Observations on Being: Exploring the Charterhouse Heritage Park

A photo of the Charterhouse building with tree branches in the foreground, shedding leaves on the grass below

Header image: Graeme Peacock

This summer, we’re excited to be hosting one of our first major events at the newly restored London Road Cemetery: Paxton’s Arboretum and Charterhouse Heritage Park.

Created by Marshmallow Laser Feast and co-produced by Coventry City of Culture Trust and York Mediale, Observations on Being is an exhibition of newly commissioned immersive experiences, combining audio and visual installations.

Running from June-August 2021, this multi-sensory journey invites you to explore your relationship with the natural world, encompassing music, poetic storytelling and compelling visuals, developed in collaboration with extraordinary ecologists, writers and musicians.

But it’s not just this experience that will be new to many people in the city. Although loved by local residents, the Charterhouse Heritage Park has historically been little known outside its neighbouring community. This year, both the park and the cemetery will enjoy a new lease of life thanks to the work of Historic Coventry Trust

Over the last few years, Historic Coventry Trust has taken on guardianship of several sites across the city, including the City Gates, Drapers’ Hall and Priory Row, and it continues to expand its reach. But in the first instance, it was a campaign to save the Charterhouse and surrounding parkland that led to the formation of the Trust in 2011.

Founded in 1381, Coventry’s Charterhouse is one of only nine Carthusian monasteries in the UK. These communities were distinctive because the monks lived in individual “cells” – the remains of which have recently been uncovered through archaeological excavation on the site.

Following the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, the former Prior’s House was converted to a private residence, which was owned during the 1560s by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and may have housed some of Elizabeth I’s retinue when she visited nearby Kenilworth Castle.

During the 16th century, two new wall paintings were added to the house, in addition to the 14th century wall painting of the Crucifixion, which was painted on the original refectory wall.

In the 18th century, the building was rented by horticulturalist John Whittingham, who created a plant nursery within its walled gardens, cultivating and selling highly prized exotic trees to Warwick Castle and other local country houses.

The last private owner of the house was industrialist Colonel William Wyley who bequeathed the site to the people of Coventry upon his death in 1940. Over the next few decades, the building was put to a variety of uses by Coventry City Council, while for those living nearby, the park became a cornerstone of the community.

So when a decision was made to sell it on the open market in 2010, it was met with fierce opposition from residents, some of whom had been visiting the park throughout their lives.

Spurred on by the determination of the community to protect this vital piece of their heritage for generations to come, the Charterhouse Coventry Preservation Trust was formed, and took over ownership of the site in 2011. In 2015, the Charterhouse Coventry Preservation Trust became Historic Coventry Trust, reflecting its expanding vision and mission in the city.

A full 80 years after Col. Wyley gave the site to Coventry, a socially-distanced gathering in the grounds saw residents come together last summer to celebrate their success and share their memories of the park. You can hear from some of them below.

The landscape around the Charterhouse building includes a community orchard, pond and walkway, children’s playground, woodland, green fields, the grade II listed Sherbourne Viaduct, a disused railway line, and one of a handful of sections of the River Sherbourne that remains uncovered in the city.

It’s also home to a wide range of wildlife, including kingfishers, little egrets, Muntjac deer, badgers, hedgehogs, woodpeckers, sparrowhawks and more. A new project is currently in planning to increase biodiversity by creating a wetland area, in partnership with Warwickshire Wildlife Trust alongside the local community. The building itself is set to fully reopen as a visitor attraction later this summer.

When Observations on Being opens at the nearby London Road Cemetery: Paxton’s Arboretum in June, it will be accompanied by a range of supporting events in the Charterhouse Heritage Park.

Observations on Being is funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund and supported by the Garfield Weston Foundation. The Tides Within Us was originally supported and presented by York Museums Trust.