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Exeter - The Cathedral City

by Clayton Trapp

Exeter is dominated, historically and geographically, by the Cathedral of St Peter. The cathedral is elevated on a hill and so can be seen from virtually anywhere for miles around. It pokes out from every street corner and, because the city's street plan has evolved in a rather entropic and angular manner, gives the illusion of moving around.

Exeter Cathedral CloseThe cathedral is among the three or four most famous in the kingdom and few visitors leave town without the full tour, and catching their breath a few times at the sheer beauty and otherworldly presence of the structure. Unlike other attractions of its magnitude, I've never heard anyone express disappointment upon experiencing Exeter's Cathedral of St Peter.

Unfortunately many visitors focus on the cathedral at the expense of everything else. Exeter has the wealth of history that one would expect from a jewel at various times times plucked, or at least attacked, by the Romans, Saxons, Normans, Vikings, Nazis and a host of internal revolutionary groups during and after the Wars of the Roses.

Historians generally agree that a settlement in what is now Exeter predates the Roman invasion. Ancient rumour holds that Exeter's famous walls, much of which still stand, were instrumental in repelling the Roman Emperor Vespasian in the first century. Thus thwarted, Vespasian then turned his attentions more successfully on Jerusalem.

Historians tend toward the opinion that Exeter's walls were not built until the end of the second century, by the Romans who played a key role in establishing Exeter by setting up a garrison on the hill where the cathedral now stands (around 50 AD). Thus satiated, and after naming the town Isca, Vespasian moved on.

In either event, Vespasian was hardly the last of the invaders, and the walls saw plenty of action. By the 20th century, however, they were obsolete as Nazi bombers simply flew over them, dropping loads that demolished High Street and clipped the cathedral.

Nazi destruction gave rise to a post-war architectural renaissance. Today new mixes with old as neon cafés and surf shops mingle with ancient pubs and cobblestone in the shadows of the cathedral and protective walls. A new shopping development in Princesshay will add a space age Californian sensibility to the aesthetic mélange of the downtown area. As an added bonus for the traveller, everything you want to see is within easy walking distance.

The Cathedral

Exeter CathedralHowever spectacular the Princesshay development may turn out to be, no pseudo-mall is ever going to replace the Cathedral of St Peter in the hearts or minds of the locals or visitors. The cathedral has stood for nearly one thousand years and enjoys beauty and spiritual qualities that would make it appealing even if it had been built yesterday. It is a structure of those qualities that are simply impossible to relate in the absence of experiencing them first hand.

Christians worshipped near the site of the cathedral during Roman times, and a monastery (where St Boniface was schooled) was built around on the grounds around 1040. A decade later Edward the Confessor transferred the see of Crediton to Exeter, thereby setting off speculation as to the adequacy of the monastery for its expanded role.

The third Bishop of Exeter, William Warelwast (nephew of William the Conqueror, who had taken Exeter in 1068) quashed the speculants by beginning work on a mighty cathedral to replace the monastery, around 1110. Warelwast's vision took fifty years to realize, but satisfied the powers that be for only about 200 years. In 1260 the cathedral was demolished, with the exception of its two Norman towers, with the cathedral as we now know it taking shape over the succeeding 130 years.

Warelwast's contribution should not be quickly dismissed. The Norman towers -- St Paul's on the north and St John's to the south -- define the cathedral from a distance, and are certainly among the most inspiring aspects of the cathedral. St John's tower also now houses a peal of 14 bells, and St Paul's the extraordinary four ton bell donated by Bishop Peter Courtenay in 1484. It is Courtenay's bell that still marks the hour, sending reverberations down the River Exe and off into the countryside.

Exeter Cathedral

A visitor's impression of the majestic towers is immediately confirmed by a few minutes at the west front of the cathedral. It is here that visitors and parishioners enter the church, but no one can ever go straight in! The stone work is simply incredible, and though some has deteriorated slightly to the years (the west front assumed its current glory during the mid-14th century) what remains is really too wonderful to imagine.

Figures stand out on the west front like a roll call from heaven itself. The top tier of 28 ecclesiastical figures finds Jesus fifteenth from the left. William the Conqueror occupies a place of honour in the middle row, dedicated to kings, and a bottom row of angels -- many playing musical instruments -- support their earthly allies. Sadly the key to identifying all of the figures has apparently been lost.

Entering the cathedral is no less inspiring than standing outside. The longest unbroken stretch (68 feet, 21 meters) of Gothic vaulting in the world stretches above the nave floor, to which it is connected by thirty 14th century columns of Purbeck marble. The vaulting is complemented by decorative pieces depicting biblical and historical scenes, perhaps the most striking of which is the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral (one of Exeter's few "rival cathedrals" in terms of tourism).

