The big idea

The story of Coventry is a story of two halves: the need for speed, and heart. Coventry is truly the home of motoring as you can trace the evolution of man’s development on wheels here – from cycles to cars, and Coventry has always been at the forefront. And that adaptable quality and skill set has manifested itself in a number of other motor-related areas, as we’ll see later.

But more than that, this is a place to visit if you want to marvel at the spirit of a people. From Coventry’s very own Lady Godiva and (legend has it) St George, England’s patron saint, through to the symbolism of the burned-out cathedral and the subsequent show of spirit from the city, this is a place to come if you want to feel a real pride in being English.

A need for speed

Coventry could quite easily claim the moniker ‘the home of the car’, given that the country’s first car was produced here way back in 1896. But there’s more to it than that: there’s no fewer than five museums in the area devoted to speed. In the centre is the Coventry Transport Museum, with the world’s largest collection of British road transport: 240 cars, 100 motorbikes, 240 bikes, loads of buses: the lot. And this is no fusty museum full of old pieces, this place brings to life the development of road travel, the pioneers who made it happen, and even what the future of motoring may hold. Moving upmarket, Jaguar is a name synonymous with the city, and the Jaguar Heritage Museum celebrates the marque’s 100-year plus history. While in nearby Gaydon, the Heritage Motor Centre houses the world’s largest collection of historic British cars.

So if you like four wheels, it’s pretty much all here in one place – the famous London black cabs? Built here; famous scenes of Mini Coopers driving through Italian sewers? Filmed here!
If two wheels are more your passion, then head to the nearby National Motorcycle Museum in Solihull, it’s the biggest and best in the world and has over 350 bikes on display.
And finally, if you’d rather be up in the air than on the road, try out the Midland Air Museum near the city, which is also home to the Sir Frank Whittle Heritage Centre. As we all know, he invented the jet engine, but did you also know he was born in Coventry? Rather apt really.

Legends of stoicism

Few cities can claim to have suffered as much as Coventry during World War II. Described before the war as one of the finest mediaeval cities in England, it was pulverised during the Blitz. But what a show of resilience and strength followed: the Levelling Stone, which depicts a phoenix, was laid in the city in 1946 to show a city pulling itself up; and, as a huge gesture of peace and reconciliation, the city was later twinned with the German city of Dresden. Indeed, the city has a habit of showing moral support for others: it was the first ever city to twin with another, Stalingrad, to show its support for its plight, and now twins with a massive 27 other cities.

A visit to the new cathedral – which was recently voted the country’s favourite 20thcentury building – against the backdrop of the illuminated remains of the previous cathedral is a truly poignant sight. But look at the history section on this page and you’ll see a theme emerging. Go back in time to Coventry’s most famous sons and daughters: Lady Godiva, who rode naked through the town to rid the people of the city of a terrible burden; and St George, reputedly from Coventry, who died slaying a dragon to protect the city (or so one version of the legend goes). 
This place has heart in abundance.


Triumph over adversity

How it can make you feel

Clearly Coventry is perfect for anyone interested in speed and motoring, petrol-heads or historians.
But for anyone who needs to be reminded of what’s good about the character of England, it makes you feel proud, strong, resilient and even energised.


It’s got a fascinating history, Coventry, full of legends, heartbreak and genuine breakthrough invention.

So, to go back to the beginning, there’s little evidence of Roman settlements here, but it’s likely that Osburga, one of the sisters of a Saxon monastic house, came to the area as an Abbess in c. AD 700 and established a small church. Some 300 years later, the Earl of Mercia, named Leofric, restored the church, containing the relics of Osburga. Now, Leofric was many things: a soldier, peacemaker, diplomat, some even say saint, but he was also famous for being married to the most beautiful woman of the time – Godiva.

She was a great lover of the church (her name translates as God’s gift), and, in an act designed to free the people of Coventry from the heavy tax burden imposed by her husband, rode naked through the town after a challenge from him. Her long hair covered her modesty, but Leofric was so surprised that no one saw her naked body he deemed it a miracle; hence the modern legend of Lady Godiva. This was the first of several local legends about the city.
The status of Coventry as a city is believed to stretch back to 1182: by the early 13thcentury it was a prospering town, with early trades including dyers, goldsmiths and cutlers. It was also famed in those times for the production of Coventry soap (it’s always been a clean place, well known for its dust-free atmosphere and unpolluted air – in 1938 it was claimed the healthiest place in the world!), and the town’s Priory – the first cathedral – was a popular destination for pilgrims.
Around this time Coventry was carving out a national reputation for the quality of its mystery plays (mediaeval plays or public performances), deemed the among the best in the country, and the annual Feast of Corpus Christi, an eight-day fair that drew people from all around. Another procession that took place was the ‘Riding of the George’ on St George’s Day; one legend has it that St George was returning to his birthplace city of Coventry with his princess, and discovered the people of Coventry being terrorised by a dragon; he slayed it, died of his wounds and was buried in the city.
Coventry’s finest moment probably came in the 15thcentury, when, during the struggles of the House of Lancaster, the Royal Court moved to the city: a proud period indeed for a proud city. Alas, in the 16thcentury the city experienced a decline as the cloth trade deteriorated (the production of the famed ‘Coventry true blue’ had helped make the city the fourth-richest provincial city in England). It was also in these times that the famous expression ‘sent to Coventry’ came about: Coventry was where you were sent to beheaded as a punishment for disloyalty during the Civil War, so if you were sent there it was unlikely you’d ever be spoken to again!
Over the next couple of centuries, ribbon-making and intricate watch and clock manufacturing were the boom industries in which Coventry excelled, and as these declined there was a ready-made skilled workforce ready to turn those skills to first the cycle industry (between 1860 and 1930 there were nearly 230 cycle makers in the city), and then to the motor car industry.
The Great Horseless Carriage Company (factually correct but hardly the snappiest-titled brand around) produced England’s first motor car. Local cycle makers like Humber, Swift and Singer followed quickly, then, into the 20thcentury, Jaguar, Daimler and Peugeot. But Coventry was also home to the aircraft industry – the ‘Sopwith Pup’ came from here – and it can even claim the invention of the incendiary bullet, responsible for shooting down all but one of the Zeppelins during the war.
Sadly, however, the city was to pay a devastating price for such skill and adaptation, when, following the Coventry-made Whitley bombers hit on Munich, the revenge attacks meant Coventry got hammered with over 500 tons of high explosives. But from such dark times Coventry bounced back quickly. The city has seen much rebuilding, but for epic tales of legends, resilience and industry, there’s not many that can compete with this place.

