COVENTRY’S magnificent medieval Guildhall and Tourist Information Centre were both forced to close last Sunday (April 3) amid staff shortages – further highlighting underinvestment in attracting visitors to the city’s ‘crown jewels’.
The Observer has learned of ongoing problems with understaffing at the two council-run venues, including on Easter Sunday, with skeleton staff dipping below sustainable safety levels – further threatening opening hours in the tourist season.
The Guildhall is also set to be closed to the public for at least one other Sunday this season to make way for weddings. It is already closed on Fridays and Saturdays when it is scheduled for commercial use, but not always used.
The Guildhall was also closed on Tuesday (April 5) to make way for a disaster management conference involving Coventry and other councils.
St Mary’s Guildhall in Bayley Lane, a spectacular architectural masterpiece next to the cathedral ruins, has been described as the most important and preserved medieval Guildhall anywhere in the country by distinguished historian Dr Jonathan Foyle.
The news comes in the sixth week of our #SaveThePriory campaign, which calls for the re-opening of the Priory Visitor Centre nearby. It is home to the remains and artefacts of the city’s 1000-year-old first cathedral and priory, founded by Lady Godiva and Earl Leofric.
The visitor centre in Priory Place, Priory Row, was closed in February by Coventry City Council to make just £100,000 annual savings, less than half the remuneration of council chief executive Martin Reeves.
Prominent figures supporting our campaign have included Dr Foyle, Coventry Labour MP Jim Cunningham, and BBCTV Blackadder actor and Time Team presenter Sir Tony Robinson, who described the treasures his archeological team twice featured as being of world significance.
Dr Foyle is among those who has argued not enough is being done in opening times, promotion and marketing to attract more visitors from the UK and across the world to glimpse Coventry’s rich medieval buildings.
He has described the 760-year-old St Mary’s Guildhall as a jewel in Coventry’s crown and ‘living history at its best,’ adding that Coventry need not look at Warwick with envy.
But for years the attraction has been closed throughout the winter.
The Great Hall houses the Coventry Tapestry masterpiece, stained glass windows, an ornate ceiling, and life-size portraits.
Dr Foyle has pointed to the Coventry Tapestry being older than those in Hampton Court, while another hidden treasure was its preserved medieval window depicting kings of England.
Coventry’s guildhall was also once the seat of the Royal Parliament in the 1400s, when Henry VI fled to Coventry in the War of the Roses.
But scratch below the surface of the building’s beauty and there is evidence of neglect in council hands – including graffiti and a pervading rancid smell of fatty food and chips from years of weddings and banquets.
The Observer has seen evidence it was forced to close all day last Sunday with staffing down to one (excluding kitchen staff for Godiva’s restaurant), and cover has recently had to come from the Tourist Information Centre, which are both council-run venues.
The situation has been so dire that staff have had to nip between the two venues to prevent ‘lone working’, which is not regarded as good practice in council safety policies – including on Easter Sunday.
One member of staff at the Tourist Information Centre going sick was, due to the weekend rota for a skeleton staff, enough to trigger the complete shut down last Sunday of the Guildhall and the TIC in St. Michael’s Tower, Cathedral Ruins.
Nigel Clews, a council executive, confirmed the closures, and said Sunday’s closure of both venues could be avoided in future with the same staffing levels – as two staff could combine to keep one of the venues open. He said attempts were being made to ensure both venues always had two staff.
He said commercial activities were required to fund the free public opening of the Guildhall.
Coventry council leaders say they have invited expressions of interest for others to step in to run the Priory Visitor Centre. But there is no timescale or certainty it will ever re-open.
The Observer’s #SaveThePriory campaign is calling for it be re-opened as soon as possible. Suggestions made have included reducing its previous opening hours in the short-term, and considering how to better promote the historic venue.
We have highlighted evidence that the ‘city’s birthplace’ Priory Visitor Centre was not even featured on street signs on the tourist trail, let alone effectively promoted in the digital age on social media.
How YOU can support our #SaveThePriory campaign:
Our letters page.. Share your thoughts and experiences, in words or pictures, and say what Coventry’s proud medieval history means to you.
On Twitter @covobserver. Using the hashtag #savethepriory to pledge your support.
On Facebook.co.uk/covobserver. Keep up to date, and share your thoughts.
Head to our dedicated #savethepriory web page, and get the latest on the battle to Save the Priory Visitor Centre.