Visitors to Exeter city centre will probably want to see the Cathedral, do a bit of shopping, and maybe take a look around the Museum, but like anywhere, it would be easy to overlook some of the less obvious points of interest.
With this in mind I thought it might be worth taking a closer look at some of the things that might go unnoticed while wandering around the High St.
A word of warning though first. High Street is a pedestrianised area, except that it isn’t. By that I mean that buses use it – and there are plenty of them, so be sure to keep your wits about you when using the road.
The street runs in a north-easterly direction from the top of Fore Street, and if you follow it from this point the first thing you’re likely to miss is Parliament Street.
After crossing over the North St/South St junction the first street on the left is Parliament St, and the reason you’re likely to miss it is because it’s one of the narrowest streets in the world (the award for the narrowest goes to the town of Reutlingen in Germany). It links High St with Waterbeer St and ranges in width between 25 and 48 inches (0.64m and 1.22 m). It may not look that old, but it’s been here since the 14th century, believe it or not.
A bit further along on the same side of the street is a building that you can’t miss – and shouldn’t – The Guildhall. The elaborate Beer Stone frontage protrudes onto the High Street, and its claim to fame is that it’s England’s oldest civic building still in use.
Originally built in 1160, it’s had a chequered history – entertaining Kings one minute, and hanging people the next – and there’s a cellar underneath, known as the ‘Pytt of the Guyldhall’ where those sentenced to death would spend their last night before facing the gallows outside the following day.
Entry is via a fine carved Jacobean oak door that leads directly into the hall. Many of the Hall’s features have had a Victorian makeover, but the splendid oak roof is still medieval.
The building is free to enter, and as it won’t take up much of your time to visit, it really shouldn’t be missed.
At the junction with Queen Street there’s a lane on the right-hand side of the High St called Martin’s Lane. It’s unlikely that you would pass this by because it leads to Cathedral Green. Even so, you might like to know that The Ship Inn is reputed to be one of Sir Francis Drake’s favourite watering holes. Whether it actually was or not is debatable, but what isn’t, is that it was used by Royalist troops to try and fend off General Fairfax during the siege of Exeter during the Civil War. The original 16th century interior has long disappeared though I’m afraid to say.
The Baedeker Raids did a lot of damage to the city centre during WWII, but there are still several interesting buildings, or parts of buildings remaining, and if you return to the High St and continue up the right-hand side you’ll have a better view of one of my favourites – the façade of the J&G Ross shop at No.227 on the opposite side of the road.
The J&G Ross shop stands next to Gandy Street which I recommend you take a wander through. The first part of the street is nothing special, but if you continue to walk across the Little Queen St/Musgrave Row junction to the pedestrianised part of the street opposite, you’ll find one of the most charming corners of Exeter.
Originating back to Saxon times, the street is lined with small individual shops, wine bars and restaurants.
There’s a bar called John Gandy’s here, but the cobbled street is actually named after Henry Gandy, who was Lord Mayor of Exeter twice in the 17th century.
Look out for the small passageway called New Buildings which also has some interesting shops and a wall mural at the back, depicting scenes from Exeter’s history.
Gandy Street leads to the museum, and so you’ll need to double back to return to the High Street.
Turn left up the High Street, but before walking too far take a look back, and look up. On the side of the Urban Outfitters shop some of the plaster on the wall has been hacked off revealing a clever piece of artwork showing just a face. I’m always impressed with people who have the ability to see what can be done to brighten up our everyday lives.
Continuing on up the High Street will bring you to Paris Street, where if you turn right you will come to one of Exeter’s most unusual attractions – the Underground Passages.
These passages were built in the 14th and 15th centuries to supply Exeter with fresh drinking water, and as long as you’re not claustrophobic, you can come down here on a 25-minute underground tour to see them for yourselves.
These tunnels were so well built that they lasted right up until Victorian times, and are in remarkable condition.
There were two wells that supplied the water, one at St. Sidwells and the other at Headwell.
The first pipes were laid to supply the clergy at the Cathedral, probably sometime in the 12th century. It would have been a fairly simple affair with trenches built, lead pipes laid, and then backfilled. By 1346 however, the system was deemed inadequate and plans were drawn up between the Cathedral, St. Nicholas Priory and the city to each have a third share under a new system which involved building these underground passages.
Over the centuries the tunnels were maintained and extended until the cholera epidemic of 1832 brought with it a demand for a system to cope with the times – and the Underground Passages virtually became forgotten about until guided tours started up in the 1930s.
The entrance in Paris Street has an interpretation centre including a 10-minute film. It has to be pointed out though that the passageways are very confined, and so you need to be honest with yourself as to whether you’re happy to take the tour. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with some fascinating facts and figures as you walk under the streets of Exeter above.
ORIGINAL POST – FEB 2018
LATEST UPDATE – JULY 2020