From the large picture window in my room at the new Telegraph Hotel in Coventry, I can see the Grade II listed Belgrade Theater. There are stylish retro floor tiles in a mint green bathroom. A fake tabloid newspaper in a wire bin makes a nice difference to the usual plastic folder of customer service information, and the front page offers a bit of history: the hotel is the former home of the local newspaper from the city, the Coventry Telegraph. Originally built in 1958, this classic example of mid-century flat-roof modernism has been reimagined to offer 88 rooms and a restaurant and bar. It opened after the lockdown on May 17 – just in time for the start of Coventry’s stay as a UK city of culture.
On the last page of the fake diary, co-owner Ian Harrabin describes the hotel’s ambition to “recapture the glamor of the 1950s and celebrate the unique style of post-war Coventry”. The specification, I read, was to recreate a media vibe of Mad Men (the American television series was set in New York in the early 1960s). So, is this the kind of place Don Draper could hang out – if he was in Coventry? I know what you are thinking. Aside from Lady Godiva and the famous cathedral, the West Midlands town is best known for bomb damage and concrete reconstruction; in the decline of its once thriving auto industry, it was more Detroit than Manhattan – a ghost town, according to Promotions. But I like mid-century modernism a bit, and I come with an open mind.
I meet Ian Harrabin in the lobby of the Telegraph (teal velvet sofas on an original terrazzo floor, marble pillars, varnished wood, and metal zigzag railings). Ian and his co-owner brother Brian were born and raised in Coventrians (that’s a word). He describes himself as an ‘urban regeneration specialist’, based in London, but still involved in all things ‘Cov’. He participated in the candidacy of the Cité de la Culture and is one of the driving forces behind the Coventry Historic Trust (which is restoring the town’s two medieval guard houses for use as holiday accommodation). I wonder how he found the time to spend hours on eBay searching for the hotel’s mid-century furniture collection. A flock of brass-winged geese flies through a wall and a vintage radiogram can be found near the reception. Other finds include teak and glass coffee tables from the 60s, Danish classics with flared legs, and a bit of jazzy Formica.
“I’m not interested in money,” Ian told me over dinner in Form and pursuit (the restaurant’s name is a fusion of compositional terms), but he admits the Telegraph’s millionaire budget was exceeded by a mile. This shows. We are seated under the new glass roof of the restaurant atrium. Custom-made fabric cushions on the sofas in the lobby are inspired by the geometry of the cathedral baptistery window. Almost everything from slim phones in rooms to black masks worn by staff carry the Telegraph logo.
We order cod cheek scampi and smoked salmon entrees, and for entrees we both go for the slow-braised prime rib with a 72 hour sauce. The menu consists mostly of posh pub fare (fish and chips, bangers and mash, lemon thyme bass, vegan stackburger with grilled harissa eggplant) with a hot Coventry ‘godcake’ for afters (think puff pastry). and minced meat).
There must have been a time when the Harrabins wondered if they were the fools. Everything was slated to open in November 2020, when the lockdown left the place dormant for more than six months. It’s early, Ian tells me, but reservations are quick. City of Culture status helped (bestowed every four years on cities deemed deserving of an economic boost, it seems to have worked for Derry and Hull). Fed up with the jokes ‘sent to Coventry’, the city hopes that the celebration of music, art, film and theater throughout the year will encourage visitors to come here of their own accord. The Commonwealth Games follow in 2022.
Coventry is small. From the hotel it is a seven minute walk to the cathedral and three minutes to the Transport museum (one of the first British cars to roll out of the Daimler factory in Coventry in 1897). Starting with the Belgrade Theater (a mini version of London’s Festival Hall), I explore most of the city center on foot in a matter of hours. First impressions? Enclosures, brutalism and low-rise post-war brickwork. On the horizon, slender spiers rival Ikea and a huge Primark. A four-lane ring road roughly follows the route of the old medieval city walls. It is not, immediately, an easy place to like. But it is alive, diverse, mainly pedestrian. Chain stores rub shoulders with Turkish barbers and the China Mini Market. The city is passionate about rainbow street lighting. There are a lot of students.
From the Grade II listed fruit and veg market (a circle of structural concrete largely unchanged since it was built in 1957), I make my way to Broadgate, a central plaza with a statue of Lady Godiva and the Lady Godiva newsagent. under Lady Godiva’s clock from 1953. the tower. I’m waiting for Lady Godiva. It is worth it. On time, a door opens and the nude Anglo-Saxon nobleman from Coventry slides on a white fairground horse, watched by a pop-out voyeur. I’m warming up in Coventry.
On the second day, the sun is shining. The light shines through the glass roof of the pavilion of the Herbert Art Gallery (a central element of the successful offer for the city of culture), where I walk through a museum space with a permanent collection devoted to local history: from the making of medieval ribbons to a model example of urban planning of post-war factories and an advertisement for a Hillman Minx convertible from the 1960s. The first major exhibition dedicated to 2 Tone, the independent record company and revolutionary music movement that began in Coventry in 1979, runs through September.
In and around the Cathedral Quarter, I am surprised at how well the Old Town survives. Every now and then I stumble upon a row of wobbly half-timbered buildings or a narrow cobbled street wedged between 14th-century sandstone walls. There are pretty gardens around the Priory Church of St. Mary, with remains of the 12th century Coventry Monastery. Nearby, the aforementioned Historic Trust is transforming three half-timbered houses into lodges. And then there is the cathedral.
Architect Sir Basil Spence was chosen to design a new cathedral to sit next to the grim ruins of the old one – devastated by firebombs in November 1940. Completed in 1962 and dedicated to peace and reconciliation, its expansive church features works by some of Britain’s best-known artists, including the astonishing window of the Baptistery by John Piper. The word “awesome” is generally overused, but in this case, I can’t think of a better one.
Back at the hotel, I check the Generator bar (on the roof – where the log generator was) and I stuck my head into some rooms. There are Snug Double Rooms (also known as Dark Rooms – they have no windows), Accessible Freedom Rooms, and two-level Studio Rooms with loft beds and doors to a ‘garden’. winter ‘with a glass roof with foliage hedges. I prefer my larger, more standard room (none of them are small), but the most popular, I’m told, is the Lord Iliffe Suite (named after the former owner of the newspaper, it has living room and terrace with whirlpool).
The theme of the journal is cohesive and well done. Some rooms feature entire walls of black-and-white photographs from the Telegraph archives. I like the “At the deadline” signs (an original alternative to Do Not Disturb).
The ambition here was to create the best hotel in Coventry, and while there isn’t a lot of competition (mainly from chains such as the dated Premier Inn or the dated Britannia and, according to Tripadvisor, “smelly”), it is a class act in every way. It is rare to find a large city hotel with so much personality. No sign of Don Draper, but the glamor of the 50s has been successfully found – at an affordable price.