In 2016 I visited Hull and published a blog post about its preparations to be the UK’s second City of Culture the next year. The first had been Derry-Londonderry in 2013, and the third is Coventry, in 2021, so I have now (post-lockdown) been there to see how they’re getting on, despite the inevitable pandemic-related delays – it will now run for a year from May 2021. Being UK City of Culture does not mean that the Royal Shakespeare Company and the London Symphony Orchestra move in for the summer, it’s far more about local strengths and community projects – in the case of Coventry, that above all means reliving the Two-Tone and ska era of The Selecter and The Specials (remember Ghost Town? They insist that wasn’t just a description of Coventry in the 1970s). The Two-Tone exhibition at the city’s main museum, the Herbert, opened just after my visit but looks good, and there are gigs and sessions organised by the likes of Terry Hall, Pauline Black and Neville Staple. Another Coventry-born musician getting involved is Clint Mansell, of Pop Will Eat Itself, who has become a very individual and successful composer of film music, and there’s a gig by Pete Doherty, who formed his first band when he was at school in nearby Bedworth.
There’s also some recognition of Delia Derbyshire, the legendary pioneer of electronic music with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1960s (remembered above all for the freaky theme music for Doctor Who), who was also born in Coventry – and there’s a new permanent display on her at the little Coventry Music Museum, out east on Walsgrave Road. Oddly enough, Philip Larkin, who is generally associated with Hull, was actually born in Coventry; 2022 will mark the centenary of his birth, so the City of Culture will mark this in the first half of next year (though the actual date is in August).
There are some attractive temporary venues, such as the cathedral ruins (see below), the Assembly Festival Garden (on a building site at the north end of Much Park St, with a couple of tents and an outdoor venue) and the canal basin (just across the ring road to the north). The Belgrade Theatre was very important back in the 1960s (it was Britain’s first purpose-built civic theatre, designed and funded by the city council, as in most German cities, for instance), it pioneered theatre in education and had an amazing repertory company that included Ian McKellen, Joan Plowright, Frank Finlay, Leonard Rossiter and Trevor Nunn, who used to hitch-hike regularly to see shows down the road at Stratford-upon-Avon until the RSC begged him to move there and join them. Arnold Wesker’s most famous plays were premiered here, as was Edward Bond’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, which I was briefly obsessed with the idea of directing myself as a teenager. Anyway, the Belgrade is going strong (the Grade II-listed building, a bit like a mini-Royal Festival Hall, was refurbished in 2006-7) , but doesn’t seem to be heavily involved in Coventry2021.
The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum is also in good shape, having been totally turned around in 2008 with a new glass-roofed entry foyer on the cathedral plaza, on its north side, as well as the obligatory café and education spaces (and it’s free). The history gallery does a good job of explaining the city’s development as a major centre of the clothmaking industry – by the fifteenth century it was the largest inland city in England, and was effectively its capital in the late 1450s, during the Wars of the Roses. It did then decline, but developed a specialism in ribbon-weaving from around 1700. Anyone who had name-tapes sewn into their school clothes will remember Cash’s, the only survivor of the city’s ribbon weaving industry. From 1868 the first bikes in Britain were produced here (by the Coventry Sewing Machine Company) and in 1885 James Starley invented the safety bicycle, which superseded the penny-farthing and made cycling a mass pursuit. In 1894 the Lanchester Motor Company produced the first British-built petrol car; George Singer left the Coventry Sewing Machine Company to make bikes, and then began making cars from 1901 – by 1951 a quarter of all cars produced in Britain came from Coventry. In 1888 Alfred Herbert set up a cycle components company, which became one of the world’s biggest machine tool companies, and of course it was he who funded the building of the museum.
You can also see George Eliot’s desk (which she actually used in London); she was born in Nuneaton and went to school in Coventry, coming back when she was 21 and making radical free-thinking friends who encouraged her and published her first articles in the Coventry Herald and Observer. Her great (but to my mind tedious) novel Middlemarch was set in a ribbon-weaving town that is clearly Coventry. She has been channelled for a Coventry2021 event. Another Coventry-born author is the definitely untedious Lee Child, creator of Jack Reacher – he features in a Coventry2021 podcast and in fact passed through back in April to promote his biography, written as it happens by the wife of a friend of mine.
On the art front, there’s a room of European art, with a couple of surprises, notably a big unframed Luca Giordano of Bacchus and Ariadne, as well as a Lawrence of George III, a Morland, a Zoffany, a Holman Hunt (after Rembrandt), and their oldest painting, believed to be Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald by Lucas d’Heere (1573). Elsewhere they have works by Frank Dobson, Gustav Metzger, Hepworth and a couple of Epsteins. A pair of carved stone mural panels depicting Man’s Struggle by Walter Ritchie were created in 1957 for the pedestrian precinct (see below) and moved in 1994 to the outside wall of the Herbert – unfortunately this is now at the rear and is not seen by most visitors. As with Hull four years ago, the Turner Prize award ceremony will be held at the Herbert in September (with an exhibition continuing until 10 January).
Another gallery deals with the various versions of the Lady Godiva story, which arose in the late twelfth century. The historic Godiva (grandmother of King Harold’s wife) died in 1067, having founded a Benedictine abbey in Coventry in 1043 with her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia (they were both buried there, although it is long gone). It’s most unlikely that she was naked as she rode through the town, and Peeping Tom was invented by Tennyson in 1842.
