Exeter is a city brimming with fascinating history. This Christmas, InExeter & Radio Exe have teamed up to shed light and appreciation upon 12 of Exeter’s city centre streets, and their journey to 2017 as integral spots in our wonderful city.
1. Fore Street
Up to about 300 years ago, Exeter’s Fore Street extended up the High Street to about St Stephen’s Church; and that’s the meaning of a “Fore Street”, an extension of a high street.
Today, there are three Fore Streets in Exeter; in Topsham, Heavitree, and the city centre, (between the high street and Exe Bridges). It’s here you’ll find an eclectic mix of buildings, from the medieval Tuckers Hall, to 19th century properties housing independent shops, to the brutalism of the 20th century, part of the Corn Exchange. That could be the location of a new entertainment venue in the next few years.
Fore Street is a street of history. One of Exeter’s earliest cinemas was here, the Franklin Picture Palace. In 1907 Thomas Moore opened a store; it’s one of Exeter’s oldest surviving businesses. Mr Moore himself died in the Great War; his name is on the memorial outside St Olave’s Church.
It’s also a thoroughfare for independent shops, with intriguing places off it, such as McCoys Arcade and, for now, Dicken’s Arcade.
2. Gandy Street
Sometimes streets come full circle. The home of one of Exeter’s first newspapers, Brice’s Old Exeter Journal, was printed and published in the 1740s in Gandy Street. In the nineteenth century, the little corridor off the High Street which runs parallel to Queen Street was home to the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette. It is home to the Express and Echo offices. You have to look up – but they’re there, knocking out their stories; covering Exeter and surrounds as they have done since 1904.
Gandy Street was once a venue for taverns and inns. In many ways, it still is; a place of music and, just off it, arts and culture too; with the Phoenix and the RAMM accessible from this bohemian street too.
It’s a magical place – JK Rowling thought so. The Harry Potter creator, a former Exeter University student, is said to have based Diagon Alley on Gandy Street. Read the book, watch the film, and take a walk down Gandy Street this festive season and you’ll see the similarity, no doubt.
3. Sidwell Street
Let’s take things back to the Tudor times…
When Exeter was a walled Roman city, Sidwell Street was home to the ‘East Gate’.
Two years after Henry the Eighth’s death, Catholic rebels, reeling from having their religion banned, laid siege to the city. Capturing St Sidwell’s Church, they threw prisoners into the tower there, including Sir Walter Raleigh’s father.
There’s no tower today. In the Exeter Blitz, a bomb hit St. Sidwell’s directly. Only one bell from the tower was saved – it’s now in the post-war, new St Sidwell’s. Look out for the blue plaque too, honouring Doctor Peter Hennis, who died in a duel at Haldon Racecourse.
Today, Sidwell Street is home to Exeter’s longest-surviving cinema and is great if you’re looking for independent shops and restaurants.
Less magnanimously, readers of a Sunday newspaper voted one multi-storey property into the top ten of the county’s ugliest buildings. Today, spruced up, revamped, rebranded, it’s a landmark retailer for Exeter; the John Lewis Building on Sidwell Street.
4. Cathedral Close
Today, you go to Cathedral Close for the Christmas market, to imbue history, to enjoy refreshments outside the tea shops, cafes and bars, or visit the shops on two sides. Two thousand years ago, you’d go for a bath. This is the site of the Roman garrison, and their bath house; the site of a monastery in the seventh century, and then the Cathedral – after the Nomans had conquered. By 1300, 12-foot high walls enclosed the Yard, although in Tudor times, tunnels from the Cathedral allowed safe passage for monks in the know who wanted a quick tankard in South Street’s Bear Inn. This hostelry is now the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart. It’s been rebuilt a bit since those bawdy days.
Not everything in Cathedral Close has been as pleasant and wondrous as it is now, in past years it’s been a place of priestly politicking, infamous medieval murder and executions.
