Discover the charms of the West Midlands: where city, country and culture collide

Walking through the streets of Coventry, tour guide Roger Bailey is eager to share a story that’s “a thousand years in the making.” The legend goes that Lady Godiva, a key figure in the history of the region, pleaded with her husband to provide a tax break for local residents.


BY: ANN RUPPENSTEIN

“He said no, but she didn’t give up, she came back to him again and again, so many times he got so fed up, he decided to give her an impossible challenge, thinking she wouldn’t do it — ride through the streets of Coventry naked — and if you do this, I’ll lift the taxes,” explains Bailey. “We’re told she cares so much about her people, she decides to do the ride. Out of respect, everybody turned their backs, except for one, who we now call Peeping Tom.”

Although it’s debatable whether or not the incident actually took place due to a lack of official records, depictions of the scene remain today at sites like The Lady Godiva Clock Tower and The Lady Godiva statue.

Found in the West Midlands, which is known as The Heart of England, Coventry offers an eclectic blend of old meets new. The Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed in a fire during the Second World War, is a must-see site. Newly reconstructed in 1962, the outer glass wall purposely reflects the ruins of the old cathedral, symbolizing hope for the future without forgetting the past.

“It’s designed so that you’re looking at the old and the new,”  Bailey says, adding that the building is also home to a boulder from Bethlehem that’s used for baptisms. 

The new cathedral also has Canadian connections with funds raised in Canada going to replace the organ lost during the fire. Those visiting will notice the icon of a Canadian Maple Leaf embedded on the floor of the entryway. Notably, Rachel Mahon, a Canadian, has also taken on the position of Director of Music at the Coventry Cathedral.

The interior of the new building is equally remarkable with massive displays of stained glass windows representing the soul’s journey through life into heaven lining the room and a large tapestry spanning 23 metres tall and 12 metres wide, that’s said to weigh about a tonne, as the backdrop.

While the city features many historical sites like St. Mary’s Guildhall, a well preserved medieval guildhall that provides a glimpse into life 600 years ago, it’s also budding with culture and creativity.

On the modern side, FarGo Village is a creative quarter launched in 2014 that’s loaded with sculptures and street art. It features independent shops, boutiques, art workshops, design studios, a brewery and a rotating selection of food vendors.

“It’s a really affordable way to try out something — it may have even started out as a hobby — to see if it can be something that supports you,” explains manager Holly Hewitt, noting that the concept took off from a handful of businesses to 40 different ventures. “A lot of the businesses have now moved into the bigger units. This month is wellbeing month where we encourage people in the community to come and meet us for a walk. So it’s not just about business, it’s about some wellbeing and a sense of community.”

Owned by Chris Cooper and Ritchie Bee, the onsite Twister Barrel Brewery is a tasty spot to sample a variety of vegan beer. The friends were inspired by the variety of beer available in the international scene, which they thought was missing back home. 

So what exactly makes the beer vegan? Interestingly, Cooper explains that beer often contains Isinglass, which is derived from the dried swim bladders of fish, which the brewery doesn’t use. 

“It’s used to clarify the beer,” he says. “Very, very few people realize it’s used in most beer. The second thing that a lot of breweries use, particularly in dark beers, is lactose because it’s used to get body, used to make it sweet.”

Having consumed over 2,000 Balti dishes to date — and counting — author Andy Munro is well versed in the art of a dish that originated in Birmingham, another buzzing city in the West Midlands. Invented during the 1970s when the city’s Pakistani residents created a fusion dish inspired by traditional Kashmiri recipes but cooked in a way that was more appealing to western tastes (for example with the meat taken off the bone), the resulting Balti helped put Birmingham’s food scene on the map. 

“Balti has to be cooked and served in the same dish,” he notes, adding that the thin, pressed-steel wok called a Balti bowl was also invented in Birmingham.

