The Baedeker Blitz had a devastating effect on Exeter, especially around the city centre, but there are still some interesting old nooks and crannies that are worth seeking out. I’d rather not call this a trail because in my mind a trail sounds like a picturesque ramble somewhere, but that would be misleading because this isn’t really a picturesque route at all. It just joins up places that are spread around a bit.
To keep things simple, I’m starting off in the city centre at the crossroads where High Street, Fore Street, North Street and South Street meet, and to reach Stepcote Hill, our first point of interest, we need to walk down Fore Street and take the first left into Market Street: Then, take the first right into Smythen Street and continue on down past the Fat Pig and cross over King Street into Stepcote Hill.
It may not be quite so obvious these days, but in Roman times Stepcote Hill was the main route between the city and the river. The worn steps either side of the cobbled street would suggest that this is where the hill got its name from, but in actual fact Stepcote means ‘steep enclosure’.
The first occupants would have been well respected merchants, but by Victorian times the area had gained a reputation for squalid living conditions and low life expectancy. The 1920s saw the slums cleared away, but there are still a couple of timber-framed survivors dating from around 1500 at the bottom of the hill opposite St. Mary Steps Church, and also a building known as the House that Moved.
The City Wall and Northern Quarter
About 70% of Exeter’s city wall is still standing and although many changes to the wall have taken place over the years, it still encircles the city in much the same way as when the Romans built it to protect their fortress after they arrived in AD 55.
When they left in 410, the Saxons gained control and were forced to repair the wall in order to see off the regular Viking raids. However, when the Normans arrived, not only did they reinforce the wall, they also built a castle which had the job of repelling sieges and rebellions right up until the Civil War.
What’s left of the wall today is a mixture of stone and building styles from the Roman period onwards. None of the city gates have survived but the Visitor Information office in Dix’s Field provides a City Wall Trail leaflet that describes what’s left in more detail. Bear in mind though that the 2-mile-long walk isn’t as complete or as walkable as say somewhere like Chester.
If walking the whole of the City Wall Trail isn’t for you then I can recommend following the section from the city centre down to the Quayside. It basically follows the same route as Southernhay and can be picked up near to the Princesshay shopping centre or from the bottom of Cathedral Close.
This part of the wall is the most pleasurable to walk and there’s also something worth reaching at the end of it.
Royal Albert Memorial Museum
There’s a danger of boring people to death when describing museums, so forgive me if I don’t include everything that this museum has to offer.
The Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) was built in the Gothic style in the 1860s. It’s a handsome building, and with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, a multi-million pound re-development took place between 1999 and 2011.
The new-look museum was such a success that the Art Fund named it Museum of the Year in 2012.
It might have cost millions to bring up to date but it’s still free to go in, and so there’s no real reason not to pay it a visit. There are two entrances but the main one is in Queen St at the front of the building.
Briefly, the layout of the museum is spread over two levels, with the Ground Floor concentrating on local interest, whilst the upper First Floor includes items from other cultures and specimens from the natural world. There is more to it than that of course, but that’s the gist of it.
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.
The area around the Cathedral has been at the heart of Exeter ever since Roman times, and although German bombers tried their level best to destroy the core of this historic city during World War II, Cathedral Green managed to retain much of its charm – or at least it did until a devastating fire destroyed the famous Royal Clarence Hotel in October 2016.
Built in 1769, the Royal Clarence, which stands (stood) opposite the cathedral in Cathedral Yard, was reputed to be England’s first hotel and attracted many famous guests over the years from Lord Nelson to Thomas Hardy and Clark Gable. Franz Liszt, the famous Hungarian pianist and composer, gave two recitals here in 1840, an event that was commemorated by a blue plaque erected by the Exeter Civic Society. Between 2000 and 2015 the hotel was co-owned by Andrew Brownsword and the celebrity chef Michael Caines.
Built on the hill where the original Roman camp was established, the Cathedral Church of St. Peter is without doubt Exeter’s crowning glory.
The church in its present form was conceived in 1114, but a Benedictine monastery and Minster was set up here in Saxon times around 670 AD. One of its pupils was Winfrith who was born in Crediton (c675), some 8 miles north-west of Exeter and where the See of Devon and Cornwall was based.
Winfrith later became known as St. Boniface, and his missionary work took him from Exeter across to Frisia and Germania, where he became venerated to such an extent that he eventually became the patron saint of Germany.
In 1050 Bishop Leofric transferred the See to the Minster at Exeter.