You may have imagined that being sent to Coventry would be a rather bad thing, but I’m here to tell you it would be very good indeed. Coventry is a city situated to the east side of the West Midlands, about an hour from London by train and less than half that time from Birmingham. Having been severely damaged during the Blitz, Coventry has brought itself forward as a centre for reconciliation and peace. You’ll be surprised at just how many ancient sites remain, and how they are now combined with a hip, dynamic and modern city with plenty to offer the visitor.
Of Lady Godiva
When you talk about Coventry, there’s also the small matter of a woman on horseback. Godiva, Countess of Mercia, who died between 1066 and 1086, was an early protester. She is reputed to have ridden naked, save for the covering of her long hair, through the streets of Coventry in protest at the high levels of taxation her husband Leofric had imposed on his tenants.
The legend, although largely disproved by historians, is that Leofric offered to accede to her wishes if she rode naked through Coventry. Word was spread for everyone to stay indoors and shut their windows. Everyone did except one man called Tom, hereafter known as the Peeping Tom. There is a Peeping Tom clock in the central precinct where, on the hour, Tom emerges to view Godiva as she passes. Legend also records that Tom lost his sight in punishment.
If you’re not familiar with the story of Coventry Cathedral, you may be surprised at the beauty that grew from devastation here. After Coventry was bombed in 1940, the architect Sir Basil Spence designed the New Cathedral which opened in 1962. The ruins of the old cathedral adjoin the new to make a statement about the power of hope and reconciliation.
In the ruins, which are open to the sky, you’ll see the beauty of the remaining arches and stonework. One window still holds a few shards of the original stained glass. The tower remains, and you can climb its 180 steps to see the city from above. There are various artworks dotted about including a compelling call for reconciliation.
St Mary’s Guildhall
The Guildhall isn’t far from the cathedral, and is a beautiful hidden gem. It has been described as the finest medieval guild hall in the country, and having re-visited it again recently, I find it hard to imagine how any guild hall could be more splendid. It is known to have been visited by Shakespeare, and has a fascinating wealth of history: over 600 years in fact, during which time it has been everything from an armoury to a soup kitchen and a safe haven for Mary, Queen of Scots.
As I explored, I was very taken by the Council Room, with its impressive woodwork and stained glass. It was also interesting to see the small size of both the room and the table around which business was conducted; council meetings were clearly pretty efficient for medieval Coventry. The atmosphere in the Guildhall is absolutely beautiful, with stained glass spilling shards of coloured light onto the polished floors. Half close your eyes, and you can hear the medieval business of the city.
Don’t forget to wander up to the minstrels’ gallery, and look in awe at the stunning ceiling, studded with ornament. You can have some refreshments in the undercroft too, or take them into the serene inner courtyard on a warm day. St Mary’s Guildhall is open Sunday-Thursday from 10-4, and admission is free.
St Mary’s Benedictine Priory
The Priory is situated beside the Cathedral and opposite Holy Trinity Church. It is believed to be the most historic religious institution in Coventry. In a bid to take control of England, Earl Leofric and Lady Godiva built a priory dedicated to St Mary in 1043. Today it’s a very still and beautiful place, and there are spots to sit and admire its beauty.
The original priory accommodated an abbot and 24 monks. Before that the site was home to a Saxon nunnery which was destroyed by King Canute and his army. King Henry VIII has history here too. He offered the church buildings to the people of Coventry. When he failed to extract money for them, he ordered their destruction, making this the only cathedral destroyed during the reformation.
2 Tone Village
It’s impossible for me to type this without a whole playlist running through my head. This is my era of music, and a visit to the 2 Tone Village will have you singing away merrily for days. You’ll find this spot just outside the city centre, and about 25 minutes walk from the rail station (or just a few minutes on the bus to Walsgrave from the train station).