Located in the Balti Triangle, a triangle-shaped neighbourhood in Birmingham, Munro says only about five authentic Balti houses remain in the area. One of these staples is Shababs, a restaurant where guests have the chance to take part in a cooking demonstration to see how the local favourite dish is made. Cooked over a high flame, the dish is made in under 10 minutes. The end result, as everyone who sampled the dish can attest, is delicious. 

“It became a craze,” Munro shares. “In the ‘80s and ‘90s, I promise you, instead of talking about the weather, people would say ‘what’s your favourite Balti house?”

Beyond Balti, Birmingham was recently in the spotlight as the host of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, which were the most attended edition of the games to take place in the UK and had six times the amount of BBC Sport streams compared to previous years.

Said to have more miles of canals than Venice, Birmingham is also a great destination to explore on the water. However, for those clients who prefer a local watering hole, The Canal House Bar & Restaurant overlooks the water and is frequented by athletes. 

To get a taste of the independent beer scene, head to Birmingham Brewing Co., to sample a variety of brews made in house that are also vegan and gluten-free.

Although many travellers visit Stratford-upon-Avon to get a sense of where William Shakespeare grew up, the charming town offers so much for visitors to explore — including Shakespeare Distillery, an artisan spirit producer named after the town’s most famous inhabitant.

“This is a very old historic town with lots of history,” says tour guide Jan Boggis, while pointing out buildings of significance to the legendary playwright. 

Theatre fans will want to experience shows put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company and visit Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Shakespeare’s childhood home, to hear tales of his upbringing and family life. During a visit, guests may hear the story of Sonny Venkatrathnam managed to smuggle a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works into Robben Island as a religious book, circulating it among the inmates, including Nelson Mandela, who signed his name next to this passage: “Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once.”

Next year, to mark the 400th anniversary of the First Folio, a collection of 36 plays, Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust will be bringing women characters into the forefront. There are also learning opportunities and special interest courses available. 

The picturesque town is lined with shops, bar and restaurants. Another great vantage point is to soak up the scenery during a boat ride on the Avon. This is also a unique option for clients looking to spend the night on a barge.

Feel like royalty on this luxury barge that offers private tours down the River Thames

European Waterways’ Magna Carta hotel barge, which cruises Britain’s River Thames, takes guests on daily, sometimes private tours to some of the opulent royal residences that feature prominently in the UK’s celebration of the Queen’s 70 years on the throne.

Along the way, they cruise in utmost comfort, dine on gastronomic meals prepared by their personal chef, drink the finest regional wines, and enjoy views of castles, lavish estates, and the rural beauty of the English countryside that are fit for dignitaries.

With cabins on the Magna Carta quickly selling out for the 2022 season, travellers can still book 2023 and beyond at current prices, which start at $5,190 per person, based on double occupancy. Whole-boat charters start at $38,200 and allow guests to indulge in interests such as antiquing, golf and tennis, as well as family activities.

Magna Carta’s interior.

Palaces and Castles

Among the numerous excursions on Magna Carta’s itinerary is a private tour of Hampton Court Palace. Guests visit some of Henry VIII’s apartments and the Palace’s haunted gallery, where rumor has it that his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, ran screaming to confront Henry VIII when she found that he had discovered her affair. Guests will visit the original Tudor kitchens, which are complete with a hearth that is still used to demonstrate how meat was cooked on a spit. They will also tour the wood-beamed Great Hall that dates to the sixteenth century, as well as the elegant, manicured grounds of the East-facing Privy Garden.

 Magna Carta guests can also enjoy a cruise to Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite residence. Built by William the Conqueror more than 900 years ago, it is the largest castle in the world that is still inhabited today.  Guests will be treated to a “Behind the Scenes” tour of the College of St. George and visit St. Georges Chapel, where the Royal Wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry was held. They will also enjoy breathtaking views of the 2.5 mile Long Walk which leads to the Castle. 