Exeter Cathedral

Cathedral aficionados are invariably impressed by the minstrel's gallery on the south side of the nave, where twelve sculpted angels can be found playing 14th century musical instruments. Sadly one of the angels lost their instrument at some point along the way, but it's difficult to imagine that such a thing would amount to much of a setback to an angel. On Christmas Day the church choir sings from a room behind the gallery, reminding the faithful of our potential to follow the example of the sacred.

Entire books have been written on the cathedral but no consideration could have any semblance of authority without mentioning the 15th century astrological clock that depicts the orbit of the sun (represented as a fleur-de-lys) and moon around the earth. The clock also tells time, somewhat more accurately than it demonstrates the movements of celestial bodies, and is said to have inspired the lyric poem "Hickory Dickory Dock."

In fact, for all of the cathedral's historic grandeur, elements of the humorous and bizarre abound. One of the 13th century misericords, found below the choir stalls, is, for example, decorated with an elephant. That might be notable in its own right, but this particular elephant is the work of a master craftsman whose experience was no doubt broad but did not include ever personally engaging in any way with an elephant. The result is a profoundly expressive creature with tusks, but one who also sports expansive hooves of a nature to make any team of racehorses jealous.

A visit to the cathedral is certain to be a dramatic event under any weather or circumstance. The power of the cathedral is such that any storm could only play a supporting role, and insider's swear by sensations brought on by the falling sun's illumination filtered through the great west window onto the cathedral's pillars, vaults and tombs.

Exeter is said to be Britain's most haunted city, and such lore couldn't possibly be complete without such goings-on in and around the cathedral. The ghost of a past caretaker, whose love of the cathedral was nearly legendary in itself, has been witnessed in one of the chapels on several occasions. On warm July evenings the ghost of a nun has been seen floating about the south wall of the nave, several times over the years.

Ship Inn ExeterFinally it must be said that Exeter's cathedral is a working church. The pious, or curious, can select from five services on any Sunday, four services on weekdays, and a number of special events throughout the year.

The area surrounding the cathedral is historic in its own, somewhat different, right. Cathedral Close wouldn't be a bad subject of an essay, and the truth is that the saltiest dogs of the seagoing epoch found their pleasure in the area within a stone's throw of the Norman towers. The Close was also the point of departure for Jonathan Harker's trip to Transylvania in Bram Stoker's "Dracula." [For a related article, see Whitby: Town of Voyagers and Vampires, by Jane Gilbert.]

No less than Sir Francis Drake declared the nearby Ship Inn to be his favourite place on earth, with the obvious exception of his own ship. It is said that Sir Drake enjoyed the environs of the Ship Inn to such a degree that management determined that his visits would be welcome only on those occasions that the legendary explorer was accompanied by "a responsible person." At the time Drake was said to be in something akin to agreement, but in the intervening years the great man's ghost has been blamed for a great deal of havoc at the pub including pushing people down a flight of stairs.

The Quay

About ten minutes by foot from the cathedral, Exeter's quay is hardly comparable to New York's harbor, or even Seaport Village in San Diego, and therein lies much of its charm. The quay is a clever echo of an age gone past, replete with nice food and shops and no small amount of history if you look upon the scene with proper eyes.

Cricklepit Bridge

In the early days, going back to Roman times, trade was conducted on the River Exe. The river is not particularly immense, however, and so goods had to be transferred on the wider portions of the river, which weren't as far inland as merchants would have liked. To make matters even more difficult a series of Earls of Devon conducted economic battles with the city in efforts to collect taxes.

The Earls were outraged that commerce flowed even as smoothly as it did -- instead of ships importing needed goods, they saw taxes just flowing by and getting away. A weir was built, impeding traffic on the Exe but ensuring taxation.

For more than one hundred years (1335-1461) the Courtenays (Earls) controlled commerce, and everything else, in the area, unchallenged as favourites of the monarchy. In 1461, however, Thomas Courtenay apparently misplayed a point, and was beheaded by the king.

The loyal citizens of Exeter immediately petitioned the crown for their rights to fish in and navigate the waters of the Exe, but the king was apparently too busy for such trifles and failed to respond. Nothing changed.

The wool trade became Exeter's primary industry and the Courtenay's taxed it enthusiastically. Perhaps the Courtenays were a restless dynasty, but whatever the case Henry Courtenay was beheaded for treason in 1539.

Andrew Stacey Mural ExeterNow troubled by the necessity of having had to behead two Courtenay's in only 70 years, the king finally granted the city permission to make the river more easily navigable again. Unfortunately the weir had created an imposing silt buildup.