On site is the 2-Tone Cafe and Simmer Down restaurant. You’ve also got the 2-Tone Corner shop, the Hall of Fame Memorabilia store and the Coventry Music Wall of Fame. Then there’s the Music Museum itself. It’s not just about ska, although obviously that’s a key component to the sounds of Coventry. There’s nothing quite as special as something being done well by people who are ultra-passionate about their subject matter. I was lucky enough to find it in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and it’s here too.
And for the purists, I know this should really be Ghost Town, but I couldn’t resist the lure of Gangsters.
Fargo Village is the creative quarter of Coventry, on Far Gosford Street, from which its name is derived. Formerly a car radiator factory, it’s now home to all kinds of retail and dining spaces, some in the original buildings, and some in a collection of brightly painted shipping containers.
There’s a big space for indoor and outdoor events at Fargo, where you’ll find everything from craft fairs to farmers’ markets, vintage shows and open air films. Shops include retro furnishings, the very cool scooter showroom, a massive and well-stocked bookstore and all kinds of quirky and fascinating offerings. There’s also the Twisted Barrel brewpub, Dashing Blades barbers and Totally Vegan cafe.
I enjoyed Totally Vegan, where I had a pot of Earl Grey and the most enormous gluten free, oozing and still warm chocolate brownie for a bargainous £3.50. When I couldn’t squeeze in another crumb, the owner kindly offered to bag me up the rest. It’s one of those great spaces that feels bright and vibrant while still being cozy, so it’s definitely one for your address book.
Fargo is the kind of place where I could see a group of us settling in for a few hours exploring with plenty of time to refuel and enjoy all there is to offer. It’s a feast for the eyes with great artwork and plenty of colour throughout. If you like your cultural quarter to feel like a celebration, Fargo’s your Village.
Coventry’s Transport Museum is of interest to more than just your favourite petrolhead. It tells the story of how mechanised travel was widely influenced by social changes and was itself amended by social mores. And it has the biggest collection of British road transport in the world, reflecting Coventry’s status as the birthplace of the British cycle and motoring industries.
As you walk through the museum you’ll encounter everything from the original bicycles manufactured in the city to the magnificent (and way larger than I had imagined) Thrust 2. There are some lovely touches as you pass through. There’s a spirited discussion of appropriate gear for lady cyclists – knickerbockers of course – and some rather fine looking early cars. I was very happy to bump into a Triumph Spitfire, one of my dad’s better car purchasing decisions. I have happy memories of a red convertible just like the one in the museum.
This is most definitely a family friendly spot, so head on over. You’ll find a big coffee shop downstairs, where the early-finishing explorers can get refueled while the others are still wandering. The museum is open from 10-5 daily.
Coventry still has rather more of its early past than you’d imagine. I stumbled across these cottages while on my way to the cathedral and was immediately charmed. They are named after the lych gate at Holy Trinity church which they face, the lych gate being the entrance to the church for funerals.
The building is a classic jetted design, with the upper floors sticking out over the lower levels. Tree ring dating has aged the cottage to 1414-15, and it is the only surviving priory building of a former monastic precinct. It once was surrounded by the enclosed yard of St Mary’s Cathedral, near to the tower. The Lychgate Cottages were restored and extended in 1856 and then again in 1997. It blows my mind a little to think of the fine citizens deciding to do repairs to a piece of history in 1856, a time we’d now see as historic in its own right.
Whitefriars is the surviving remains of a Carmelite friary founded in 1342. The foundations, the gateway and the east cloister church remain. It too succumbed to the dissolution of the monasteries. Later it became a school and a workhouse. The buildings are currently used by The Herbert, and are open on Heritage Days only.
When it was first founded, the site covered some 10 acres, which gives you an idea of the scope and size of the friary. The cloister that remains is the only surviving one of four. The upper floor had a dormitory where the friars worked and slept, with a warming room (with a fireplace) and a parlour for meetings downstairs. There was also a Greyfriars monastery in Coventry, now signposted by as street of that name.
