The City Wall and Northern Quarter

Northernhay Gardens

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.

The City Wall at Little Southernhay Lane

One of my favourite parts of the city centre is the Northern Quarter where part of the city wall and remains of the castle are incorporated into Rougemont and Northernhay Gardens.

Built for William the Conqueror in 1068 on the city’s highest vantage point, Rougemont Castle sits just within the north-eastern part of the city walls, and is named after the red rock that it was built on – and out of.

Its medieval history was fairly uneventful apart from a siege by King Stephen in 1136, and by the end of the Civil War its purpose as a military stronghold had come to an end.

In the 1770s much of the original Norman castle was demolished to make way for a courthouse which became its main use right up until 2004.

Athelstan's Tower
Athelstan's Tower
Rougemont Castle Gatehouse
Rougemont Castle Gatehouse

So, what is there to see? There’s the city wall of course, and Athelstan’s Tower, but the main feature is undoubtedly the impressive Norman Gatehouse. On an adjacent wall there’s also a plaque remembering an occasion when the court was used to try 4 witches, and who were subsequently hung in the local prison.

In 2004 new courts were built which could have allowed the buildings occupied by the previous court to have been opened up to the general public, but the local council couldn’t find sufficient funds to enable it to happen.

Consequently, in 2007 the buildings were sold to a private development company and the Grade I and II listed buildings are now being used for weddings, conferencing, corporate events, apartments and occasional public events, which means that another important part of our heritage has been lost to the private sector. Some people would argue that at least the buildings are still being cared for, and that’s true I suppose, but it’s a shame that it couldn’t be put to better public use.

Rougemont Gardens
Rougemont Gardens
The Castle Moat
The Castle Moat

Rougemont Gardens follows the contour of the castle’s defensive wall and (dry) moat into Northernhay Gardens.

The land which is now Northernhay Gardens was where the Romans quarried the stone for their city wall, and which later became part of the castle’s defences.

It seems as though the city authorities back in 1612 were less commercially minded than they are today because they created what has been called “the oldest public space in the country” when the area was transformed for the use of its local citizens.

These early gardens didn’t last too long because during the Civil War the castle’s defences were bolstered up with the building of more ditches around its perimeter. By 1664 however, with the restoration of the monarchy, the gardens were brought back to life and have been maintained ever since.

During the Victorian era the gardens not only had a makeover, but also included several monuments, most of which were of locally important figures, but my favourite is the War Memorial by local man John Angel, erected in 1923.

Sir Stafford Northcote, 19th century Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer
Sir Stafford Northcote, 19th century Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer
The War Memorial in Northernhay Gardens
The War Memorial in Northernhay Gardens

In July 2016, to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, Somerset artist Rob Heard installed a temporary reminder of his own in Northernhay Gardens called 19240 Shrouds of the Somme.

The figure of 19240 was the number of British soldiers killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1st July 1916) and in his words he wanted to “physicalise the number”, and for three years he set about hand stitching 19,240 plastic figures.

He had a list of all the names and every time he finished one he would cross their name off. At first, he thought about the circumstances in which each one died, but as he says “I couldn’t cope with that. Your brain capsizes. You end up holding someone’s relative in your hands.” In the end he made a batch at a time and then crossed their names off.

The display lasted for a week and was a very though-provoking occasion with all the names being read out one by one over a tannoy and accompanied by war poems.

Since then Rob has expanded the number of shrouds to 72,396, which was the number of Commonwealth servicemen killed at the Somme with no known grave. In July 2018 he came back to Northernhay Gardens with a second exhibition, which he then took to a final resting place at the Queen Elizabeth Park in London during the armistice commemoration in November.

19240 Shrouds of the Somme
19240 Shrouds of the Somme

It seems that from the days of the Romans right through to the modern-day wars have taken many lives – and unfortunately, I don’t see that changing any time soon. If only the people responsible would ‘physicalise’ their thoughts like Rob Heard before going to war then there might – just might – be hope for the future, but I’m not holding my breath.

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3 thoughts on “The City Wall and Northern Quarter

  1. Sarah Wilkie

    I have visited Exeter a few times for work but never really been aware of its history. And that art installation looks very moving. I will look out for it coming to the Queen Elizabeth Park in November


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