The decision was made to build a canal, and Exeter's churches were among the leading economic contributors. Just when things looked to be going smoothly Exeter was shaken to its foundations, and put under siege, during the Prayer Book Revolt of 1549. Fortunately the prayer book disagreements were resolved after a scant fourteen years, and the minds of the day again turned their attention to the canal.

The canal leading to the quay was the first in England to use pound locks, and opened to shipping in 1566. The world was a simpler place then, and the great ships weighed anchor at sea, sending lighter boats filled with goods through the canal, typically pulled by hand or horse. Taxes on trade through the canal were sometimes levied, but often forgotten.

By the mid 17th century the canal was in disrepair and Exeter's increasing population was stretching the water supply in all the usual ways. Dramatic action was obviously needed, and Richard Hurd of Cardiff stepped forward to dredge the canal for the rather reasonable fee of £100. Hurd's efforts were accompanied by the creation of a canal extension making it possible for larger ships (to 60 tons) to take advantage of the trade opportunities offered by the quay.

Of course progress moved quickly, and a mere fifty years later a decision was made to further enlarge the canal. The major project was entrusted to an engineer, William Bayley, who promptly made off with the loot, bringing work to a decidedly sudden stop. Dejected but not defeated, the Chamber raised money for the project through loans and the canal was once again elevated to cutting-edge status (now 300 ton ships were arriving at the quay).

Sadly, the shipbuilders just kept making them larger and larger and by the mid 19th century the quay had been effectively relegated to historical remnant status. Its final gasps were in terms of flooding, and a flood of ship owners presenting bills for their losses to local government.

Today the quay and canal remain, dotted with pub umbrellas and gift shops. The area picks up in the summer but is never oppressively crowded. Bridges (including the venerable Cricklepit Bridge) and wooded areas make the canal an excellent area for walks, Alternately, canoes are available for hire.

The single funnest thing to do at the quay, though, is to take a ride on Butt's Ferry. The ferry is named after George Butt, who valiantly battled in the 1970s against the City Council, who had the lack of vision to consider the ferry too expensive to operate (passage costs approximately the same amount as a brief local telephone call).

In the council's defense it must be admitted that the ferry crosses the canal at a point where... well, you could easily throw a rock across it, or swim across in a matter of two or three minutes, but that isn't the point. It's as fun as it is silly.

The ferry (summertime only) operates through a rather unique system whereby the ferryman propels the miniature barge, holding perhaps four passengers, across the canal by means of locomotion generated by his pulling along a wire linking the two sides of the canal. Fewer ferries get lost that way, you see, and the petrol bill remains lower.

The Guildhall

GuildhallExeter's Guildhall is the oldest in the kingdom, dating back to 1160. Of course improvements have been made since then and so it's unlikely that any of the Guildhall that you see on High Street dates further back than 1330. The four granite pillars of the Tudor Portico (installed for a reasonable £782), supporting the Mayor's Parlour (previously the chapel), are recent additions that date back a mere 400 years.

The Guildhall was the center of commerce in the early days. The council met in the Great Chamber, and four special benches marked off an area designated as the court. Anyone, or any business taking place, within the confines of the benches was considered as being, or done, "in court."

By Tudor times the Guildhall had evolved from being strictly a commercial center, to include entertainment. The King's Players, or Queen's Players, came through with an eagerly awaited play each year, and numerous other plays and musical events kept the mood of the city festive.

The Guildhall remained the hub of much local government bureaucracy, and as such couldn't help but be a focal point of the Prayer Book Revolt of 1549. Proponents and opponents of the new English-language book plotted and seethed, with defections celebrated and lamented, until the Guildhall literally came under siege in the midst of bureaucratic mutiny. In fairness to both sides precious little harm came to the Guildhall, perhaps due to the plethora of prayers proceeding from both camps of combatants.

The Guildhall still houses bureaucrats, music, and theatre, and a museum has been added. Highlights of the museum include the sword and hat of maintenance (rewards from King VII for Exeter's loyalty in seeing off a challenge to the throne by a Dutchman, Perkin Warbeck, with a penchant for claiming to be, among other things, the bastard son of Richard III or alternately Edward IV's nephew, the Earl of Warwick), and various chains and maces and silver objects.

Against all odds there have been no recordings of ghostly activities in the Guildhall proper. Next door, however, in the building now housing Ernest Jones, Jewellers, a female ghost has been known to rush towards patrons before suddenly vanishing, repeatedly set off the fire alarm, and knock over items too numerous to mention. This latter activity has earned the moniker of "Exeter's Clumsiest Ghost."

On the south side the Guildhall is flanked by the Turk's Head, a pub frequented by Charles Dickens in his day. It is said that Dickens conceived the Fat Boy of Pickwick Papers, and Martin Chuzzlewit, amid pints of ale consumed here. Visitors are encouraged to try their own luck whilst imbibing in the "Dickens Corner" of the pub.

