Exeter Tourist Information and History
A five minute walk from the Edwardian finds you in the historic heart of the city of Exeter. The inner bailey of Exeter Castle was built in 1068 and the Norman Gatehouse (1, 2, 3) can still be seen today. The fine Georgian Assize Courts were constructed in the inner bailey in 1774 and the delightful Rougemont Gardens, were laid out in the outer bailey of the castle during the 18th century. Through the gate is Northernhay Gardens (1, 2) - the oldest park in the city which was most recently landscaped during the 1920's. Nearby you will find Exeter Central Library, the Devon Records Office and the Devon Familiy History Society.
Much remains of both the Roman and Medieval walls of the city of Exeter, but, sadly, the ancient North Gate was demolished in 1769, the East Gate in 1784, the West (Water) Gate in 1815, and lastly the Great ‘South’ Gate in 1819. This had been one of the grandest monuments of the Middle Ages in Exeter. Many choice streets and buildings do, however, survive - dispite the blitz.
Partly Tudor narrow lanes lead into the serene tree-shaded Cathedral Close (1, 2, 3) where there is the highest concentration of Grade I listed buildings in Exeter, miraculously composed into a picturesque architectural patchwork - Walk in the footsteps of Drake and Raleigh!
Mol's Coffee House (1,2), is a famous Exeter landmark whose facade could not be mistaken for anything but an Elizabethan building. In 1806 Jenkins explained the name ‘Mol’ referred to the Italian proprietor of the Coffee House, a superior establishment, ‘ regularly supplied with newspapers and other periodical publications and is frequented by gentlemen of the first distinction in the City’. By the 1830’s Mol had gone and John Gendall, the Exeter artist, restorer and carriage panel painter, made the house his home for 30 years. On the first floor an oak-panelled room is decorated with a frieze of 46 coats of arms, probably painted in Gendall’s time.
Amongst other treasures in the Close, can be seen the Assembly Rooms (1768) by Mr William Mackworth Praed, now the Royal Clarence Hotel (named after the Duchess of Clarence, whose husband became William IV in 1827) the first hostelry in England to be known as an hotel (1770). No. 7, the Close is a very distinguished building. In 1662, the Courtenays, Earls of Devon, acquired it as their town house, and so it remained until bought by the Devon and Exeter Institution in 1813.
Exeter Cathedral (1, 2) with its twin Norman towers is England’s finest example of decorated Gothic architecture, with its magnificent nave soaring to the fan-vaulted roof, and intricately carved choir stalls; the misericords are thought to be the longest in the country. It also boasts the longest Gothic vault in Europe - superbly atmospheric. Words fail to do it justice, and a visit is a must!
Annuellers House (1528) in Catherine Street housed a group of priests, who served in the chantry chapels of the Cathedral. There is a blue placque on the site of the house in which John Graves Simcoe died in 1806. He was the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada now called Ontario. As a youth he had been a pupil at Exeter Free Grammer School.
The Guildhall (1,2) in Exeter High Street is a medieval building with colonnaded facade. It is one of the oldest still in use, and has served as the centrepiece of Exeter’s civic life for more than 800 years. It is a structure of outstanding architectural interest, and is still used regularly for official receptions, meetings of city charities, annual mayoral banquets etc. The Turk’s Head, left of the Guildhall has sadly been modernised.
The Royal Albert Memorial Museum is found in the aptly named Queen Street. Developed in Queen Victoria’s reign it is at right angles to the High Street.
The Underground Passages - Britain’s only ancient City Passageways open to the public, were first devised to bring water into the heart of the city at the start of the 13th century. They can be visited today, little changed since the days when they were built. An ideal destination for that occasional rainy day. The earliest water supply to the Close belonged to the 1170’s but this proved inadequate and, after a long-running dispute, a new agreement was drawn up in 1346 between the cathedral, St Nicholas Priory (1, 2), and the city; they were each to have a third share of the supply. The western range of St Nicholas Priory, which was founded in 1087, can be visited today.
Exeter Quayside is 10 minutes walk from the bustling shops, cafes, and offices of the city centre. Exeter’s historic quayside a charming mix of past and present. The Custom House constructed in 1681, with its elaborate plaster ceiling made by John Abbott of Frithelstock is believed to be England’s oldest purpose built custom house and remained in continuous use by HM Customs and Excise until 1989, reminding us of Exeter’s former dependence on international maritime trade. Celia Fiennes, who visited Exeter in 1698 described its Long Room ‘a large room full of desks and little partitions for writers and accountants; it was full of books and files of paper’. Near to the Customs House are the old bonded warehouses, which have found a new lease of life as craft, and bric-a-brac shops, bicycle and boat hirers etc., alongside is the Quay House Visitor Centre with it's video presentations. River and canal trips can be taken from the quayside.