How to experience what's different/get under the skin of

Start your tour of Coventry near the city centre in Lady Herbert’s Garden and International Friendship Gardens. The original garden is a famous Coventry landmark, lying beside the city’s ancient gates and where you’ll find the most complete surviving remains of the mediaeval city wall. Next door, the International Friendship Gardens are a modern, radical complement, but they work well together and are restful places to watch the world go by.
When it’s gone by, it’s time for some speed. Right next door is the Coventry Transport Museum. Check out some of the most iconic cars in history, from Queen Mary’s 1935 Daimler limousine to the world land speed record breaker Thrust SSC. Afterwards, stroll through the Millennium Place, with its iconic Whittle Arches and Millennium Bridge; another positive indicator of how the city is continuing to move forward.
Pop over the road and you’re in the Cathedral Quarter, head first for the Priory Visitor Centre, as it is under here that the city’s very first cathedral (not the one bombed during the Blitz) lay for hundreds of years, until excavated as part of a millennium project. See also the Priory Undercroft, a fascinating glimpse into Coventry’s original Benedictine Monastery, complete with stone vaulted rooms, courtyard and passages.
Next to this is the Holy Trinity Church, dating from the 13thcentury and containing one of the country’s finest surviving examples of a Mediaeval ‘Doom’ painting. And then you’ve got the majestic modern cathedral itself, next to the blitzed ruins of its 12thcentury predecessor. The juxtaposition of the pair is truly inspirational, and deserves some time for contemplation.
When the ruins of the old cathedral were inspected after the bombings, two wooden beams from the roof were found in the shape of a cross – look out for the replica of these in the ruins, as well as the Cross of Nails in the new cathedral. The new building is especially famous for its 1950s artworks: Hutton’s great glass screen, Graham Sutherland’s tapestry, Piper’s Baptistry Window and Epstein’s statue of St Michael and the Devil. Look also for the Peace Bell, a gift from the German people, and the Reconciliation Statue (there’s a replica in Hiroshima’s Peace Park), further evidence, if needed, of the theme of peace and reconciliation that runs around this special place.
Opposite the Cathedral on Priory Place is the Coventry University Students’ Union where you can find 2-Tone Central, a museum, cafe and venue that pays homage to the home of acts such as The Specials and The Selecter, which hail from the city (there’s a strong musical heritage in the city, including the massive International Jazz Festival every year).
Then make sure you check out St Mary’s Guildhall, on Bayley Lane – one of the greatest mediaeval guildhalls in the country. Some 650 years old, it’s been the starting point for Lady Godiva processions, the court of King Henry VI, prison to Mary, Queen of Scots, and a venue for Shakespeare to stage his plays. Next, just across the way on Jordan Well, is the Herbert Theatre; having recently received a multi-million pound makeover, this represents the cultural centre of the city, with eight permanent galleries and the History Centre.
Head back along Earl Street and up the High Street and you’re into the main shopping areas.
On the left is the Cathedral Lanes Shopping Centre, the very first city centre precinct constructed in the country. There’s a statue of Lady Godiva at the entrance – look out for the Broadgate Clock, every hour out comes the Lady, accompanied by a Peeping Tom figure (in the legend he was allegedly the only one who saw her, and promptly went blind!).
A bit further on from here you’ve got the West Orchard Shopping Centre and the Lower Precinct Shopping Centre for High Street brands; cut down Market Way and you’ll discover the three shopping areas that make up Greyfriars Walk, here’s where you’ll find an extensive range of independent shops.
Finally, if you turn onto Queen Victoria Road and head past IKEA, you’ll pass St John the Baptist Church on your left, rated ‘one of the most beautiful churches in England’ by celebrated architect Sir Gilbert Scott. Turn left past the church, head up and turn first right and you’re at the Belgrade Theatre, which showcases some of the most original touring productions in the country.
After all this, why not head out of the city centre and check out Coombe Abbey and its 500 acres of gardens. And if this puts you in the mood for exploring this most attractive of counties some more, you’ve got Kenilworth Castle, Warwick Castle – probably the country’s greatest mediaeval castle – and Stratford-upon-Avon, home of Shakespeare, on the door step.

When to visit

City pics