The Underground Passages

Sir Francis DrakeExeter's underground passages are proof positive that you can never tell what succeeding generations are going to find interesting. They were excavated beginning in the mid-12th century for the entirely utilitarian purpose of simplifying work on the city water system. In the years since they have been linked with buried treasure, secret escape routes, subterranean religious activity, and a ghost on a bicycle.

The history of a water system is rarely as exciting as an underground passage, but the tale of Exeter's water supply is hardly, um, dry. At one point the same workmen who created the exquisite west front of Exeter's historic cathedral were commended for their work and promptly sent underground to dig the passages. Payment was slight, in accordance with the tradition of the day, but included princely quantities of ale.

The underground passage system became expansive, and was considered a source of vulnerability during the English Civil War in 1642. Portions of the passages were blocked off and subsequently collapsed. For more than ten years the entire system was useless, but was repaired in 1655 with the cessation of hostilities.

Exeter's rapidly increasing population (a whopping 15,000 by the end of 1699) stretched the system, and led to the successful search for alternate delivery systems.

Nonetheless, the venerable passage system continued to be part of the solution until the cholera outbreak of 1832. Exeter's slums were hardest hit, with hundreds dying during the first months of the outbreak. To their credit local government responded quickly and with all of the resources that they had, and when it became apparent that the underground water system was a source of the disease it was permanently shut down.

Today Exeter's underground sandstone passages present as something considerably more dramatic than a water system. No similar passages can be found in England, and they simply demand all of the myths that have grown around them. The oldest accessible parts of the passages date from the mid 14th century and visitors are warned that vaulting can be low, floors uneven, and passages constricted.

More to See...

The House that Moved. Stepcote Hill. It's only a small Tudor (1471) timber-framed house -- one room wide but three stories high -- but Tuckers Hall created quite the international sensation when it was threatened by road expansion in 1961. The faithful rallied and the house was eventually put on rollers and rolled to its current place of rest, a full 70 meters (75 yards) from the original. Located approximately midway between the cathedral and quay, just ask any local where to find "the house that moved."

The House that Moved,

Mile End Cottage. Church Road, Alphington. Several miles south of everything else you'd like to see in Exeter, but well worth the trip for Charles Dickens fans. The beloved writer rented the cottage primarily to keep his father from getting into trouble in London, but after four years the elder Dickens tired of the lack of temptation presented by the (then) countryside. Charles Dickens visited his parents regularly at Mile End Cottage, and wrote the opening chapters of "Nicholas Nickleby" there. The landlady was the inspiration for the character of Mrs Lupin the Blue Dragon in "Martin Chuzzlewit. The cottage is now a private residence, but you're welcome to read the plaque outside.

Best Place for a pint: The Royal Oak Public House. 68 Okehampton Street. (01392) 255665. Located a 15 minute walk and just across the River Exe from the Cathedral, the Royal Oak is one of those perfect old British pubs. The interior is warm and wooden and bereft of pretense. The regulars are friendly, but happy enough to leave you alone if you prefer. On sunny days you can sip local Otter Ale on the deck overlooking the river, lording over the procession of joggers and dogs along the footpath below.

Best Place for dinner: The Old Times Wine Bar & Restaurant. Little Castle Street. (01392) 477704. Located in an alley, about three minutes walk from the Cathedral, the Old Times offers a bar decorated in a highly spirited and eclectic manner (lots of wood, a giant model airplane, old advertisements, thousands of items), and outstanding pub food. Stilton Glazed Garlic Mushrooms and the Bacon and Brie Ciabatta are recommended. Upstairs things are a bit fancier without entirely losing the casual feel, but still reasonably priced. The steaks are said to be Exeter's best, and other options include Italian specialty dishes and Hickory Ribs that make ordering automatic for my wife.

Red Coat Guide Tours: (01392) 265203. Various guided tours of Exeter (Medieval, Roman, Cathedral to Quay, Ghosts and Legends, etc) are available free of charge, and year round. No booking is required.

Related Articles:

Exeter Timeline, by Darcy Lewis

A Taste of Devon: Clotted Cream, Splits, Scrumpy and Gin, by Dawn Copeman

More Information:

Exeter Tourist Information

Exeter City Council: Visiting Exeter

Cathedral of St Peter in Exeter

Red Coat Guide Tours

Sir Francis Drake

Pirates and Privateers: Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake

Clayton Trapp is the author of the novel Snap Once, a series of children's books, and several nonfiction works. He lives in Exeter with his wife, four children, and a gloriously obstinate dog named Laural. Check out his webpage at http://claytonandtheresa.users.btopenworld.com/Home.html.
Article and photos © 2006 Clayton Trapp
(Top three photos courtesy of Britainonview.com)


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