Windsor Castle

Depending on the itinerary, Magna Carta can also provide guests with a private tour of Dorney Court. This Tudor manor house has been owned by the Palmer family for more than 450 years. It has served as a filming location for well-known titles like “Poirot” and “The Other Boleyn Girl.”
 
The Magna Carta’s classic cruise includes an excursion to Cliveden Estate, which once belonged to George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham and a favorite of Charles II’s court. Cliveden was later also home to the American Astor family, during which it became a destination for high society, entertaining Prime Ministers like David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.
 
“An all-inclusive European Waterways hotel barge cruise is the perfect way to celebrate your own jubilee or any other special occasion – or just to spend a week of pampering, gentle touring, and relaxation,” said Derek Banks, managing director of European Waterways.  “Regardless of the cruise region you chose, you will always get the royal treatment!”
 

Historic Horsepower

Speed-seeking at sites around England 

The days of piston combustion are numbered, as any owner of a hybrid or fully electric car will tell you. Luckily, petrolheads seeking some solace can get instant anxiety relief with a visit to Great Britain. It has a piston-powered heritage reaching back over a century, and offers plenty of sites that have been optimized for vacation visits.

Goodwood 

Holiday self-drivers can start their tour at the horsepower mecca of Goodwood just 90 minutes  southwest of London’s Heathrow Airport. With its historic racetrack and airport, Goodwood holds two famous festivals devoted to internal combustion – the Festival of Speed and the Goodwood Revival classic car show. Visitors who want to attend either event should start planning a year in advance for accommodations and tickets. On the other  hand, those visiting at other times of the year can reserve a room at the charming Goodwood Hotel, which is generally fully booked up during the festivals. Goodwood resides within a countryside setting and presents an attractive option for dinner and a rest after arrival at Heathrow. The next day, guests can book a driving experience at the track, or even reserve a demo flight in a WWII Harvard warbird trainer priced from £499.  goodwood.com

National Motor Museum

There are plenty of palatial heritage manors scattered about Britain that visitors can tour and gain a sense of old-world opulence. But none have an extensive, curated collection of historic automobiles and motorcycles, as is the case at the Beaulieu Estate, in the pastoral New Forest region of southern coastal England. On the rambling grounds of the estate is the National Motor Museum, which preserves and displays a vast array of vehicles across all eras of motoring, on both two wheels and four. There is a predominance of British machinery, but highlights from other nations (BMW, Ferrari, Ducati, etc.) are also displayed.  beaulieu.co.uk 

Biggin Hill 

Those seeking more adventure in the sky can schedule a flight in a special two-seat Spitfire fighter aircraft at the historic Biggin Hill Aerodrome near London. Rates for these range from £2,750 for a 30-minute local Kent flight to £6,550 for the 70-minute Coastal Patrol flight.  bigginhillheritagehangar.co.uk

Classic Team Lotus

From the scenic city of Norfolk, it is a short drive to see the spectacular race car collection at Classic Team Lotus. This is where a host of automotive concepts were conceived, built, tested and engineered to render world-beating sports cars and racing cars. Classic Team Lotus maintains an outstanding collection of Formula One race cars that were piloted by many of the F1 greats. A new larger museum is under construction now and is scheduled to open in 2020. Also coming is a new Customer Experience Centre, which will give visitors the opportunity to take the wheel of a current Lotus sports car on the company’s own twisty test track.

classicteamlotus.co.uk

Silverstone F1 Circuit

A racetrack driving experience might be the ultimate indulgence for a diehard motorhead, and potentially the peak opportunity for that is waiting at the Silverstone Formula One circuit. Now, visitors can put wheel to pavement on the storied circuit, by choosing from a selection of driving experiences. These include a Supercar Experience (£279), Racecar Experience (£219), Ferrari Experience (£179), Aston Martin Experience (£179), and a Caterham Drift Experience (£119), to name some. Shorter drives are billed as Thrills, and cost less.  silverstone.co.uk

Story by TED DAVIS