The first big fire here in 1136 was during one of the occasional sieges of Exeter. The last big fire, well, all too sadly we know that – and we lost England’s first hotel. The Royal Clarence is now starting, slowly, to come together, and we’re promised a building that will be as true to the spirit of the one destroyed in 2016 – in Cathedral Close, Exeter. Steeped in history.
5. South Street
Running from the High Street to what is now Magdalen Street and Western Way is South Street. The South Gate of Exeter was here until 1819 – you can see the remnants of that last gate of the gated city today. Debtors were once imprisoned in cells above South Gate – all that changed long before credit cards. With the gate gone, a name change followed. Once South Gate Street, now South Street.
The Sacred Heart Church on the corner of Bear Street is on the site of the Tudor Bear Inn. Landlord Edward Bridgeman spanned four monarchs, from Henry the Eighth to Elizabeth the first. There are still historic hostelries here, as well as ghosts, so they say, or at least spirits, alongside the wine and beer.
One of Exeter’s three wool markets – Shambles – was at the top of the street.
The biggest change, as with roads around, came in 1942, the Exeter Blitz. The north side of South Street was severely damaged, though many of the older buildings at the bottom thankfully survived
6. Queen Street
Victoria had not long been on the throne when Exeter needed a name for a new street, bulldozed into being in 1839 to bring easier access to Crediton and North Devon. A celebration of the first female monarch for more than 200 years, Queen Street made sense. An important High Street market was demolished to create the junction for the new road, meaning Exeter would have to go elsewhere for its fish from Lyme Bay. As always, progress, in the shape of a new thoroughfare, took precedent over fish suppers.
Important buildings soon sprung up. The city’s prison was here; it’s now the hotel opposite Central station. The station itself, of course – for this was the age of steam. If you were poor and had a contagious disease – and this was also the age of contagious diseases – Exeter Dispensary could help you, for free. Surgeons donated their services. Wealthier people paid a guinea. Cathedral bells rang to celebrate its opening. Today that building houses Exeter College’s music department.
Handsome nineteenth century buildings still line Queen Street; some residential, some independent stores, and it gives its name to a shopping and dining centre too.
7. Castle Street and Little Castle Street
Today it’s Exeter Castle, but that’s not what the Normans named it after their conquest. The naughty French brought their language, looked at the lovely Devon Red sandstone, and thought: rouge for red, mont for mountain, and gave us Rougemont Castle, and for centuries it seemed to fit. Little Castle Street, off the top end of the High Street, is the original road up, over the moat to the gatehouse. That’s still there, even if the moat’s been drained.
Richard the Third would have ridden here, on one of his several visits to the castle, where he was shown around by the mayor out of courtesy – according to Shakespeare. The three cannons at the gatehouse are relics from our battles against the Spanish Armada. Much later, the castle hosted the first Devon County Show; and was also the city’s courthouse for years. Even now, privately owned, there’s a reminder of that every time you go to the loo: which have been fashioned in the cell blocks. Both Castle Street and Little Castle Street were badly damaged in the Exeter Blitz; it spelled the end for the Castle Hotel. Today, these two streets mix history and modernity. So look up, look around, and pay a visit.
8. High Street
It may not look like one of Exeter’s most historic streets – Hitler put paid to that in 1942 – the Blitz destroying two-thirds of it, but the High Street dates back to Roman times. Here was the centre for the garrison, and once they’d left Isca, it was the Westcountry’s key gated community. The focus of civic life was here – and still is – at the Guildhall – variously a prison, the courthouse, the wool market and the public place for city council meetings. You can see one of Nelson’s swords at the Guildhall, and the city’s silver.
Liveried officers of the city will show you around if you have an appointment or you’re there for a function. They won’t put you in the stocks outside, but that could have been your fate in medieval times.
After the Exeter Blitz, the High Street was widened and, later, partly pedestrianised. It is, as its name suggests, Exeter’s central street. The focus for commercial and civic life.
9. North Street
North Street’s a historic thoroughfare through Exeter; one of the four old entrances to the city, but you wouldn’t think it today. It’s starkly modern, belying its origins a thousand years ago, when Alfred the Great’s officers etched out its path. The North Gate itself is long gone, but there’s now the Iron Bridge, constructed in the 1830s over the Longbrook Valley. That made getting into Exeter from the north much less of a climb up the side of a steep hill.
