Thursday, 4 February 2010

Going Native

So yesterday I had the opportunity to act as tour guide to Coventry for a friend of mine who came to stay. For a variety of reason this is a rare occurence, but I realised, whilst I was doing it, that despite Coventry's many downsides and limitations, I had become fond of the place and was proud to point out its good points, even whilst laughingly acknowledging its downside and many uglinesses.

Time was when Coventry was a beautiful and well-liked Medieval city, similar in many ways to Oxford or 'The Shambles' in York. Crooked tudor buildings, white-painted and criss-crossed with black beams, lumpy cobbled alleys that undulate under one's feet, even older buildings in the native red sandstone common to the Midlands with rooves even more undulating than the streets as they dip and sag under the weight of centuries. Now there are only pitiful remnants of this quaint and historic town, hedged in with concrete tower blocks, ugly bricked shopping centres and greying, decaying shopping precincts and malls. The saddest thing is that I've seen the plans made for the re-building of Coventry, post-war. They show shining pale concrete buildings, clean, safe streets, happy families smilingly strolling along continental-style vistas - little did they know that the concrete (a revolutionary building material at one point) would age in such an ugly fashion, become grey and dreary until the bright blue and yellow frontage of IKEA was the most appealing visual landmark in some places... and yet...

There are redeeming features of 'new' Coventry. The Cathedral, for example, a red stone building dating from 1300 AD that was partially destroyed in the Blitz was cleverly recreated in the 1950s so that the original remains of the cathedral stand, roofless and haunting, as a memorial of the wartime bombings and, next to it, a new, functional cathedral with glowing stained glass windows and eerie etched glass frontage connect with the old building and (quite literally) reflect it. Just outside the cathedral is a large piazza housing one part of Coventry university and the Herbert Art Gallery. The space is airy and European in feel, all it needs is a little cafe with outdoor tables and some warm weather and you could easily be abroad, especially with the sculptures and fountain to break up the large expanse of paving.

The other side of the town, near the self-same IKEA I already mentioned, the roads themselves have been re-designed to some extent. Wide, with wider pavements and piazzas there is, again, that sense of the continent that can carry off more modern buildings with a modicum of style. New restaurants have opened here and, it is a pocket of attractive cityscape in a town that is still mostly grey concrete.

The final piece of aesthetic relief for the urban explorer is the little bit of piazza fronting the Motor Museum at the back of Pool Meadow Bus Station. Sweeping curves set it apart from the angular monstrosities of the concrete Fail that was the post-war redevelopment, with large glassy sculptures swooping overhead as a testament to Frank Whittle, local man and inventor of the jet engine. Here a small glass-fronted cafe belonging to the motor museum achieves just that sense of indoor-outdoor space that is needed in the piazza by the Cathedral and I look forward to seeing it in summer when it's a little softend by warmth and, hopefully, some foliage.

For someone brought up in London, one of the greenest cities on Earth, that is what I find most lacking in theseindustrial Midland towns: greenery, foliage, flowers. Where are all the trees? I have no doubt that if Coventry continues the way it's going then it will shortly become a far brighter, cheerier place to be and I am excited about its prospects, but I do wish that someone would see fit to plant a few more trees and instigate a few more grassy areas - I miss the accents that nature provides within a city and think Coventry would benefit greatly from it.

When I get my computer up and running (I am currently communicating via the internet channel on our Nintendo Wii!) I will process some of the photos I took and show you Coventry's hidden charms. Until then you'll just have to take my word for it, or come and visit. I may do a visitors guide to the area soon, with a list of eateries and other attractions, but for now - this is it :-)

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