling its sibling, the River Sowe, some 8 miles away at Baginton. The river slips beneath the earth at Spon End, and finally emerges at Far Gosford St, then traces the A4114 London Rd, passing through Whitley, on its way to Baginton and the river Sowe, which in turn empties into the Avon.
Its name is likely a derivative of the old English Scir Burna, which means ‘clear stream’ with Coventry itself possibly named after Coventina, a Romano-British goddess of wells and springs and who is known as the queen of river goddesses in Celtic circles.
Coventry began to blossom along the banks of the Sherbourne in AD 700 when a nunnery was established, and the settlement expanded in 1043 when a Benedictine monastery was built. Most historians agree that the river was broader and deeper than today and would have provided fish, clean drinking water and powered the monastery’s mill.
In the 13th century, the River Sherbourne was again to the fore as a major ingredient in the production of ‘Coventry Blue’, a non-fade, woad-based dye used in the textile industry. This secret recipe has been lost, but it is known that the river water played an integral part in the production process. Many water mills were established along its banks, and so important was the river that heavy penalties were imposed upon anyone fouling the water.
The river was called upon again during World War II, as firefighters used the water to fight the raging fires that consumed the city during that terrible time.
Post-war Coventry saw a dramatic change for the river, and it was lost beneath the modern, pedestrianised city centre in a major redevelopment program, and it remains so to this day, although it can still be glimpsed in Palmer Lane, which links the Burges with Trinity Street.
Could this be the end of the story for the river Sherbourne? Well, no; The City Council have recently revealed plans to uncover more of the river at Palmer Lane and create a landscaped public place, with further plans also under consideration. So, the grand old lady of Coventry may once again take centre stage in her beloved city.