The post-war Brutalist style of the buildings around Paul Street aren’t to everyone’s taste, but there’s a growing campaign to celebrate such structures as some of the greatest architecture of the 1950s. People will make up their own minds about the beauty of the Guildhall car park, but many people like it.
Today North Street remains a place where you can enjoy a drink, good food, do a bit of shopping, perhaps even play bingo – but some famous old hostelries have gone, including the 17th century Elephant Inn, which wasn’t demolished until the 1970s, so well within the drinking memories of some locals.
If you always seem to be in a hurry when you walk up or down North Street, take it a little more slowly, and look around.
10. Martins Lane
If you know Exeter, you almost certainly know Martins Lane, even if you don’t know it by name. This is the passage between the High Street and Cathedral Green, and it’s one of the city’s most historic surviving thoroughfares.
Cast your mind back 450 years, if you will. You could have been stumbling through the darkness arm-in-arm, singing a bit, with Sir Francis Drake – adventurer, Armada war hero and, if truth be told, a bit of a pirate – and an occasional customer at the Ship Inn. That famous Elizabethan hostelry is still there – but the street’s no longer dark at night. It was the first in Exeter to get gas lamps, but even in Drake’s time it had an oil lamp – just not always enough oil.
Martins Lane, then and now, was lined with attractive shops, but the medieval gate at the Cathedral end was removed early in the nineteenth century. Around that junction with Catherine Street is St Martins Church, small and perfectly formed and worth a look inside.
Fortunately, Exeter’s great fire of 2016 didn’t make the jump between the Royal Clarence and Martin’s Lane, although it was touch and go for a while. Martins Lane is a historic survivor.
11. Bartholomew Street
The Puritans weren’t a particularly jolly lot, and by the 1630s, people of religion in Exeter had a thorny problem. The cemetery at Cathedral Yard was full. If you wanted to spend eternity in consecrated ground, new land was required; so the burghers of the city looked west and to Bartholomew’s Yard. This had earlier been a Franciscan friary, but the monks had moved out to Southerngate way before. That burial ground adjoins Batholomew Street today; it took its last bodies, victims of Exeter’s cholera outbreak, in 1832. They were spirited from their homes at night, to prevent further infection.
More happily, the street was enlivened by the sound of children’s voices with a series of schools opening. The Devon and Exeter Infants School, later becoming the Paradise Place Boys School and then the Junior Technical School. The school, by then long gone, was demolished in the 1980s to be replaced with a car park; a dream come true for many school children.
By the nineteenth century, Exeter’s wool trade was commemorated in Bartholomew Street by way of a pub. The Woolpack Inn; renamed from the Globe, and earlier the Champion Arms; the champion being the landlord, Abraham Cann, a top wrestler of his day. You didn’t mess about with Abe when you’d had a tankard too many.
12. Roman Wall
How many times have you walked through Exeter, the south west’s greatest Roman city and not paid enough attention to the Roman Wall? Start the next time you’re in Exeter. Start today. Start in Roman Walk. This is the street at the back of Princesshay, going up to Paris Street. The one with nice coffee shops. The memorial to the Exeter Blitz. And the Roman wall, of course, now incomplete, but originally encasing Isca / Exeter. Walking down towards the Cathedral in Catherine Street, you can look down too, as well as up, and to the foundations.
To the west, nearer Fore Street and the river, there’s more surviving wall, with walkways nearby for a closer inspection. And up by the castle and Northernhay Gardens, a real sense of history, with clear gateways and the remnants of the moat protecting the dignitaries and even royalty.
In the English Civil War, with Exeter largely on parliament’s side, the Roman wall was reinforced. The moat, where possible, deepened. Cannons installed. Gun batteries placed at the gates. Royalists did arrive, occupying Alphington, Ide and Topsham, but they couldn’t breach the centre. Exeter’s Roman Wall did its job.