One thing that is apparent when trying to recreate Then & Now pictures is how much leafier today’s scenes are than those of yesteryear. Sometimes it’s difficult to match the exact vantage point for the ‘now’ photo because it would result in a photo containing a wall of foliage that obscures the scene to be captured! This is definitely the case with the Then & Now pairing above.
The ‘then’ photo shows a late Victorian long shot of St Nicholas’ Church and the Abbey Fields with an equivalent modern image taken from the top of the grassy embankment on Rosemary Hill. Today there is a line of trees along Finham Brook which would completely obscure this view in mid-summer, so the ‘now’ photo was taken in early February 2017 to at least get a line of sight to the church spire. In the foreground of both photos the line of Finham Brook can be seen.
The ‘then’ photo can be dated to before the turn of the century, purely based on the absence of the avenue of lime trees which now runs from Bridge Street up to St Nicholas’ church, bordering the car park today. A picture of these lime trees as saplings can be seen in A Kenilworth Collection (Odibourne Press, 1986) by Helen Scott and Richard Storey in a postcard which is dated at 1911, so that narrows the date down to around this period.
In fact, Robin Leach has helped out with dating our ‘then’ photo a bit more accurately. He points out that the churchyard wall is partly built but incomplete so so the image must be post 1885 but there is a hedge across the middle so it is pre-1897. Also, he observes that the photo was taken before Abbotsfield House was built in 1895, which today looks imposingly over Abbey Fields. The big tree visible at the top of the hill was famously taken down in the 1990s too, he adds.
Given the elevation of the church spire against the horizon it can be deduced that the ‘then’ image photographer was situated up in a high window of the newly built Abbey Hotel, built between 1885 and 1886, situated immediately behind the ‘now’ image’s vantage point. Initially named the Bowling Green Hotel after the hotel it replaced when Priory Road was knocked through the site, it was renamed Abbey Hotel in January 1887.
Thanks to Robin Leach for additional information for this article.
Another shot attributed to J. Tarver from 1963, this time of St Nicholas Church taken from within the Abbey ruins, with matching a 2016 counterpart shot.
It is not known when St Nicholas’ Church was established. The nearby Priory (later Abbey) of St Mary was established by Geoffrey de Clinton in 1122 and we do know that there was a church on this site in the patronage of the Priory as of 1291.
The monks would be expected to have sole use of the abbey itself and local worshippers would be expected to attend a separate parish church nearby.
Parts of the church are Norman, including the base of the tower and the west door. Later alterations include the fashioning of the square tower into a pointed steeple, plus the addition of transepts in the 19th century. The West Door is made up of Norman sculpture, and was created, probably in the 16th Century, from pieces rescued from the recently demolished Abbey. Pevsner’s Warwickshire and the revised edition of that work describe it as the ‘most sumptuous Norman doorway in Warwickshire’, the new edition acknowledging that it is a later composite. Visitors should compare it with the entrance to Leicester’s Gatehouse in the Castle.
Little has changed in between the 1960s and 2016 shots however, save for the growth of a few trees and the loss of a stone cross atop the gravestone in the foreground. A flag pole can be seen in the background of the 1963 shot. Individual stones can be matched between the two photos in the wall in the foreground.
This pair of pictures from 1963 and 2016 shows the Abbey’s Tantara Gatehouse with St Nicholas’ Church in the background. The 1963 shot is labelled as having been taken by a J. Tarver.
As can clearly be seen from the ‘then’ picture, the gatehouse had become overgrown and it was later designated as dangerous and fenced off altogether in 1967. That same year the abbey ruins were finally reburied to prevent deterioration. The gatehouse was later extensively consolidated and repaired in 1977, at a cost of £20,000 raised by the Abbey Advisory Committee.
The ‘now’ photo shows that the graveyard is much more neatly trimmed than in 1963. A few gravestones have developed a lean and the cross in the foreground has lost its head, as seems to be the case in many of these now and then photo pairings.