A BEAUTIFUL medieval stone ceiling at the listed St Mary’s Guildhall is set to be painted over by Coventry council chiefs – despite objections from the nation’s heritage watchdogs.
It has also prompted outrage from the community group the Coventry Society and other residents.
Officials at Historic England formally registered its concern with council officials before an unelected planning officer granted Listed Building Consent for the plan behind closed doors on December 22. It followed a brief public consultation.
The intricately carved ceiling is to be painted white. It is the ceiling of the vaulted undercroft at the Grade 1 listing Guildhall in Bayley Lane next to the cathedral ruins.
The Guildhall has been described by the high-profile medieval historian Dr Jonathan Foyle as one the finest surviving medieval buildings in the country.
The undercroft is currently used as a cafe at the Guildhall which was originally built in 1340–42 for the merchant guild of St. Mary, and was later the prison of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Paul Maddocks, of the Coventry Society, told us: “The lovely medieval ceiling of St Mary’s is to be whitewashed so it can be lighter in the basement cafe.
“The Historic England report said it would be better if a more sophisticated lighting system with the latest technology was installed.
“But as usual Coventry has gone for the cheapest option.
“The examples that were submitted to planning of how other crypts have been painted look are very stark and bad taste. They look like something Donald Trump would do.
“Is it a good idea to paint over medieval stone-work, just to give a bit more light, than do it properly with sophisticated lightings?
“I thought we just won the City of Culture!
“People admire the intricate stonework of the vaulted ceiling and the skill of the stone masons. To paint over them is an insult to their work.”
Another Coventry Society member and resident said: “There is a deeper seated problem here that needs to be sorted within the City of Culture.
“St Mary’s Hall should be a flagship historic site for the city with proper interpretative information and furnishings. Instead the best we get is winter closure and a large drinks bar at the entrance.”
Another said: “It’s a bad idea, tending to reduce our historic buildings to theme parks in the way that Warwick Castle has been with the addition of Madame Tussaud’s dummies and glamping in the grounds.”
Council officers have claimed whitening the panels between the vaulting ribs in the undercroft ceiling would have been part of the original medieval building, to maximise the restricted natural light.
But that claim was contested in a formal letter to city planners by Historic England. It stated there was no evidence it had ever been painted, and strongly recommended sophisticated lighting instead.
A council officer also argued the same treatment was applied at St Mary’s Priory Undercroft when it opened for the Millennium celebrations.
But Mr Maddocks believes it is a flawed comparison. He pointed out St Mary’s Priory undercroft was a ruin – dug up as part of the TV programme ‘Time Team’s’ excavations. The white paint there helps the visitor to differentiate between the internal and external walls of the ruins, he argued.
We have approached Coventry City Council for a further response.