Exploring the River Sherbourne - underneath Coventry City Centre!

Mostly encased by concrete shuttering, the River Sherbourne running beneath Coventry's streets is a fascinating place to explore.. 

Some say the city derives its name from the word 'couaen/cune' - meaning the meeting place of two rivers. The Radford Brook - in Saxon times undoubtedly a much larger body of water than today -  originally joined the Sherbourne almost directly beneath the 'Whittle Arch' in Millennium Place at the centre of town, whilst the earliest recorded habitation - a Saxon nunnery founded c. AD 700 by St. Osburga - is likely to have been nearby (possibly beneath ruins of the Benedictine 'St. Marys Priory' monastery, approx 60 yards south).


Anyhow, we've merged a 1980s city engineers map of the culverted River Sherbourne onto a 2017 Google Earth image so you can see exactly where it routes in relation to present day buildings - and then included an overlay showing the 1920's pre- war streetplan (rollover the first image to reveal this - it's helpful for identifying ancient bridge landmarks, several of which are still visable today, underneath).

The image below (from Peter Wilford's excellent colouring-in book) depicts Medieval Coventry in 1534 - and shows the Radford Brook coming in from the n-w, then running parallel to the Sherbourne just above what is present day Corporation St - and meeting up close by 'St Osburgs pool' (not show, but located just north of Mill Lane Gate under present-day Pool Meadow bus station).

medieval coventry in 1534

The route we took, exploring todays 'Underground Sherbourne' buried beneath the city, starts to the east - the point where culverting begins - at the site of the ancient Gosford Gate bridge, on Gosford St (sandstone bridge supports are still visable directly beneath, a few steps inside).

medieval remains gosford st bridge

Within 50 yards, the main culvert is joined by a large side culvert coming in from the north (on the right) - possibly the original Spittal Brook - and then, approx 200 yards further in, two larger side culverts join up - again from the north  - most likely linking up with the Swanswell Pool/Springfield Brook. 

spittlebrook culvert sherbourne coventry

Just a little further on, somewhere close to Priory St is the first of the 'entombed bridges' - what looks to be a short single carriage width early 19th century arched bridge. 

(Update 5/2/17: we've now done some research, and reckon this is most likely the Cox Street river crossing - directly in front of present day Cov Baths and 'the elephant'. Originally referred to as 'Mill Lane', this was the location of the medieval city wall 'Mill Gate' - also called 'Bastille Gate' due to it's proximity to the Priory Gaol. Interestingly, this is the area in which a Roman-era ford crossing was discovered during building excavation works in the early 1900s, reckoned to have linked Mancetter with Bagington, with a route that took it via higher ground in Hillfields - where there are also several earlier accounts of an ancient road surface being uncovered).

mill lane bridge underground sherbourne

The concrete culverting along this first section - under the Sky Blue Way ringroad junction, and along past the Swimming Baths is impressive in its own right - very wide (15-20ft) with surprisingly high ceilings. The 200 yard stretch that begins west of Priory St incorporates the original 19th C brick retaining walls, exactly as they were in the late 60's  - but with concrete shuttering overhead - providing a beautiful glimpse of how the 'open' River must have looked in earlier times, particularly enjoyable within the section of wide sweeping curves beneath Millennium Place.  

The short 20m daylighted section adjacent Palmer Lane, behind 'Subway' fast food shop on Burges, is quite magical - we were lucky enough to choose a clear sunny day for the trip, so had a fabulous view of the overlooking buildings - all but hidden above ground by bushes.

Interestingly, there are exciting plans for this section to be extended with more daylighting, exposing - and landscaping -  a further 20m or so to the east in 2018 (the Harrabin 'Sherbourne Walk' cafe/riverside bar development).

 The proposed 'Sherbourne Walk' development (note - the nominal water level is about 10ft lower than shown on this artists impression!)

The proposed 'Sherbourne Walk' development (note - the nominal water level is about 10ft lower than shown on this artists impression!)

With it's location, almost exactly half way between the Spon End and Gosford Gate openings, this spot makes an ideal exit point for pedestrians - should the possibility for end-to-end walkways be investigated (more detail on this idea, later). The majority of the hidden river has a concrete base throughout its length, however this short section - and the 60 yard 'arched' section a little further on in the vicininty of Agers Shoe shop - still retains an original bed.

An elegant archway opens up to the passage beneath 'Burges' - revealing ancient sandstone supports, and a beautiful brick bridge structure still intact across the width of the street - before reverting again to concrete culverting for approx another 100 yards - mostly beneath present day West Orchards Shopping Centre.

Shortly after, a smaller side culvert opens up (again to the north) bringing water in from what is the now fully enclosed (apart from a small section adjacent to Middleborough Road) Radford Brook.

culverted radford brook coventry

The brook links up with Nauls Mill Park Pond approx half a mile away, and originally fed another of the many mill's that populated the banks of Coventry's rivers in earlier times. The present junction lies beneath the service yard entrance to the 1950s Co-op building, beside Agers Shoe shop. This is an early 19th c 'improvement' - designed to drain the marshy land between here, and today's Hales Street - and suitable for building.

