Film fame: Coventry's starring role in Brit movie Nativity!

by Jeanette.Scott

A handy, short break guide to the set of 2009's hot British Christmas movie starring Martin Freeman and some Coventry kids

To be sent to Coventry – to be ostracised, punished, shunned. The idiom doesn’t exactly speak volumes for the place.

For years the British city has itself been “sent to Coventry” by tourists. Lured away by nearby luvvie-town Stratford-upon-Avon - the birthplace of William Shakespeare - or picturesque Warwick with its perfect castle and oh-so charming Tudor buildings. The city I called home for 20-odd years is suffering withering looks from its neighbours no more.

Ravaged by Second World War bombs and rebuilt by town planners in the 60s - who couldn’t envisage life beyond the 60s – the industrial face of Coventry was a pockmarked mess. Thankfully, some of the city’s fine medieval grandeur survived and - with thoughtful design and planning - Coventry is undergoing a facelift on a grand scale. I’ve been watching it transform and the plans for the future are something to behold.

There’s a charm and a beauty to the industrial city, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms, and it is loved in the same way an underdog is cheered on from the sidelines. Coventry-born film director Debbie Isitt saw it too. She set her latest foray onto the silver screen (following success with Confetti in 2006) in her hometown and cinemagoers get a whirlwind tour as the Nativity! plot develops. The Office and Love Actually star Martin Freeman treads the streets around Coventry’s two cathedrals - he's soul-searching after lying about Hollywood agents jetting in to see the nativity play at his school, which is an actual primary school in the city. His fictional drama rival is based at an historic city school; 12th century Cistercian abbey Coombe Abbey (Brinklow Road; 024 7645 0450; www.coombeabbey.com) hosts a civic reception; the local newspaper – the Coventry Telegraph (www.coventrytelegraph.net) - provided the backdrop for comedian Alan Carr’s catty drama critic and Martin Freeman’s “home” was actually a house in nearby Kenilworth.

Despite being the UK’s 11th largest city, Coventry is easily covered in a few days. Here’s my guide on making the most of a short break:

Day one

Morning

Soak up Coventry’s medieval past in the city centre. First stop, Coventry Cathedral (Hill Top; www.coventrycathedral.org.uk; 024 7652 1200), which also played host to the movie premiere’s after show party. The cathedral ruins stand in striking, gothic, haunting testament to the bombs that rained down on Coventry in 1940 while the newer cathedral serves as an art gallery as much as a place of worship. St Mary’s Guildhall (Bayley Lane; www.coventry.gov.uk/stmarys; 024 7683 3328) is just a cobbled street away. The great hall and the undercroft will leave you breathless, even if the ghost stories don’t rattle your nerves.

A ten minute walk through the shopping precincts will transport you back in time to Medieval Spon Street. Like a bitchy girl band, it’s not the original line up – the timber buildings have been imported from various parts of the city to form a stunning street crammed with historical structures. Not exactly in keeping with times gone by, some of the units now boast kebab joints and chip shops, mostly due to late night entertainment venue the Skydome at the end of the street, which houses bars and clubs.

Afternoon

The heart that beats at the centre of Coventry life sounds like this: sport, sport…sport, sport…sport, sport…

Coventry City FC, Coventry Blaze, Coventry Bees, Coventry Rugby Club. If your short break affords you a Saturday afternoon in town the only place to be is stuck in the middle of a crowd of spirited supporters. An underdog like the city itself, the football team that everybody hates to love is the Sky Blues. Head to the city outskirts to the Ricoh Arena (Phoenix Way; 0844 873 6500; www.ricoharena.com) to catch CCFC in action. Your arteries might not thank you, but make sure you get your mouth around a pie – it’s a meat-filled must.

Evening

Head back into town for restaurants and bars or stay at the Ricoh arena and test your luck – and your poker face - on the tables at the G Casino (024 7668 4747; www.gcasino.co.uk/coventry). Lady G’s bar boasts live music every Friday and Saturday night. The venue is Vegas, Coventry-style, and attracts a good-natured party crowd.

Where to stay

For a unique hotel experience check in at the arena’s 71 Rooms and Silk Suites. By day, hospitality suite, by night, pitch-view bedroom. With the curtains drawn you get a larger than average hotel room with all the usual mid-range trappings, but with the curtains open you’ve got a private viewing of a 32,000 seater stadium. I've managed to bag a room here for less than £40. Be careful on match days; you can't check in until two hours after the game has ended and you'll get an early checkout warning if you stay the night before a match.

Coombe Abbey Hotel also offers something a little different. Set in hundreds of acres of parkland and surrounded by manicured gardens, all of the rooms offer a slice of history and quirky style. The grand feature rooms take dramatic opulence to the next level – four poster beds topped with ostrich feathers or bathrooms hidden behind bookcases anyone? Prices are steep but deals can be had for less than £100 prpn.

Other accommodation options include the city centre Premier Inn Coventry. New in summer 2009, the bedrooms offer clean lines and, more importantly, clean beds and bathrooms. The chain boasts rooms from £29 but I’ve always paid around £50 without breakfast.

Where to eat

If you find yourself out of the city centre, try Coombe Abbey’s medieval banquet (02476 430 539; £39 pp) with dishes such as roast fowl topped with sauces made of mead – or their fine dining option in the Garden Room Restaurant. Singers Bar and Bistro (Ricoh Arena; 0844 412 7271) offers reasonably-priced food – their Sunday carvery is always popular.