From the quayside there is a pleasant walk alongside the Exeter Ship Canal with Turf Locks approximately 6 miles away. The canal was the first to be built in Britain since Roman times and its building enabled vessesls to navigate to the wharves at Exeter Quay which have recently had their Roman remains excavated. In the 1750’s some 500 craft used the canal annually with exports and imports of equal importance.
Not far from the Quayside can be found the the original Exe Bridge (1,2) and in the nearby Old West Quarter is the House That Moved, which dates from the late 15th century . During the construction of the new inner by-pass in the early 1960’s, it was cut from its foundations and winched 150 yards to its present location next to the side of the city’s former West Gate. Close by is picturesque medieval Stepcote Hill and the Mathew the Miller Clock - watch and listen as it announces the hour.
Topsham is the historic and picturesque port of Exeter. Four miles from the city centre, Topsham snuggles on the confluence of the rivers Clyst and Exe. It is famed for its shipbuilding and maritime history. From the steps in front of the 15th century tower of St Margaret's Church a stunning panorama of the Haldon Hills unfolds. Looking down over the estuary you can see small fishing boats and sailing craft. The shores of the estuary are sanctuary to a large variety of fascinating birds and other wildlife. River boat trips are available from Underway, and popular Avocet cruises are arranged from December to March. Topsham’s past as a thriving centre of commerce has left it with a unique architectural legacy. Many dwelling-houses and shop buildings date from the 17th century (including the attractive Dutch style houses on the Strand, built by Dutch merchants), with some as early as the 14th century. There are plenty of cafes, antique and bric-a-brac shops.
Knowledgeable guides are available (free) throughout the year to help you discover one of the oldest cities in England. Just join a walking tour with one of Exeter's Red Coat Guides. Most tours start from the Royal Clarance Hotel, Cathedral Green. Choose from 'Exeter Old and New' which includes Cathedral Close (1, 2, 3), the Bishops Palace garden (1, 2), and the oldest public garden in the country, Northernhay Gardens (1, 2) - as well as a post war Exeter. 'Forgotten Exeter' takes you to the Iron Bridge, Tuckers Hall, the medieval Guildhall of the Weagers, Fullers and Shearmen, and St Nicholas Priory (1, 2) with its stunning undercroft. On one of the tours you can savour the delights of Exeter's past as a major woollen clothes exporter - the meeting point for the 'Port of Exeter' tour is the Quay House Visitor Centre. Other tours highlight the Medieval Exe Bridge (1,2), Stepcote Hill, the St Mary Steps Church and the Roman/medieval City Wall - 75% of which still remains. The Catacombs which were consecrated in 1837 can only be visited on a Red Coat Guided Tour. Many other tours, including one in Topsham are available - and they are all free!
Exeter and it's links with Famous Literature and Writers
Many literary figures have had associations with the city. Fond memories of a holiday in the Exeter area persuaded Jane Austen to set her first novel in the region. Jane stayed in the pretty village of Upton Pyne ,3 miles from Exeter, with friends at the beginning of the 1800’s, and she used it for the setting of Barton Valley in Sense and Sensibility, which was published in 1811. She set the marriage of Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars at the charming village church. A Mrs Fanny Bird, a friend of Anthony Trollope’s mother lived in one of the period houses of Cathedral Close - just a few doors along from no 7. He often visited her there and used Mrs Bird as the model for Miss Jemima Stanbury in He Knew He Was Right. Miss Stanbury claims: ‘In Exeter the only place for a lady was the Close’.
It is reputed Charles Dickens was inspired by the Turk’s Head for the fat boy in Pickwick Papers. Dickens visited Exeter regularly, and rented Mile End Cottage, Alphington, Exeter, for four years from 1839, for his parents. He thought the area to be ‘the most beautiful in this most beautiful of English counties’. He wrote the opening chapters of Nicholas Nickleby at Mile End Cottage and chose Dawlish, 9 miles from Exeter, as Nickleby’s birthplace. The sly Pecksniff from Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens was modelled on a Topsham resident. Topsham was also visited by Thomas Hardy who used Exeter in four of his novels. As Exonbury it appears in The Trumpet-Major, Jude the Obscure and A Pair of Blue Eyes. He came to the town of Topsham in 1890 after the death of close friend Tryphena Sparks. He cycled from his Dorchester home (possibly 40 miles) to place flowers on her grave - her daughter Nellie became the inspiration for the poem To a Motherless Child.
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