Shortly after this, there is what appears to be a very early extended arched ceiling section linking what were the Smithford St and West Orchard ancient thoroughfare crossing points. The roof structure presents as a wonderful 100 ft canal- 'esque tunnel, finished in blue brick and is quite something to experience up-close. The image below shows this section really well - illuminated brightly with a pro torch - taken by a group of 'urban explorers' a few years back..

19th c ram bridge sherbourne coventry

The final section runs from Lower Precinct, under the present day multistorey car park, through to the front of Ikea. Eight large rectangular concrete inspection covers visable at surface level (close-by the raised planting area) - indicate just how wide the culverted section is at this point.

A brief daylighted section just to the left of the Skydome, adjacent the ringroad - gives another glimpse of the river before it disappears beneath the final stretch of culverting across the flyover junction, and over to the flood defense grill another 30m or so further out beyond the ringroad at Spon End. 

It's not possible to exit here, or at any point other than the entrance in Gosford Street - so in all, the route works out to an almost 3 mile round trip. Very dark, and peculiarly eerie - with all the obvious watery noises - but, also, astonishingly loud random clanking sounds. These reverberate regularly from all directions via storm drain channels, and are made (we finally realised - after having almost turned and fled, several times) by cars and buses passing regularly over loose manhole covers above. In parts, it's also quite brick and rubbish strewn, so, overall, definitely *not* (we're afraid) recommended for the faint-hearted.

ps. A final (serious) footnote.. we hadn't appreciated just how limited mobile phone coverage would be beneath the concrete shuttering. Apart from a few manholes where it's possible to get signal by holding your phone up high - it's not practical to be ringing for help if any emergency situation were to arise... so, our advice has to be, don't attempt the walk yourselves.

That said, we *do* however think there are good possibilities for opening up the Underground Sherbourne to visitors longer term, and this is mostly what prompted our exploration. We love new possibilities for telling Coventry's interesting history, encouraging more pedestrian journeys into the city-centre - plus anything uniquely distinctive with potential for boosting touristic appeal.

In summary then, whilst we don't claim to have all the answers, we see possibilities that could include:-

the introduction of a tow-path style raised pedestrian walkway (providing an attractive/innovative short-cut commuter link into the town centre, using 'Sherbourne Walk' as an mid-town exit point, with newly created pedestrian entrances at both Gosford St - in the east, and Spon End - the west) -

and/or, the 'canalisation' of the underground river (allowing access by shallow draft electric punts like they have in Oxford - this could be possibly - dependent upon gradient,  be created with a shallow 2ft weir constructed downstream at the Gosford Gate entrance, the river being less than a foot deep at present for most of it's' underground journey).

Illumination of the tunnels - using daylight spectrum lighting - this presents an exciting possibility for the re-introduction of water-margin plants, attracting bio-diversity into what (without daylight) is a sterile environment devoid of fish, insects or flora.

This kind of urban regeneration initiative does of course cost money - but such a scheme would surely be amongst those worthy of consideration as 'big ideas with potential to transform Coventry' called for by the 2021 City of Culture bid - something to capture the imagination of both citizens and visitors as an integral element of the city's regeneration.

 Re-imagining the culverted underground Sherbourne, dramatically illuminated - with a pedestrian walkway providing a fast track direct into the heart of the city.. (thx to Lisa Miller for this image - showing similar approach adopted at a Coventry Canal underpass, in Foleshill).

Re-imagining the culverted underground Sherbourne, dramatically illuminated - with a pedestrian walkway providing a fast track direct into the heart of the city.. (thx to Lisa Miller for this image - showing similar approach adopted at a Coventry Canal underpass, in Foleshill).

Would you consider using the 'Underground Sherbourne' as a short-cut, avoiding the ringroad? (encouraging you to travel, by foot, into the town centre, or to your place of work) 

Or would you consider - as part of a touristic visit to Coventry - exploring the Underground Sherbourne on foot, or paying for an 'electric punt tour' ?

(with engagement encouraged, via information boards or walking-tour guides - telling the history of Coventry from the perspective of it's emergence at the edge of the Ancient forest of Arden, marked by an old oak, at the point where two rivers meet)

Whatever your thoughts - we're not sure of the practicalities either..  but we'll speak to a few folks who know about setting up stuff like this, and report back soon - meantime, keep watching this space :)


STOP PRESS.. (3/4/17) Coventry City Council have just issued a questionnaire asking for what you'd like to see as part of the heritage transformation of Burges area scheduled for next year. Excitingly, one of the options is for 'public tours of the underground river sherbourne tunnels' - sounds good to us! Take a look here, and tell them what you think >> https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/theburges?utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=SocialSignIn&utm_source=Twitter