Wandering around Coventry, the UK's newest City of Culture, Ghost Town, the eerie 1981 hit by The Specials, keeps trumpeting through my head. That's no reflection on Coventry itself. An hour by rail from London, this multicultural Midlands city has a palpable spring in its step. But Ghost Town remains the most famous tune to emerge from this one-time motoring powerhouse, with The Specials singing not about Coventry per se, but Britain's decaying, riot-riddled post-industrial towns and cities in general.
The wheel of fortune has spun again, however, and regenerating urban centres like Coventry are on the up once more, with culture driving their renewal. Beating 11 other candidates (among them Perth, Swansea and Portsmouth), it assumed the City of Culture mantle in May 2021, kicking off a 12-month program of events, from exhibitions and street installations to immersive theatre and live music - including gigs by ex-Specials Terry Hall and Neville Staple.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us, and it's all about creating a legacy," says Roger Bailey, a local tour guide who chronicles tales of Coventry's past, present and future potential as we navigate the busy core of this self-proclaimed "Phoenix City", which was heavily rebuilt after World War II and boasts a fascinating architectural mish-mash.
Gothic landmarks, cobbled lanes and timber-beamed pubs hark back to the Middle Ages, when Coventry was a prosperous textile town. Recently brightened with street art, pocket parks, water features and liberal splashes of paint are brooding post-war concrete shopping precincts and covered markets and malls. On Broadgate Square, colourful bunting hangs above a statue of Lady Godiva, who apparently rode naked on horseback through Coventry in the 11th century. You'll discover her story at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, a stone's throw from the skeletal ruins of Coventry's medieval cathedral. Blitzed by Nazi bombers, the cathedral doubles as an atmospheric venue, staging drama, classical and contemporary concerts during the summer months and an ice-skating rink in winter. Adjoining the ruins is a 1960s-built modernist cathedral with dazzling stained-glass windows.
For more entertainment - and stalls selling palate-pleasing fare from local producers - enter nearby Assembly Festival Garden, opposite the Council House, a Tudor Revival-style civic palace fronted by pretty floral lawns.
Walking or pedalling (using the city's new bike-hire scheme) east along Sky Blue Way, past Coventry's fast-growing university campus, brings you to another culture hub, FarGo Village. Here independents sell hand-crafted fashions, books, art, vinyls, flat whites, vegan "soul" food and microbrews in repurposed shipping containers and mural-doused units. A little further east, Coventry Music Museum taps into the diverse talents to come from the city, including Frank Ifield, born here in 1937. There's also a focus on 2-tone, the genre that blossomed in the 1970s and 80s, when local bands like The Specials and The Selecter fused Jamaican ska and punk with messages of anti-racism and social justice.
A new 2-tone mosaic decorates the city-centre bus station opposite the superb Coventry Transport Museum, which exhibits the largest publicly-owned collection of British vehicles on the planet, including vintage bicycles, motorbikes, Rovers and Triumphs hewn in Coventry's factories. It was, incidentally, the city's manufacturing prowess - and skills in making planes, tanks and munitions - that attracted the Luftwaffe in 1940.
Reviving Coventry's former evening newspaper offices, The Telegraph Hotel is a smart new base for visitors. Choose from 88 generously-sized rooms, including the 72-square-metre Lord Iliffe Suite, named after the old proprietor and with its own hot tub and terrace. A Mad Men-esque aura permeates The Telegraph's indoor public areas, with velvet sofas, restored terrazzo floors, brass fittings, marble pillars and varnished timber. Beside the lobby, the Forme & Chase restaurant gives British classics a fresh twist - I love the curry-spiced lamb Scotch egg - while the Generators rooftop bar serves tapas and cocktails and looks across to the Belgrade Theatre, which opened in 1958 as part of Coventry's post-war reconstruction. And about 15 minutes on foot from the hotel, Coventry's train station is the gateway for rewarding day trips, from the romantic castles of Warwick and Kenilworth, to the big-city buzz of Birmingham, which is gearing up to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games from July 28-August 8.
Emirates are among the airlines that fly to London and Birmingham from Sydney and Melbourne. See emirates.com
Roger Bailey leads guided tours of Coventry and other destinations in central England. See bluebadgetouristguide.co.uk
Rooms at The Telegraph Hotel are priced from around £50 ($93). See telegraph-hotel.com
Steve McKenna was a guest of Visit Britain, Visit Coventry and the Telegraph Hotel.