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.
The hotel may have attracted a celebrated clientele, but Cathedral Green, thanks to its close proximity to the High Street, has always been popular with shoppers, students, office workers and of course, visitors. Even though the loss of the hotel has had a serious impact on the visual appearance around the Green, there are, fortunately, still a number of other buildings that have been here for centuries and worth closer inspection.
At No.1 Cathedral Close is the 16th century Mol’s Coffee House. There are still original features inside, but the Dutch style gable wasn’t added until 1879. Look out for the coat of Arms of Elizabeth I dating from 1596. According to my favourite Exeter website, Exeter Memories, it was erected by the owner of the building when the ground floor was used as the Custom House. It’s had various uses since, but today it is what it says it is – a coffee house, and thanks to quick thinking by the fire brigade who covered the building in foam, it survived the fire that engulfed the nearby hotel.
If Mol’s Coffee House had gone up in flames, then no doubt so would some of the other premises in Cathedral Close: Numbers 7, 8, and 9a were originally medieval courtyard houses and numbers 10 and 11 were the Archdeacon of Barnstaple’s residence. It’s worth taking a look at its 16th century studded oak door.
If you were wondering who the statue is on the Green, it’s a theologian called Richard Hooker. If he doesn’t mean much to you then you’re in good company because, unless you have an interest in how Anglicanism came about, then you’ll probably just admire the statue instead. It was sculpted by Alfred Drury, who was also responsible for the statue of another Devonian, Sir Joshua Reynolds that stands in front of the Royal Academy.
Cathedral Green isn’t that big and inevitably I have to end with the consequences of the hotel fire which started in the Castle Gallery at No 18, a few doors down from the hotel. The fire spread to the Well House Tavern which I was a frequent visitor of (I was even allowed down into the cellar to see a skeleton that had been down there I don’t know how many years), but as I understand the situation as it is now the site is up for sale and still just a shell with scaffolding, tarpaulin and builders’ containers taking up most of the area.
The Wellhouse belonged to the Royal Clarence, so not only has Exeter lost one of its favourite buildings, I have lost one of my favourite watering holes too. Not only were the buildings gutted, so was I – and still am.
ORIGINAL POST – SEPT 2017
LATEST UPDATE – JULY 2020