Escaping Oxford – Having such a good time in Coventry


Image Credit: Alex Homer. Description: Coventry Cathedral.

I like taking day trips to escape the massive, massive bubble that is Oxford.  This doesn’t surprise people, but what does is when I told them I went – instead of to Bath, or London, or Worcester – to Coventry instead.  But there’s no stopping me – and here’s why you should go too if you want to have a good time.

The city centre isn’t the most beautiful place in the world, especially with a ring road encircling it that is never far away.  That said, it is quite interesting to wander around what the 1950s thought the future would look like, with its pedestrianised shopping precincts and brutalist architecture.  There’s also a statue of one of Coventry’s most famous daughters, Lady Godiva, who, legend has it, rode through the town naked in Anglo-Saxon England.

There’s a small display about portrayals of Godiva through history in the Herbert, the civic museum (free entry).  It’s not quite as big as the Derby Museum mentioned last week, though frankly it’s worth going just for the name, and it did have some cool temporary exhibitions when I went. They had some actual stuff by Picasso – good as I think Coventry is, I wasn’t really expecting to see one of the great artists of the last century in a city in the West Midlands.

The medieval cathedral was among the buildings famously destroyed in the War, and the decision was taken to leave the ruins standing as a memorial, while building a modern replacement next door.

The museum was also built in the fifties, which you might notice is a recurring theme; as you may know, Coventry retained many of its medieval buildings for centuries until it was heavily bombed in the Second World War.  Those buildings that remain were moved to one street, Spon Street, but honestly that wasn’t as enjoyable as I thought it would be—the buildings are quite run down, and it’s never sufficiently far from the concrete utopia that it feels authentic.  On the other hand, it is a good way to one of Coventry’s other main attractions, the massive IKEA.

A white wall with a grid of square windows, reflected in a glass wall. Along the bottom of the white wall are four window boxes containing flowers. Four dancers in elaborate brown and yellow costumes, in front of a copper statue of a naked woman on a horse. A brick and glass building is behind, and a crowd look on in the foreground. Half-timbered buildings, with the part in between the timbers pink, and thatched roofs. Behind are concrete buildings. There are modern signs on the buildings, and modern cars (and people) in the street.

Anyway, there are two big things in Coventry that make it worth the trip from Oxford (which really isn’t that long, even if CrossCountry by Arriva isn’t exactly travelling at the speed of light).  One is the Cathedral.  The medieval cathedral was among the buildings famously destroyed in the War, and the decision was taken to leave the ruins standing as a memorial, while building a modern replacement next door.  The old one is now somewhat haunting, especially with the replica charred cross standing on the altar.  (The original charred cross, now in the new cathedral, was created by the cathedral stonemason shortly after the bombing, when he found two roof beams lying in the appropriate shape and tied them together.)  The tower still stands and can still be ascended (much as I like defying the laws of gravity, it was closed when I arrived).

Another special cross was made from the rubble of the old building.  This was the cross of nails, which forms the centre of the altar cross in the replacement cathedral (free entry for students at UK universities), and which forms the inspiration for an international ministry of reconciliation based there.

The new building is, I’m pretty sure, unlike any other cathedral in Britain: a cavernous concrete hall, dominated by a huge tapestry of Jesus on the cross.  It’s only when you reach the other end that you notice the angled-away floor-to-ceiling windows providing the light (well, unless you turn right, in which case you get blown away by the multicoloured baptistry window, but I didn’t turn right).

A road transport museum actually makes more sense: at one point Coventry was basically the centre of the British motor industry.

Alright, so I will accept that not everyone will ever agree with me that concrete can be beautiful, but it’s certainly impressive.  And exploring it is rewarding, from the hand-engraved Biblical quotes on the walls to the Chapter House, flooded with light. Next to the Cathedral is the Chapel of Unity, for the use of all Christian denominations in the city, and with beautiful symbolic tiling on the floor, but they seem to keep having to fence that off because the slates keep falling down.

A red wall with gothic window frames, forming five sides of an octagon. The windows are unglazed and the roof is open; a blue sky with clouds is visible. A dark corridor leads to a glass-walled room, containing a small altar and a large cross. A woman is silhouetted against the light. On a table stand two candles in simple candlesticks, and a formed metal cross containing two crossed nails at its centre. A wall with small and large windows, and a large tapestry, form the background.

A window formed of checkerboard rectangles of coloured glass and concrete. The glass forms a yellow sun-like pattern with red, green and blue around. Black-and-white photo. A cross is suspended from a grid of concert pillars. In the background are bare trees and a church spire.

The other big thing in the city is the Transport Museum (free entry), which to be honest was disappointing because it’s a road transport museum (and the displays are static, so you can’t even see a racing car passing by), but I’ll try and get past that.  A road transport museum actually makes more sense: at one point Coventry was basically the centre of the British motor industry.  It is quite an absorbing experience, with various audio-visual stuff as you’d expect for something they’ve recently refurbished (including a World War II blitz “experience”, but that didn’t seem to be working when I went).  They’ve tried hard to cover every aspect of the motor industry, up to and including their vast display of model cars.  And they also have a world land speed record car, along with a simulator if you want to make a supersonic man out of you.

I think Coventry is unfairly maligned and there’s enough to do there should you find yourself on a collision course for it.  Maybe this won’t convince you; but I’m going to go, go, go again.

This article was originally published on Escaping Oxford


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