[This article was originally written in 2016 by Co-AD Janet for a new member of staff coming from out of town. Coventry is an ever changing city, and although this article was updated in early 2020, it should probably be completely rewritten again now…]
What is Coventry famous for?
The Specials, Modernism/concrete, being blitzed and rebuilt, peace and reconciliation, TIE, Delia Derbyshire, George Shaw, female wheelchair basketball players, the Millennium Eve Tightrope Walk that was ever so nearly on BBC1, Cash’s name tapes, black cabs, Lady Godiva, a giant Lady Godiva and Godiva Festival for starters. Oh – and this one may be apocryphal – but also for, at one point in the 1990’s, having more theatre companies per head of population than anywhere else in the country!
What makes Coventry unique?
Probably the way that it never stands still – one of our shows once had the line “The City you live in is changing, blink and you’ll miss it” and that’s as true today as it was then. Coventry’s a place that’s always changing – sometimes because it has to, but more often because people see an opportunity to make things better and take it. More than anywhere else I’ve been, it’s a city that doesn’t give itself to you on a plate: it’s somewhere you have to explore, you have to talk to people and discover it’s secrets for yourself! As a result, everyone who lives here has their own version of Coventry, of what it is to them, and I really like that about the place.
It’s an incredibly diverse city, with masses of student energy, and a really positive attitude to incomers: historically, but also now – the city has recently been praised for its pioneering work welcoming and integrating refugees. Architecturally it is, in many ways, a centre of Modernist/Brutalist architecture, but what’s nice about Coventry is the almost purposeful (!) way that the old and new jostle up to each other – the 1960’s ring road nestling up to the 14th century monastery; the fairly brutaltower block opposite the turn of the century canal warehouse buildings. These interesting juxtapositions make for some surprisingly layered views.
Tell us about the people who live there.
I would say they’re generally friendly, very down to earth and without pretensions, but with a fierce loyalty to the city. There are a lot of very creative people here, artists and makers and creative thinkers – and they all seem to have a (largely unspoken) mission to make stuff happen and make the city a better place to live and work. They’re entrepreneurial, very principled, socially responsible and do masses of brilliant things with very little cash; whether that is to open up a small venue in the city centre or find inventive ways to tackle food injustice or a million things in between. There’s a good precedent for valuing and reinventing or repurposing old buildings rather than always starting again from scratch, whether that is turning a chip shop into a theatre or a garage into a cafe, or just imagining the possibilities like we did with our Virtual Fringe. There’s always loads of things happening, far too many for you to get to all of them, and no matter how many events and places you think you know about, it seems that there are always more to find out about.
What is your favourite time of day and why?
Who doesn’t love passing through Broadgate on the hour to watch people stop (often dumbfounded!!) to watch the crazy Godiva clock?
What surprises you about the city?
That you can find something new, interesting or surprising on an almost daily basis! I’m slightly obsessed with looking out for things I’ve not seen before and snapping them – it’s like my daily challenge to make me look at the city afresh. One of the nice things about making work in unusual spaces around Coventry with Talking Birds is that, over the years, we’ve dug about and discovered facts or stories which we’ve then shared in our work. You don’t forget these stories, you continue to carry them round with you and they layer up, making part of your version of the city.
Where’s your favourite outdoor space?
There are a lot of nice little outdoor pockets of green in the city centre, plenty of good places to sit and have your lunch. The area around the Council House has recently been re-landscaped and that’s a nice little green oasis now, as is the area between the city centre and the fabulous (listed) post-war railway station. The most iconic outdoor space in the city centre would have to be the old cathedral ruins, which was left as a symbol of Coventry’s destruction, and is used as a venue for all kinds of fantastic theatre, music, film and food events as well as being a calm place for a sandwich – and the view from the top of the tower is well worth climbing all those steps for.
But I think my favourite outdoor space in the city centre is perhaps the Cov Uni edible campus garden which is like a mini allotment made along the lines of Incredible Edible Todmorden, and hidden in plain sight in the middle of the city.
Where’s good to eat out in Coventry?
One of the great things about the cultural mix of people in the city is that this gets reflected in the huge variety of places to eat foods from around the world. For a great vegetarian lunch, try the Hummus House on Market Way for a lovely falafel wrap and fresh orange juice; or Chi Bar on the High Street for the most amazing spiced tofu; Thai Dusit on the London Road do a mean green Thai curry; there’s a whole range of fabulous mezze at Habibi on Far Gosford Street; sadly it’s no longer possible to go for chilli and lime haloumi at Drapers Bar on Earl Street; but the Pod Cafe on Gosford Street has absolutely amazing vegan food at criminally low prices.
What’s your favourite way to get around the city?
Definitely on foot. The construction of Coventry’s ring road in the 1960s encircled the city centre within an easily walkable area, and although of course the neighbourhoods outside the ring road all have their own charms and are worth exploring, you can see so much – and catch small details you might otherwise miss – if you walk. I always like to walk in cities I visit, but I’ve never walked another which is as compact and easily navigable as Coventry.
What’s the shopping like?
