The South West of England: Pt 37 – Exeter, Devon

Our final stop in our long adventure through the counties of England’s South West was the ancient city of Exeter in Devon, as we made the push for home…


Status: Exeter District, Devon, City, England

Date: 15/08/2014

Travel: Car

Eating & Sleeping: N/A

Attractions: Exeter Cathedral, The Pyramid, Exeter Guildhall, St Petrock’s Church, Rougemont Castle, Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, St Martins Church, St Stephens Church, Exeter Canal, River Exe, Devon War Memorial, Exeter War Memorial etc

Exeter 1

Our exploration of the city began outside St Petrock’s Church, a stunningly beautiful old Church, which is thought to date back to the 7th century, or even earlier, although most of the existing fabric of the building is 15th/16th century. Like many Churches in Devon, it was named after St Petroc (Died 564) a Welsh religious figure who toured Devon & Cornwall, with at least 17 Churches being dedicated to him in the aftermath of his visits. His name also leant itself to the major town of Padstow in Cornwall, which was called Petrocs-Stow after he founded a settlement there in the form of a monastery.

The Exeter Church is one of only 2 remaining examples of the 4 ancient Parish Churches to serve the city of Exeter. The other 2 have since been demolished, in 1906 (Allhallows) and 1942 (St Lawrence’s) respectively, leaving only St Petrock’s and St Stephen’s remaining.

You can see how the city has grown up and changed around the Churches throughout the centuries, as St Petrock’s is now sandwiched between the National Westminster Bank to the left, and Numbers 70 & 71 High Street to the right.

The Bank was originally 2 separate buildings, which have now been joined together so that it not only faces out onto High Street but it also stretches around to look out over Cathedral Yard as well. Numbers 70 & 71 were built in 1905 out of Red Brick and today are occupied by a Cafe Nero store.

Exeter 2

Moving away from the High Street, we entered the aforementioned Cathedral Yard, and got a stunning view at the West Front of Exeter Cathedral, although typically one side was covered in the eternal scaffolding! The Cathedral is an incredible building, and differs slightly to many of the other ancient English Cathedrals we have seen, as instead of a central tower, it has 2 other towers, located at either side of the main building level with each other.

The Cathedral is one of the oldest in England, with the North and South Towers being the oldest surviving portions, as they were part of the original building from 1133. Just over a century later the building was already outdated and too small, and it was rebuilt around 1258. The Towers were incorporated into the new structure, hence it’s unique look amongst England’s Cathedrals. The building prospered over the next few centuries, surviving the Dissolution in the 1530’s when the Church of England was created, and it became a new Anglican Church.

In actual fact the event which caused the most damage prior to the buildings modern history was the English Civil War, which arrived in Exeter in the 1640’s, when 3 separate sieges were attempted, resulting in the Cathedral being captured in 1646. It was then handed to the city council, who erected a dividing wall in the centre of the building, splitting it into 2 churches. The nave was occupied by Congregationalists, and the Choir at the other end of the building by the Presbyterians. Eventually the dividing wall was removed and today it remains one place of worship.

Unfortunately further damage occurred in the 1940’s, as systematic bombing raids across various towns and cities in the UK were carried out by the Luftwaffe for Nazi Germany. 1 such raid happened here in 1942, when a bomb landed on the Cathedral itself, utterly destroying the chapel of St James & St Thomas, and causing a large amount of damage to the towers and the South end of the Choir. It was all repaired after the war, however the city centre suffered terrible losses with a large part of it being completely destroyed. Fires spread quickly throughout the old timber buildings, Exeter’s cultural value unfortunately becoming a weapon against itself.

Exeter 3

The Cathedral sits in the centre of a public space called “Cathedral Green”. Around the outside are various areas of note, starting with the West end of the Green, where you can walk through to Fore Street & High Street.

I previously mentioned the National Westminster Bank, and the back of this can be seen from the Green. In front of it lies the Devon War Memorial, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869 – 1944, London Architect) and completed in 1921. To create the Memorial, Haytor Quarry was reopened just for this purpose. The Quarry, located about 20 miles South West of Exeter, had originally opened in 1820, and stone was used to build London Bridge in the 1830’s, the version that was eventually moved to Arizona, USA. The Quarry fell into disuse by the 1870’s, and after a brief reprieve to create the Memorial, it closed again permanently.

Exeter 4

Looking North, a variety of pleasant buildings line the edges of the Green. Almost all of these are Listed Buildings, and showcase a variety of different ages and styles of architecture. Looking from left to right, you can see:

1) Numbers 19, 20 & 21

This fine Victorian building was constructed out of Red Brick at the start of the 19th century, with 4 storeys all overlooking the Cathedral itself.

2) Number 18 Cathedral Yard

One of the newer additions here, the building was rebuilt in 1910, refreshing a structure which originally dated back to the 18th century. Some features of this era remain inside, including a staircase and door frames.

3) 16 & 17 Cathedral Yard

Much older than the previous 2, Numbers 16 & 17 can be traced back to the late 16th century, and is located just behind the odd solitary tree on the left hand side of the green.

