Why will Coventry be the UK's City of Culture? And how can you appreciate its offerings now?

Simon Calder

Until 7.27pm the smart money was on Paisley or Swansea to succeed Hull as UK City of Culture in 2021. The title had gone to Derry in 2013, so surely it must be the turn of Scotland or Wales next?

Alongside Stoke and Sunderland, Coventry was considered an outsider. So when the choice was announced live on the BBC’s One Show, the people of the West Midlands city looked as surprised as anyone. But its rich human heritage at the heart of England won over the judges.

The citizens have three years, three weeks and three days to prepare for the start of their year in the cultural sun. Yet between now and New Year’s Day 2021, there is plenty to entertain the visitor.

Touch down

Coventry is well connected to the rest of the nation. Trains from London Euston take under an hour to cover the 90 miles, and there are direct rail links from Reading, Oxford, Manchester and Edinburgh. The city’s airport never prospered, but Birmingham airport is only 10 minutes by train.

Get your bearings

Coventry had a terrible 20th century. It was catastrophically redefined twice: first by the Luftwaffe, whose brutal bombing on the night of 14 November 1940 obliterated the medieval core of the city; and, when the fighting stopped, the planners took over. Coventry city centre largely comprises ungainly 1960s blocks, encircled by an ugly ring-road. The car, which may well have been made in Coventry, was king. But the brutal edges have been tempered over the decades, and the city is rediscovering its human dimension.

A statue of Lady Godiva, the 11th century Countess of Mercia who is said to have rode naked through the city, marks the approximate centre of Coventry.

Check in

The centre of Coventry remains untroubled by trendy boutique hotels. The most interesting place to stay nearby is the Coombe Abbey Hotel, east of the centre.

Go to church

The one exception to the post-war utilitarian ugliness imposed on the heart of Coventry was the cathedral. Most of the medieval Cathedral of St Michael's was wrecked in the Second World War, but in 1956 the Queen laid the foundation stone for the Modernist structure that stands alongside the ruins. In 2015 it was rated the third best UK landmark in a joint project by The Independent and British Airways’ inflight magazine, High Life, beaten only by the Eden Project and the Angel of the North — and ahead of the London Eye and Edinburgh Castle.

Take a ride

The Coventry Transport Museum boasts “The world's largest collection of British road transport”, in a collection that ranges from Penny Farthings to Thrust SSC and Thrust 2, the fastest cars on earth, and includes Field Marshal Montgomery’s Humber Super Snipe.

Cultural afternoon

The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum includes finds from the Lunt Roman fort and the Benedictine Priory, and tells the story of conflict: the Second World War home front in Coventry, with an Anderson shelter, ration books and utility furniture, together with a Peace and Reconciliation gallery.

South-west of the city centre, Warwick University has a thriving Arts Centre, though a three-year refurbishment project began this autumn for refresh the Seventies structure.