Within the ring road, it’s mostly chains but there are little pockets of independent shopping which are worth seeking out, such as the City Arcade in Coventry (which is also home to the UK’s first Shop Front Theatre and Coventry Fab Lab), and Far Gosford Street (which is also home to Fargo Creative Village), and I’m rather jealous of a friend who has kitted out an entire (very cool) studio with some great bargains from Warwick Auctions.
Where should we go for a good night out?
For all kinds of unusual music, open mic, film, comedy and Coventry’s legendary Pecha Kucha Nights, go to The Tin Music & Arts in Coventry’s Canal Basin; for smaller or alternative theatre performances (such as Shoot Festival) go to the Shop Front Theatre in City Arcade, or EGO on Cook Street; there are the Big Comfy Sessions up at Fargo Village. Larger venues include Warwick Arts Centre (which is the largest arts centre after London’s Barbican Centre) and the Belgrade Theatre, which was the UK’s first post-war civic theatre and the birthplace of Theatre in Education. But Coventry is the sort of place where there are vast numbers of mini-festivals (eg Random String, City Arcadia, Coventry Biennial) and unexpectedly brilliant things happening that you can stumble across anywhere and at any time – you just have to keep your eyes & ears open.
How about museums?
Go to the Herbert for local history and loads more; the Transport Museum traces the manufacture of cycles and cars in Coventry and beyond; there’s the Coventry Music Museum on Ball Hill and the Watch Museum on Spon Street. The Weaver’s House on Upper Spon Street is worth a visit, as is the Lunt Roman Fort.
Where can you go to escape?
Take a walk up the canal tow path from the Canal Basin – following the 5.5 miles of art trail. Or go to one of the city’s larger parks – Charterhouse Fields covers a surprisingly large area just outside the ring road, and there are plans afoot to develop the Charterhouse itself and the surrounding parkland into a visitor attraction including opening up the river there. It’s actually a really historic area of the city, but another of those hidden gems within easy walking distance. It’s across the road from the London Road cemetery which is great for collecting unusual pine cones in autumn if you have small children, or just like that kind of thing! Memorial Park is also within walking distance of the city centre. It houses the city’s war memorial and, as well as plenty of play facilities (water park, playground, skate park, bowls and tennis) it’s also the home of the annual huge and free Godiva Festival. There are parks at Coombe Abbey (with its heronry and Capability Brown landscape) and Ryton Pools plus the pioneering national organic gardening centre, also in Ryton; there’s a small but lovely outdoor swimming pool at nearby Kenilworth as well as the famous castle with its Elizabethan knot gardens; and the attractions of Leamington Spa, Warwick and Stratford-Upon-Avon are all within spitting distance with healthy stretches of green in between.
What makes Coventry a good place to live and work?
Its walkability; the community of friendly and creative people; the energy of the place; the fact that it is in the middle of the country and so everywhere is accessible from here; the amount of stuff that’s hidden is actually really inspiring too – everything you find out about, you find yourself wanting to tell everyone about. Also, the fact that when you drive on the ring road flyovers you get unexpected views of the city, and of the trees whose canopies you pass; and that if you know where to look you can feast on free fresh walnuts and mulberries as well as less exotic foraged goodies.
What would you change about the city?
I’d make it value and look after it’s modernist and brutalist buildings a little more – to be fair this is happening in pockets, but actually Coventry is a mid-century gem and we should sing about that more. I’d also probably build a big outdoor swimming pool somewhere fairly central (and/or reopen the 50m pool which was, criminally, closed early in 2020).
Where would you recommend somebody stay?
We could do with some decent indie hotels (I’ve got some great ideas, if anyone feels like financing them!) but, until these are built, stay on the top floor of the Ramada hotel which was once British Telecom offices – the view of the city is fabulous, and surprisingly green.
Or the Premier Inn in the old Technical College, next to the Albany Theatre – there is the most beautiful 1930’s glass ceiling in the lobby there. And the old Evening Telegraph building is being transformed into a new ‘luxury boutique’ city centre hotel right now.
Favourite food store: Probably Down to Earth in Earlsdon. Friendly organic, eco and health food shop.
Favourite restaurant: Habibi on Far Gosford Street
Favourite market: Coventry’s famous round market sells ‘all kinds of everything’, and is home to the brilliant Cogs plastic free stall. Or there’s a great farmer’s market in Broadgate every third Friday of the month.
Favourite way to spend an hour: Sadly you can no longer swim in the 1966 ‘cathedral of light’ 50m swimming pool on Fairfax Street which closed in 2020, so maybe grab a coffee and find a bench in Broadgate to watch life going on.
The best place to see by night: The light towers, three towerblocks which light up by night – originally to predict the next day’s weather, wind speed and humidity.
The one thing you have to see: I should probably say the new Cathedral (designed by Basil Spence post-war) but that’s the one thing everyone *does* see. Don’t just see one thing, go for a walk and see lots of things!
For more historical info about Coventry, read our potted history, written for the day the Olympic Torch visited in 2012!
**Fanfare!** Coventry is UK City of Culture for 2021 and, due to Covid, our year as City of Culture runs from May 2021 to May 2022 – you can find out more here!