4) Royal Clarence Hotel

This much larger building was built around 1768, to provide Assembly Rooms for the local council. Designed by W Mackworth Praed, the building has had a number of alterations since it was built, with the facade being altered around 1827, and new balconies added in the 19th century.

Exeter 5

At the end of this fine row of buildings lies the equally impressive figure of St Martins Church. One of the finests Churches in Exeter, the building dates back to medieval times, possibly around the 14th/15th centuries, however some areas are believed to be even older. One of the arches is supposedly from the previous Saxon Church of 1065, which would make it one of the oldest buildings in the whole city.

The Church consists of the Tower at the West end, a Chancel and a Nave. Also, the Tower is noticeably different in design, as it was added much later in 1675.

The layout of Exeter is great fun to explore, as a lot of the older buildings are crammed in amongst new structures which have popped up since. St Martins is hemmed in on all sides, and directly to the right is “Mol’s Coffee House”, also known a Number 1 Cathedral Quarter. Completed in 1596, this fantastic tudor building almost looks like it’s merged with the Church, as it has been built in such close proximity. It faces out onto the Green, and is visible on the previous picture to the immediate right of the Church.

Exeter 6

Heading North away from St Martins, a few steps will take you round to 2 sets of ruins. The 1st is shown above, and was originally St Catherine’s Almshouses, completed around 1460 to house up to 13 poor locals.

What we only found out after we had visited is that before 1942 the buildings were still intact, another beautiful part of the ancient city. Another bombing raid by the Germans put an end to this, and after the war they were in a ruinous state, which has decayed further since. The same fate befell the adjacent Canon’s House, which is the 2nd set of ruins on the site, situated to the left out of sight.

The Canon’s House was built nearly 200 years before the Almshouses, and was the home of one of the many Canons who would have been resident in Exeter. By the 15th century it was home to Dr John Stevens, and it was his generosity that allowed the Almshouses to be built next door.

We moved on, heading West across the road to the Church of St Stephen. I mentioned St Petroc’s Church at the start of this post, and talked about it being 1 of the only 2 surviving ancient Parish Churches, out of the original 4.

St Stephens is the 2nd surviving Church, and some areas including the crypt can be traced back to the 13th century. A fire during the 17th century necessitated a rebuild of most of the structure in 1660, making most of the Church much newer, however it still stands out as an impressive piece of construction from centuries past. Whilst the exterior has been largely untouched aside from the fire, the interior has been replaced a number of times, including in 1826, and more recently, 1972.

The building survived the Blitz, albeit at the loss of the windows which lined the old stone walls. Moving away from the Church, we cut through to the pedestrianised street located behind it. In the centre lies one of Exeter’s most famous sculptures, called the “Riddle Sculpture”, also known locally as the pyramid. Created by Michael Fairfax in 2005, the whole thing stands a towering 6 metres tall, and the individual winged sections protruding from the centre feature verses from a book called the “Exeter Riddles”.

The book was written around 960 AD and features a series of historic poem riddles, thought to be some of the earliest Anglo-Saxon examples known to us today. Interestingly, the poems are all mirrored, so to read them you need to look at the reflection in the adjacent wing. If you think you have found the answer, you can check if you are right by looking at the sphere sat between each wing, which contains the answer to each riddle.

Another of Exeter’s ancient Parish Churches was also located in this area, called St Lawrence’s. Sadly it was another victim of the Air Raid of 1942, and this whole area was destroyed, with the new shops and buildings here being modern replacements.

Exeter 10

We pressed on, and arrived in Rougemont Place, home to Rougemont House, shown above on the left. The building dates back to the 19th century, within the grounds created in 1720 which were once covered by the fortifications of Exeter Castle, located at the back of the picture.

The main building in the Castle grounds is the main Castle Building , the arches of which you can see behind the metal gate which leads into the central courtyard. The stones around the metal gate are known as “Gateway to the Castle”, and were constructed in 1770 when a new entrance was created in the Castles defensive wall.

By 1711 the Royal Family still owned Exeter Castle, but Queen Anne gave a 99 year lease for it’s use to Devon County Council, who had the Court building constructed by 1744. They used Portland Stone on the outer sections, mined from a quarry on the Isle of Portland in neighbouring Dorset. It is the latest in a long series of buildings to stand here, from grand mansions to previous jails. The Castle complex itself sits atop old volcanic rock, and is the highest point in the city of Exeter.

To the right of the “Gateway to the Castle” lies the old Gatehouse, built by William the Conqueror (1028 – 1087) almost 1000 years ago, around 1066 after he had taken England in the famous Norman Conquests. It is possibly the oldest surviving section of the Castle, although it’s original function is long redundant.

The Castle is available to visit, and you can even have weddings there. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to go inside, but we did take a walk through the Castle Grounds. Due to it’s elevated position, you get a great view out over the city, although the Cathedral was in the opposite direction so we didn’t spot that from here.

