The Roman and medieval city of Exeter grew up on a hill overlooking the River Exe, which means that the river runs below the city rather than through it.
This also means that it requires an inconvenient 15-minute walk downhill from the city centre (unless you follow the nicer walk alongside the City Wall), or an even more inconvenient bus service to get here. That said, get here you must, because it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the city.
In my Brief History of Exeter, I mentioned that a Celtic tribe called the Dumnonii were the first people to settle here, and although there doesn’t appear to be any hard evidence, it seems likely that they were trading at the Quayside before the Romans arrived.
You might have expected the Romans to be trading here themselves, and although they probably did, their main port was at Topsham, some 4 miles downstream.
Even so, by the Middle Ages, trade was flourishing on the Quayside – or at least it was until Countess Isabella de Fortibus built a weir across the river above Topsham to run her mills. To bypass the problem a canal was built from the opposite side of the river down to a point just below Topsham.
Exeter’s influence was restored, and by the mid-18th century trade reached its peak when woollen cloth became the chief export. This cloth was stored in warehouses along with imported olive oil, wine and salt cod.
There are other things to do here apart from eating and drinking, and the best place to find out what they are is at the Tourist Information Centre inside the lovely old Custom House, which was built in 1680 to ensure ships entering the port paid taxes on their goods.
Even if you don’t need any information it’s worth popping in to take a look around, especially as, unlike the trading ships, you don’t have to pay a penny.
Water sports are naturally a popular activity, and along with other outdoor pursuits, are largely based on the opposite side of the river near the canal basin.
To get there is easy enough as all it takes is a short stroll over the modern Cricklepit Bridge, but before it was built the best way was by ferry.
It’s uncertain when the first ferry began, but a Royal Charter was granted in 1641 and it’s been running ever since. It’s not the same ferryboat mind you, but it is unusual in as much as the ferryman has to manually pull the boat across the river along a cable, and when a bigger boat needs to get past, the cable has to be lowered into the water.
Even though it’s no hardship to walk across the bridge, the ferry still seems to be going strong, probably because people enjoy the novelty value of it.
It runs frequently throughout the summer, unlike the hourly bus service, which will mean a hike back uphill to the city centre if you’re later than half past three. They do start running again at 6.45 pm but only on a weekend. See what I mean about being inconvenient?