Lunt Roman Fort
This turf and timber Roman fort is situated on the road to Coventry Airport at Baginton. It’s a partly reconstructed site that gives you the opportunity to see life as a Roman, with the troublesome Iceni of East Anglia having recently revolted. Here you can see the workshops needed to keep the Roman army battling on. There are also brilliant insights into the nature of the defences to the fort, which show considerable inspiration with materials to hand, such as brambles and nettles.
You can also see the Gyrus, a feature otherwise unknown in Britain. This was likely to have been used as a training area for horses, and was reconstructed by 31 Base Squadron in 1977. You can find the opening days for the public via Lunt’s website to see this fascinating insight into Roman army life.
Lady Herbert’s Garden
This garden, dedicated to the wife of Lord Herbert, was set out in the city centre in the 1930s. It incorporates the remains of Coventry’s city walls, including Swanswell Gate and Cook Street Gate. These are the only two gates surviving of the original twelve. You can see the grooves made for the portcullis in Cook Street Gate, showing how well the city could be secured in the fifteenth century. Swanswell originally gave access from the priory to its fishpool.
Coventry supported the parliamentarians in the English Civil War, and it is believed that Charles II ordered the city’s fortifications to be slighted in retribution. The garden includes two beautiful sets of almshouses, also built in the 1930s.
Herbert Art Gallery and Museum
You’ll find the Herbert just behind Coventry’s cathedral. It covers all aspects of Coventry’s history from medieval times. There’s whole gallery dedicated to the story of Lady Godiva. You can, if you wish, dress up in medieval clothes and there’s an offer to smell the medieval toilet if you dare…
The Herbert has a strong and powerful message on the theme of peace and reconciliation that runs throughout Coventry. Since the Second World War, Coventry has activity developed links with other cities such as Dresden who suffered similar destruction. The Herbert has an iconic painting by John Piper depicting the ruins of the cathedral on the morning after the Blitz. You’ll find many powerful personal stories of conflict.
Also at the Herbert you’ll also find a large art collection and a range of temporary exhibits – a zingy collection of pop art at the time of writing. It’s open from Monday to Saturday 10-4 and Sunday 12-4, and admission is free.
Midland Air Museum
The Midland Air Museum is sited at Baginton, home to Coventry Airport. Here you’ll also find the Sir Frank Whittle Jet Heritage Centre, named after its inventor. There are all kinds of aircraft on display here, including an Arvo Vulcan B2, the only remaining Mk 2 Gannet in existence and a replica Sopwith Pup.
The story of Sir Frank Whittle is worth following at the museum. Having applied to join RAF Cranwell as an apprentice, he was turned down for being too short and too thin. Only 15 at the time, he filled out, and fortunately grew a few more inches. This enabled him to reapply and be selected for pilot training. 1926 saw him first articulate the possibility of different forms of propulsion for aircraft. The first run of the Whittle Unit was made in 1937, making such a row that onlookers ran for cover. The rest of that history can be seen at the museum. You can see Sir Frank’s statue in Coventry city centre near the Transport Museum and under the Whittle Arches.
Warwick Arts Centre
This is the largest arts centre in the Midlands; despite its name it’s actually in Coventry rather than Warwick, and is based at the University of Warwick (which is in Coventry). It runs a programme of over 2000 events a year, so you’d have to work really hard to not find anything that interests you.
It has six spaces: a concert hall, two theatres, a cinema, a gallery, conference and other function rooms, plus a restaurant, two bars, a gift shop and a bookshop. Coventry’s been named the UK City of Culture for 2021. This means some redevelopment work will be taking place at Warwick Arts Centre, so check the website of details of these new facilities.
More Things to Do In Coventry and Nearby England
You’ll find more about things to do in Coventry at the official visitor website here. Nearby, we’ve also tested out Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon, the Forest of Arden and the spot voted the happiest place to live in England: the Regency town of Royal Leamington Spa. Don’t forget to give Birmingham some love too; Britain’s second city is buzzing.
If you enjoyed this, why not pin it for later