In the foreground you can see a short spire, green at the top and bottom, and white in the centre. This tops out 1 of the 2 main train stations in the city, Exeter Central. It is larger and more central than the other station, St Davids, however long distance services tend to pull in there rather than at Central. Opened in 1860, it was originally designated as Exeter Queen Street, when it was located on the London & South Western Railway which ran from London to Exeter via Yeovil. In 1933 the station was rebuilt, and renamed to Exeter Central. Today it remains in regular use, with trains running out to Exeter St Davids, Exmouth, Digby, Andover, Salisbury and London etc.

The Castle grounds stretch round behind the building, moving down the mound back towards the city centre. In the centre of this area stands the Exeter War Memorial, also known by its official title of the Northernhay War Memorial. It was created by John Angel (1881 – 1960) at the end of World War I, and erected in 1923. Atop the main monument stands a figure of Victory, holding her hand aloft to celebrate her victory.

Around the base sit a further 4 statues, of a Soldier, Nurse, Sailor and POW (Prisoner of War) to represent all aspects of the War. All 5 statues are cast in Bronze, and sit alongside a plaque added after World War II to pay tribute to the fallen.

Exeter 13

Leaving the gardens and arriving back at street level, we moved past Exeter Central, and arrived outside the stunningly crafted form of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, shown above, located on the aptly named Queen Street. It has to be one of the grandest buildings in the city, after possibly only the Cathedral.

The Museum was founded in 1868, 7 years after the death of Prince Albert (1819 – 1861, Consort of Queen Victoria), and it was named in his honour. The starting idea behind the building was to create a memorial to the Prince, proposed by Sir Stafford Northcote (1818 – 1886, Chancellor of the Exchequer). The final design for the building was by J Hayward, a local architect, and it opened for business in 1865.

The original building, the central sections, was much smaller, but as the collections and exhibits grew, so too did the building, and it was extended in 1894 and 1898. Until 1930 it also contained the city library, however this relocated and allowed for more exhibition space. Today it is one of the cities best attractions. You can find out more about the Museum on it’s official website here.

Moving on, we used the East entrance of the Guildhall Shopping Centre, which is serenaded by fine columns. If you ever visit the centre, you will find the small Church of St Pancras at it’s heart. It has stood here for centuries, and is thought to date to the 4th century. The Shopping Centre has grown up around it, and it has to be the most interesting thing we have ever found inside a shopping centre.

The Centre incorporates the city Guildhall at the South End, leading back out onto the High Street. Another of Exeter’s fabulous old buildings, the Guildhall’s history can be tracked back to 1470 when it was completed. By 1600 a residence for the Mayor was constructed above the main columns, and Local Government was organised in the building for several centuries. Civic duties are still carried out here in the stunning council chamber, which wooden ribs along the ceiling and stunning oak panelling/pews along all the walls. A bust of Queen Victoria is also located there, keeping an eye on the politicians inside.

Exeter 16

Having explored a sizeable chunk of the city centre, we began to head South West, down towards the River Exe which runs through the city. En route, we passed a rather incongruous looking alleyway, which turns out to be the famous street called “Parliament Street” which is claimed to be the Narrowest Street in the entire World. It’s total width is just 25 inches (63.5 cm) at this end, and 45 inches (114.3 cm) at the far end.

A short trip later, we parked up on the South Bank of the River Exe. The River begins it’s journey up in Exmoor, North of Exeter in the county of Somerset. From there it passes through to Exeter, then out to the town of Exmouth, where it flows out to sea and joins the English Channel.

Crossing the river where we were now stood is a small suspension bridge called the Cricklepit Bridge, which opened in 1980 as a public access route over the river. If you use the bridge from here you will end up in the historic quays area, home to a number of places of interest.

Chief amongst these is the Exeter Customs House, the oldest/largest brick building in the entire city. Completed in 1681, it was an important stop for goods being brought up the river. It’s function was to check what was coming in and going out, and to impose taxes based upon this. It continued in this until 1989, and now sits proudly on the quays, opposite the new Quay Visitor Centre. You can spot it on the 2nd picture, as the building with the white window frames, arches along the bottom floor and a triangular white section in the roof with the UK coat of arms in the centre, bearing the English Lion and the Scottish Unicorn.

In front of the Customs House is a long canopy, which is the old Fish Market from 1838, constructed by A & W Brodley from Exeter. The area is popular with tourists, and is always a bustling location. One of the largest concentrations of listed buildings outside the city centre can also be found here, reflecting the fine heritage of the area. Just around the corner from here the Exeter Canal joins with the River, having travelled North from the mouth of the Exe near Exminster.

Exeter is an incredible city, whose worn torn centre has risen from the ashes and retaken it’s place as the historic centre of Devon. There is plenty to see, places to dine and it makes a great base to explore the rest of Devon.

Transport wise, there a number of railway stations with trains towards Plymouth & Cornwall, as well as Dorset, Somerset, Bristol, the Midlands, London, The North and all the way up into Scotland’s central belt around Edinburgh & Glasgow. Exeter International Airport is located close by and can take you around the UK as well as abroad, and the local bus services go round all nearby towns and villages, as well as further afield such as Plymouth.

Exeter is a great place to visit, and the perfect way to end our summer holiday of 2014, as it was the last stop on our tour of England’s South West, and we headed home, towards more adventures…


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