THE CLOSURE of the Priory Visitor Centre is a ‘tragedy and a scandal’, a former Coventry council archaeology expert has said.
George Demidowicz, former Head of Conservation and Archaeology, has hit out at Coventry council’s closure of the Priory Visitor Centre and Undercrofts due to budget cuts – arguing the move is an insult to those who worked hard to restore the site.
Last week, the Coventry Observer launched our #SavethePriory campaign.
The Priory Visitor Centre and Undercrofts, on Priory Row, houses the remains of the city’s first cathedral – St Mary’s Priory and Cathedral – that was destroyed by King Henry VIII over 500 years ago and was founded by Lady Godiva and Earl Leofric nearly 1,000 years ago.
“The long-term effects of this council’s cuts to arts and culture will be appalling,” Mr Demidowicz told the Observer.
“After the war it took years for us to gradually build up the museum, library, conservation and archaeology services to the point we thought we had reached a level of expertise.
“The whole point of opening the visitor centre was not just for Coventrians to come and see what they didn’t realise they had on their doorstep. “It was also to bring people into Coventry to show off our city’s rich history.
“But the clock has been turned right back – negating the hard work of people who worked hard on the Phoenix Initiative and Priory Visitor Centre to raise Coventry’s reputation as a historical city.”
Mr Demidowicz was among the team of city planners which uncovered the magnificent ruins of the ancient priory undercrofts amid excavation work for the city’s multi-million pound Millennium project surrounding it in the city centre – the Phoenix Initiative.
The discovery caught the attention of the national media and historical television programmes – including the makers of highly-respected archaeological show Time Team, which made a rare second visit to the site.
Mr Demidowicz added: “When we discovered the wonderful priory undercrofts we made the decision not to waste them and cover them back over with a building, but to keep them exposed.
“Of all my work I am most proud of the Priory Visitor Centre and the Undercrofts because they were not planned for, but we still managed to make them happen.
“The discovery showed there was an even greater history to Coventry that many had not realised – a whole other priory and cathedral.
“And to be able to walk into a section of undercrofts which had not been seen for more than 500 years is really special.”
Among other funding, the team successfully applied for a £500,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant to complete the work, which included restoring the priory undercrofts to their former glory and installing mod-cons such as audio-visual aids and a lift.
But this funding was provided on the condition that the centre and the Undercrofts stayed open to the public – a condition Mr Demidowicz believes the council has broken by closing the site.
“The conditions of the Heritage Lottery Fund is all based on the deal that they will provide you with money as long as you continue to provide public access.
“No public access, no public scheme, and therefore no funding.
“So I would love to know how Heritage Lottery Funding are feeling knowing they spent half a million pounds on a venue which has closed just 12 years later.”
Mr Demidowicz and fellow conservation experts were made redundant or given early retirement in 2011 – a fact he argues has left no-one inside Coventry City Council rooting for the Priory Visitor Centre’s future.
“The Priory Visitor Centre was designed to display some of the best artefacts and materials found in the excavations of Coventry’s first cathedral and it is an extremely important place for telling the history of Coventry.
“But just 13 years later we’re closing it all down – it is a tragedy and a scandal.
“It is also a joke for the council to be going for City of Culture while closing down such an important historical facility.
“Around the time of the Millennium there was a desire for Coventry to be much more than just building more shops, and offices or redesigning the station – a desire to change people’s perceptions that we are just a modern city that lost its heritage in the bombing.
“I thought back then that Coventry had matured and stopped trying to modernise without any respect for its past – that we had learned our lesson when it opened in 2003. But clearly I was wrong.
“There is no question that we have got to keep the Priory Visitor Centre open.”