From the wide picture window in my room at the new Telegraph Hotel in Coventry, I can see the Grade II-listed Belgrade Theatre. There are snazzy retro floor tiles in a mint-green bathroom. A mock tabloid newspaper in a wire in-tray makes a nice change from the usual plastic folder of guest-service info, and the front page offers a bit of history: the hotel is the former home of the city’s local paper, the Coventry Telegraph. Originally built in 1958, this classic example of flat-roofed, mid-century modernism has been reinvented to offer 88 rooms and a restaurant and bar. It opened post-lockdown on May 17 – just in time for the start of Coventry’s stint as UK City of Culture.

On the back page of the mock newspaper, co-owner Ian Harrabin outlines the hotel’s ambition to “recapture the glamour of the 50s and celebrate the unique style of postwar Coventry”. The design brief, I read, was to recreate a Mad Men media vibe (the American TV series was set in New York during the early 1960s). So, is it the sort of place that Don Draper might hang out in – if he happened to be in Coventry? I know what you’re thinking. Aside from Lady Godiva and the famous cathedral, the West Midlands city is best known for bomb damage and concrete reconstruction; in the decline of its once-thriving motor industry, it was more Detroit than Manhattan – a Ghost Town, according to the Specials. But I love a bit of mid-century modernism and come with an open mind.

The Telegraph Hotel exterior
The Telegraph Hotel is in the former offices of the local newspaper

I meet Ian Harrabin in the Telegraph’s lobby (teal velvet sofas on an original terrazzo floor, marble pillars, varnished timber and zigzag metal railings). Ian and his co-owning brother Brian are born and bred Coventrians (it is a word). He describes himself as an “urban regeneration specialist”, based in London, but still involved in all things “Cov”. He had a hand in the City of Culture bid and is a driving force behind the Historic Coventry Trust (which is restoring the city’s two surviving medieval gatehouses for use as holiday accommodation). I wonder how he found the time to spend hours on eBay looking for the hotel’s collection of mid-century furniture. A flock of brass-winged geese fly across one wall and a vintage radiogram sits by the reception desk. Other finds include 60s teak-and-glass coffee tables, splayed-legged Danish classics and the odd bit of jazzy Formica.

“I’m not interested in money,” Ian tells me over dinner in Forme & Chase (the restaurant’s name is an amalgamation of typesetting terms), but he admits that the Telegraph’s millionaire budget was overspent by a mile. It shows. We are sitting under the restaurant’s new glass atrium roof. On the lobby’s sofas, there are cushions in bespoke fabric inspired by the geometry of the cathedral’s Baptistry window. Nearly everything, from the slimline telephones in the rooms to the black face masks the staff wear, bears the Telegraph’s logo.

The hotel’s restaurant
The hotel’s restaurant, Forme & Chase

We order starters of cod cheek scampi and smoked salmon, and for mains we both go for the slow-braised beef short rib with 72-hour sauce. The menu is mainly posh pub food (fish and chips, bangers and mash, lemon thyme seabass, vegan stackburger with harissa grilled aubergine) with warm Coventry “godcake” for afters (think puff pastry and mincemeat).

There must have been a point when the Harrabins wondered if they were the mad men. All was set to open in November 2020, when lockdown left the place mothballed for over six months. It’s early days, Ian tells me, but bookings are brisk. City of Culture status has helped (bestowed every four years on cities deemed deserving of an economic leg-up, it seems to have worked for Derry and Hull). Sick of “sent to Coventry” jokes, the city hopes that the year-long celebration of music, art, film and theatre will encourage visitors to come here of their own accord. The Commonwealth Games follows in 2022.

Coventry is small. From the hotel, it’s seven minutes’ walk to the cathedral, and three minutes to the Transport Museum (one of the first British cars rolled out of Coventry’s Daimler factory in 1897). Starting at the Belgrade Theatre (a mini version of London’s Festival Hall), I explore most of the city centre on foot in a couple of hours. First impressions? Precincts, brutalism and low-rise postwar brick. On the skyline, slender church towers compete with Ikea and a massive Primark. A four-lane ring road roughly follows the path of the city’s long-gone medieval walls. It’s not, immediately, an easy place to love. But it’s lively, diverse, mostly pedestrianised. Chain stores rub shoulders with Turkish barbers and the China Mini Market. The city is keen on 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 head for Broadgate, a central square with a Lady Godiva statue and the Lady Godiva newsagent under the 1953 Lady Godiva clock tower. I wait for Lady Godiva. She’s worth it. On the hour, a door opens and Coventry’s naked Anglo-Saxon noblewoman slides out on a white fairground horse, watched by a pop-out Peeping Tom. I am warming to Coventry.

The new 2 Tone: Lives & Legacies exhibition in the UK devoted to the 2 Tone music sensation Herbert Art Gallery & Museum 2021
The new 2 Tone: Lives & Legacies exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum. Photograph: Garry Jones

On day two, the sun shines. Light pours through the glazed pavilion roof of the Herbert Art Gallery (a pivotal part of the successful bid for City of Culture), where I wander into a museum space with a permanent collection devoted to local history: from medieval ribbon-making to a model example of postwar town planning to “motor city” factories and an advert for a 1960s Hillman Minx convertible. The first major exhibition devoted to 2 Tone, the groundbreaking independent record label and music movement that started in Coventry in 1979, runs until September.

In and around the Cathedral Quarter I am surprised to see how much of the older city survives. Every now and then I come across a row of wonky timber-framed buildings or a narrow, cobbled street squeezed between 14th-century sandstone walls. There are pretty gardens around the Priory church of Saint Mary, with remnants of Coventry’s 12th-century monastery. Nearby, the aforementioned Historic Trust is turning three half-timbered houses into holiday cottages. And then there’s the cathedral.

Architect Sir Basil Spence was chosen to design a new cathedral to sit alongside the sombre ruins of the old one – gutted by incendiary bombs in November 1940. Completed in 1962 and dedicated to peace and reconciliation, his vast church features work by some of the period’s best-known British artists, notably John Piper’s astonishing Baptistry window. The word “awesome” is generally overused, but in this case, I can’t think of a better one.

The Baptistery Window in Coventry Cathedral.
The Baptistery Window in Coventry Cathedral. Photograph: Alamy

Back at the hotel, I check out the Generators bar (up on the roof – where the newspaper’s generator used to be) and poke my head into some of the rooms. There are Snug doubles (also known as Darkrooms – they have no windows), accessible Freedom rooms and split-level Studio rooms with mezzanine bed decks and doors on to a glass-roofed “winter garden” with hedges of fake foliage. I prefer my more standard Bigger Room (none of them is small), but the most popular, I am told, is the Lord Iliffe Suite (named after the paper’s erstwhile proprietor, it has a lounge and hot-tub terrace).

Generators bar is up on the hotel roof
Generators bar is up on the hotel roof

The newspaper theme is consistent and nicely done. Some rooms feature whole walls of black-and-white newsroom photography from the Telegraph’s archives. I like the “On a Deadline” signs (a quirky alternative to Do Not Disturb).

The ambition here was to create Coventry’s best hotel, and although there isn’t a lot of competition (mostly chains such as Premier Inn or the dated and, according to Tripadvisor, “odorous” Britannia), this is a class act by any standards. It’s rare to find a large urban hotel with so much personality. No sign of Don Draper, but the glamour of the 1950s is successfully recaptured – at an affordable price.



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