Coventry transformed

Shaking off its old image, the 2021 City of Culture looks very different this year


EDITORIAL USE ONLY Cofa's Tree an installation of coloured ribbons, printed with the hopes and aspirations of the city and flags that have been created by local children from 76 schools in the city, part of Coventry UK City of Culture's signature event. Picture date: Saturday June 5, 2021. PA Photo. Photo credit should read: Doug Peters/PA Wire

When Coventry was awarded City of Culture for 2021, scoffs were heard across the country. It seems that once you are publicly labelled a ‘Ghost Town’ — as local band The Specials did in their haunting 1981 hit — it is a difficult image to shake off.

The Specials were addressing issues being felt across the UK, but which came to define Coventry. Having suffered the closure of its industries, both in mining and car manufacturing, the city struggled to form a new identity. Its people were suffering unemployment and deprivation.

The bombed-out centre became emblematic of the folly of post-war city planning, as designers chose to create a new ‘modern’ town, rather than rebuild the picturesque medieval lanes.

But that was then: Coventry is changing. In fact, the Coventry I moved to five years ago is almost unrecognisable compared to the one that you’ll see today. Entire districts have popped up, housing the thousands of students that call the city home during term time, while a burgeoning new food and nightlife scene has revitalised the centre.

As the birthplace of the bicycle, with its key role in Britain’s automotive industry, the City of Culture’s theme is Coventry Moves — and it seems to be doing so at record speed.

So to mark the official launch, I decided to holiday in my own back yard, starting with the first notable artistic event of the year and a stay at the city’s latest hotel.

The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum launched the first ever exhibition devoted to 2 Tone music, a genre that was invented in Coventry. Looking at bands such as The Selector, Madness and, yes, the aforementioned Specials, it shows how great art is so often created in adversity and tension.

Those 80s pictures of fans in chequerboard dresses and trilbies show that this is a city that has always been bubbling with the passion to get through terrible inequality and tragedy.

A short walk from The Herbert takes me to the cobbled Medieval Quarter, where old meets new in the form of Coventry’s two cathedrals. On November 14 1940, the city was devastated by bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe; aiming at nearby factories, the 14th century St Michael’s was gutted.

All that stands now are the exterior walls and, amazingly, the spire. The ethereal beauty of the ruins cannot be overestimated, and I find myself moved thinking of the many people who died across the city at the same moment as the cathedral.

Some 15 years later, the young Queen Elizabeth II laid the foundation stone for a new cathedral, one that celebrated the modernist style of the time, but still complemented the original. The Basil Spence-designed version incorporates slimline, concrete columns, vivid walls of stained glass and an enormous tapestry widely considered to be one of Graham Sutherland’s great masterpieces.

Coventry is a city that has been constantly reborn, and its 60s architectural heritage is starting to be appreciated in a way it never has been before — so I chose to stay in one of the greatest examples of it.

The newly opened Telegraph Hotel is housed in the former Coventry Evening Telegraph building, a short walk from the cathedral. Opened in May after a £20million refurbishment, its decor has been influenced by the building’s journalistic heritage.

Dotted around the common areas are features including the original printer control panel, and old editions of the paper. The restaurant is decorated with silver printing plates, and the largest suite, which has a hot tub on a private balcony, is named after the old proprietor Lord Iliffe.

My room, covering two floors, has a large king size bed, White Company toiletries, and a terrace onto the Winter Garden, a courtyard with a glass roof that brings the outside in.

I spend the evening enjoying Generators, Coventry’s first rooftop bar, drinking ‘Covmopolitans’ and ‘Lady Godivas’ - a martini named after the local, historical heroine who was spied on by Peeping Tom.

Of course, hospitality has had a difficult year, but Coventry is seeing a flurry of new, exciting bar openings that are transforming it into a nightlife destination.

Dhillon’s Spire Bar was launched by a local craft brewery in April, but has already become one of the must-go places, with experimental cocktails, changing street food vendors, and outdoor heated booths. Hops d’Amour is a brand new micro-pub showcasing locally brewed ales, while Gourmet Food Kitchen, run by chef Tony Davies who previously worked at the Dorchester, has become a local foodie’s favourite.

A stroll outside the centre takes me to FarGo Village, the creative quarter of Coventry, which houses artisans, and independent boutiques, but is also a bustling evening destination. The Factory opened at the start of June and hosts residencies from street food vendors from around the UK, while Twisted Barrel Brewery sells great vegan beer.

The next morning, I explore the city centre and the the impact that City of Culture is having is apparent everywhere. Murals have popped up, just waiting to be discovered, and festoon lights are now decorating previously-unwelcoming lanes.

World-renowned artist Morag Myerscough has transformed a concrete 60s underpass on Hertford Street into a bright, welcoming and eminently-Instagrammable space adorned with multi-coloured paintwork and fresh foliage.

The official City of Culture launch, which was entirely virtual, took place on June 5 through live-streamed videos and installations. It explained Coventry’s illustrious history through a youthful explosion of dance, parkour and music, showing how this is a city reborn, one with a sense of purpose and self.

The lesser-known secret river, which was once a source of life, now covered by the centre, was at the heart of the event. You can still see the flowing Sherbourne where it comes up to the surface at certain points, a constant reminder of Coventry’s hidden depths.

Heading into shopping district, the Precinct, the permanent impact of investment and regeneration is clear. Public spaces have been opened up, removing some of the less tasteful brutalist features, and replacing them with planted flower beds and fountains for children to play in.

The central square, Broadgate, has been draped in hundreds of ribbons and banners decorated by local school children with their hopes and aspirations for their hometown.

In the centre of all this lies a flagstone featuring a phoenix rising from the ashes. It may have been the local symbol since the war, but it could not be more apt than in 2021. The city is fizzing with promise, with an atmosphere that it has never had before.

I am in no doubt that this is the year many will be happy to be sent to Coventry.

Coventry 2021: City of Culture’s top events

Feile 2021
June 25-27
An array of online performances and workshops from the best in traditional Irish music, culminating in the All-Britain Final of the Online Comhaltas Competition.

Augmented Reality Trail
June 6-September 6
Download the Coventry 2021 Augmented Reality Trail app to explore the city via digital installations.
Free/Various locations

Throughout July
Among the first in-person events is one of the world’s leading circus companies, direct from the streets of Bogota. Having previously performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, they will be hosted in the purpose-built Assembly Festival Garden, which will have two tents hosting shows all summer.
From £15/Coventry Assembly Festival Garden

The Handlebards: Macbeth 
July 22
The cast is carrying all of their set, props and costumes to tour 1,500 miles around the UK, but this historic backdrop will provide a spectacular setting for the Scottish play.
£18/Coventry Cathedral ruins

Mr Stink
August 24
Take all the family to experience David Walliams’ best seller on an outdoor stage.
From £11.50/Coventry Cathedral ruins

Theatre of Wandering 
September 18- 19
Japanese theatre company OiBokkeShi and Entelechy Arts have teamed up with Coventry residents to create an experiential piece that explores how people live with dementia.
From £3/Various locations

Turner Prize
October 1-January 10, 2022
The world-famous prize for visual arts is coming to Coventry this year, and four artists will exhibit their work. 
Free/The Herbert Art gallery & Museum


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