You usually can’t go wrong with an Indian restaurant in Coventry; Turmeric Gold (Medieval Spon Street; 024 7622 6603; www.turmericgold.co.uk) bags all the awards in town. While their Indian cuisine isn’t the best you’ll ever eat – check out some of the restaurants in the suburbs of Ball Hill or Foleshill for a more authentic taste – they offer a buzzing atmosphere, quick service and, best of all, the maharaja’s quarters where you can dine in little dens of sumptuousness, surrounded by plump cushions and swathed in curtains.

Browns (Earl Street, city centre; 024 76 221100; www.brownsindependentbar.com) has a brown leather sofa/wooden table kind of comfort and always offers a massive selection of vegetarian and vegan options, alongside hearty meat dishes from just a few pounds.

For more recommendations on things to do, places to eat and places to stay, visit www.visitcoventry.co.uk.

Day two

Morning

Visit the most famous daughter of Coventry, the naked bare-back rider herself Lady Godiva. The 11th century wife of the Earl of Mercia supposedly rode sans clothes through the streets, watched, of course by “Peeping Tom”, to protest at her husband’s wicked taxation of poor Coventrians. Today she stands naked and proud in Broadgate.

Drink in more of the city’s proud history at Coventry Transport Museum (Millennium Place; 024 7623 4270; www.transport-museum.com). Trust me when I say I’m not the sort of person who visits transport museums of a weekend, but this fascinating (and free) journey through Coventry’s motor and cycle heritage is worth a chunk of your day. Land speed record holders Thrust 2 and Thrust SSC take pride of place.

Outside the museum is the impressive Millennium Place with its crowning glory, the Whittle Arch (you’ll find a statue of Coventry kid and jet engine inventor Frank Whittle underneath). Sit and watch the world pass by before hitting the city’s shops.

Afternoon

Trees that were just saplings in Victorian times now help to make Coombe Abbey country park, in the suburb of Binley, a perfect retreat from the city. There are woods, lakes, deer, ranger-led walks and numerous spots to enjoy a rowdy game of rounders or a private picnic for two.

Evening

Odeon Coventry (0871 22 44 007; www.odeon.co.uk) at the Skydome was the venue of the Christmas movie's world premiere. Though the film is no longer showing at cinemas, you can still round off your short break in Coventry with a trip to the cinema.

Jeanette.Scott

As a travel writer and photographer I've contributed to the LA Times, Lonely Planet, Real Travel, The Australian, The Herald Sun (Australia) and, of course, as an editor and writer on www.simonseeks.com. Following a stint in hospitality, I started my media career in 2002 in newspaper journalism, and I've written for the Guardian, Metro, Coventry Telegraph, Coventry and Warwickshire Times and Living magazine.

According to a fairly pointless Facebook application, I've visited 24% of the planet. Good to know, although there are ten minutes of my life I'm never going to get back. I'm fascinated by our planet and whenever I visit a place that's new to me - be it Barbados, Burkina Faso or a previously unvisited corner of Britain - I want to capture it. I want to keep the confluence of smell, noise and vision; the expressions on the faces of the people; the layers of history; the unfamiliar food and drink. I fasten it in my mind's eye - but when my memory fades, I've got a stack of photographs and a thousand furiously jotted notes to remind me.

Favourite places - my home town of Chester, New Zealand's south island, Malaysia, Fiji, Melbourne, Norway's fjords, Italy (mainly the restaurants), Greek Islands, London, Edinburgh, the Lake District, and home (Chester, though my true "home" will always be Warwickshire).

My Chester

Where I always grab a hot drink: A coffee with the grand (and quite surreal) decor of Oddfellows as the backdrop is a treat; but when my sweet tooth is raging the Blue Moon Café can’t be beaten for hot chocolate with lashings of whipped cream and marshmallows.

My favourite stroll: Treading the wooden slats of the Queen’s Park Bridge is pretty unique. I cross it every morning and evening to and from Simonseeks HQ. For a look at real life in Chester, cross the bridge from the city, drop down to riverside and head away from the direction of the racecourse. You’ll find grand homes and, eventually, the meadows (the scene of a very special New Year’s Eve midnight picnic for me).

Where to be seen: At the races of course! After a day at The Roodee get your hands on one of the coveted Bedouin tents to dine/drink/people watch from in the outdoor space at Oddfellows.

The most breathtaking view: Get the lift to the fifth floor of Abode and check out the view from the Champagne Bar. It’s both unique and breathtaking. If you’re not thirsty, stand on the steps of the High Cross (the pointy monument where the four main streets – Watergate, Eastgate, Northgate and Bridge – meet). Behold The Rows and let the history of the buildings and the buzz of modern life around you slip into your memories.

The best spot for some peace and quiet: Grosvenor Park is perfect in winter but the first rays of sunshine draw picnicking crowds. Act like a local and cross the Queen’s Park Bridge to find your haven in the meadows.

Shopaholics beware!: Visit any of the stores (ground and first floor level) on The Rows and shop accompanied by centuries of history.

Don’t leave without...clocking some time with the Eastgate Clock. Put your shopping bags down, take a picture if you must, but make sure you climb the steps and simply stand and watch the world go by for a while.