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.
There are no prizes for guessing how it got that name. It was originally located at 16 Edmund Street and was on the list of buildings to be bulldozed for a new road scheme until somebody had the idea of moving it out of harm’s way. Although it was in a state of dereliction, it had enough of the original features dating back to at least 1500 to warrant its stay of execution, and so on the 9th of December 1961 the home removal company moved in.
It took 5 days to move the house 70 metres to its present position where the old West Gate once stood, and although it doesn’t look exactly as it would have done in its original form, it seems as though it was a good move, if you’ll pardon the pun, as it’s still in use and a popular destination for tourists.
To get to the next location on the itinerary involves negotiating the new road scheme that I mentioned, but it only takes a few minutes. From West Street and the House that Moved walk down to Western Way and cross over the road; then take the footpath down to, and across, Frog Street to the Medieval Exe Bridge.
The first thing that you’ll notice is that the bridge doesn’t actually cross the river anymore, but unlike the previous landmark which was moved to make way for the road, in this case it was the river that was moved, not the bridge. The road scheme and channeling of the river was implemented to improve the flow of traffic across the river, and the flow of water beneath it. Generally speaking, the second objective was achieved, but the flow of traffic above is just as bad as ever.
Originally, a ferry used to transport people across the river, but a fatal accident prompted the call for a safer crossing. How many were killed nobody really knows. As for the bridge, it was built between 1190 and 1210 and is one of the oldest bridges of its kind still surviving in the country. I’m sure somebody somewhere will know of one that’s older, but it’s not just old, it was also big. You can still see eight and a half arches, which is only about half its original size. Built of local stone, a chapel was built at either end – St. Edmund’s, which was rebuilt after a fire in 1832 is still here, and St Thomas at the far western end which isn’t.
If you make your way to the St Thomas end of the bridge I’ll try and guide you across the road system which really isn’t that difficult if you use the underpass that goes under New Bridge Street. On the other side of the street there used to be a mural on the building facing you, but it had to be removed for structural alterations.
The reason I’ve dragged you across here is to take a butchers at an old building that many people don’t realise exists. To get there from the bottom of New Bridge Street you just need to follow the path around to the right and cross over (another part of) Frog Street and take the next left into Tudor Street. There’s nothing very old about this street nowadays – with one exception – the Tudor House. Its location means that it has slipped under the radar for many people, especially as there’s no public access inside, but as it’s only a few yards away from our route, there’s no reason not to come and take a look. Built sometime between the late 16th and early 17th centuries, questions have to be asked as to whether it is actually a Tudor House anyway – but does it really matter? I happen to like this old building just as it is.
The best way to get to our next point of interest is to walk back into Frog Street and take the steps up onto New Bridge Street. Turn left and walk across Bartholomew Street into Fore Street, where a few yards further up the hill is Tucker’s Hall.
They say that you can never judge a book by its cover, and the Tuckers Hall is a good example of this. You could easily be forgiven for thinking that this building is just another ordinary everyday chapel that you can see anywhere, but step inside and you’ll soon see that this is no ordinary chapel – in fact it’s not even a chapel any more.
Dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1471, it was built for the Guild of Weavers, Fullers and Shearmen who used it initially for both worship and business, but after the Reformation used it solely for their trades. So, who were these weavers, fullers and shearmen? Well, as you’ve probably already guessed, they were people employed in Exeter’s lucrative wool trade, so lucrative in fact, that the city became the main centre for the trade in South-West England and was its main source of wealth until the Industrial Revolution transformed the towns and villages of Yorkshire.
The West Country name for a fuller was a tucker, which is why it’s called Tuckers Hall, and a look inside this historical building with its 17th cent oak panelling and carvings gives us an insight into how important these wealthy craftsmen and merchants were to the city of Exeter. This sheep in wolf’s clothing building (sorry!) is still used by the Guild and is free to enter.
Our final port of call is St. Nicholas Priory which is hidden down Mint Lane further up Fore Street. Founded in 1087, this gem was originally a Benedictine priory with a church and four ranges (sides) surrounding a cloister, but after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, it was only the western range that survived intact.
The following years saw it being used as a town house for some of Exeter’s finest, and the inside is shown as it would have looked when the Hurst family occupied it at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries. On the ground floor there’s a Norman cellar, parlour and kitchen, and spiral stairs lead up to the Great Chamber and another chamber over the parlour.
The renovation to the priory has been meticulously done by the city council in conjunction with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, and cared for by the Exeter Historic Buildings Trust. The bad news is that it’s normally only open to the public on Sunday afternoons, but the good news is that it’s free to go in.
Back on Fore Street, if you turn left it will bring you back to where you started out from at the junction with High Street.
This walk isn’t one of those obvious things you have to do, but it does at least fit some of those last pieces of the jigsaw into place if you have an interest in seeing what’s left of old Exeter.
ORIGINAL POST – DEC 2018
LATEST UPDATE – JULY 2020