Finally, the Peace and Reconciliation Gallery has photos of the damage from the 41 air raids that hit the city in 1940, killing over 1,200. Until then the city had retained much of its medieval fabric, but most was lost in the Coventry Blitz. The plaques on the remaining half-timbered buildings – ‘Last surviving example of …’ and so on – really bring home just how attractive the pre-war city must have been. Spon Street, on the west of the city centre, survived relatively well, and several medieval buildings that also survived but were now in the way of rebuilding were moved here. One result was that Coventry and Stalingrad became the first twinned cities in 1944, followed after the war by Dresden, and eventually 24 others. Another was that a pre-war plan for redevelopment, inspired by Rotterdam, could be put into effect without too many restraints – despite Coventry’s enduring image as ‘Car City’, it included the first pedestrianised shopping precinct in Britain (along with a ring road, rooftop car parking and a circular multistorey car-park, admittedly), which is still going strong. However, in January this year plans were unveiled to demolish much of the precinct and replace it with an identikit modern shopping centre and flats – which seems perverse just when Covid-19 and online shopping are causing so many similar malls to implode. There have been widespread protests, so it may be possible to revive the (deliberately) neglected parts of the city centre rather than demolishing them. That would be a worthy project for the City of Culture.
Various isolated medieval buildings do survive, giving a glimpse of what pre-blitz Coventry must have been like, and there’s potential to use them more. Nearest the centre, Cheylesmore Manor, or at least its gatehouse, now serves as the city’s registry office; the thirteenth-century manor house was demolished in 1955, but the gatehouse was probably built after 1338 for Edward the Black Prince, who used the manor as a hunting lodge. The Whitefriars (Carmelite) friary was built in 1342-1538, with a 96 metre-long church where the ring road now is; all that remains is a sandstone dormitory that was taken over by the Herbert Museum in the 1960s and opened to the public until the early 1990s, when it was closed due to spending cuts. At the moment it’s only open for the Heritage Open Days every September. Finally, the Charterhouse is now run by the Historic Coventry Trust and is being restored with National Lottery funding, along with the surrounding Heritage Park (and the chapel of London Road cemetery, just across London Road); the Trust is also converting various historic properties (including the gatehouse to Whitefriars) to very distinctive tourist accommodation.
The bombed-out shell of the cathedral has been preserved, with a modern replacement built at right angles to it, unusually. I hadn’t seen it for about thirty years and I’d forgotten just what a superb building it is. The architect Sir Basil Spence brought in fine artists such as Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Hans Coper, Jacob Epstein and Elisabeth Frink to ornament the building, and Britten’s War Requiem was premiered at the new cathedral’s consecration (with English, German and Russian soloists, and on my third birthday, as it happens). There’s also a strong Canadian connection, with the ceiling made of donated Canadian cedar and the organ donated by the Canadian College of Organists; in recognition of this, there’s a large bronze maple leaf in the floor at the west end of the cathedral. In addition, the cathedral’s new Director of Music is the Canadian Rachel Mahon.
I visited Coventry Poly, as it was, for work a few times in the 1980s, but have virtually no memory of it now. The present Coventry University, however, is surprisingly large (with plenty of Chinese students, by the look of it) and seems to be expanding. In fact it was able to announce plans to demolish its main admin block, the Alan Berry Building, built in 1963 immediately opposite the cathedral, in 2022, to open up the vista to the cathedral. They’ve also just refurbished the Ellen Terry Theatre, a striking Deco cinema used by performing arts students (the great actor Dame Ellen Terry was born in Coventry in 1847), and they plan to restore the Grade II-listed former Civic Centre as a teaching block. I also cycled out to the University of Warwick, in the suburbs of Coventry (don’t ask), of which I have stronger memories – its Arts Centre has a very strong reputation but is closed until this summer (‘in time for Coventry2021’), when a new building housing cinemas, an accessible art gallery and a restaurant will be added.
The University of Warwick is also connected to Aurrigo, a Coventry company that is developing autonomous vehicles – I mention this only because two of their shuttles were very recently on trial in Cambridge, and I also saw their delivery pods at work when I was in Milton Keynes. However the city of Coventry is also supporting new transport technologies, aiming first to switch all its buses to electric power, and then from 2025 to open a VLR (Very Light Rail) line from the University of Warwick via the station and city centre to the hospital and the Ricoh Arena – this will use single battery-powered vehicles, running on light track that will not need heavy engineering to install (reducing construction costs by three quarters). The plan is for the vehicles to operate autonomously, but perhaps not at first.
And finally, food and drink
Unusually, given my need for food and remaining lockdown restrictions, I found myself not in pubs with real ale but in craft beer bars where the drink comes in colourful cans and costs rather more than it should. One nice venue is Dhillon’s Spire Bar, in the base of the Christchurch Spire, all that remains of a city-centre church destroyed in the blitz – they actually have their own brewery and taproom out near the Ricoh Arena. The beer’s not bad, but I was more interested in Twisted Barrel Brewery, which makes vegetarian beers without using isinglass (a clearing agent from fish bladders). The tap room is in the rather hipster FarGo Village, a former industrial site on Far Gosford Street, just east of the centre; unfortunately they’re also committed to managing everything via their app, which rules out techno-clumsy old guys like me. I mean, what’s so difficult about using a contactless card?
There are lots of ethnic food options, plus street food at FarGo Village and elsewhere, but the most interesting new option is Forme & Chase in the Telegraph Hotel, which opened in May in the former offices of the Coventry Telegraph newspaper, a classic postwar building nicely restored. There’s also the Generators rooftop bar here, for cocktails and snacks.