The Sunday Section: Travel - Wet, Wintry Exeter

Three months.  It’s been three months since I last managed a weekend away.  What with court date adjournments, paperwork delays, and all the related angst, I’d decided I was going to grab a weekend, no matter what.

Limited by the weather and funds, I finally chose Exeter.  I liked the look of it – on the internet, it looked like my kind of place …

Exeter Cathedral

But first… Yup! You got it.  History lesson.

Exeter’s history can be traced back to the Romans who established a fort in the area around AD55, which served as the base for the Second Augustan Legion, led by Vespasian, who would become Roman Emperor in AD69.

After the Romans, it would appear the city was held by the Saxons, and was known to them as Escanceaster.  In 876, it was attacked and captured by Danish Vikings; they were subsequently driven out by Alfred the Great the following year.  He elevated Exeter to a burh, or fortified settlement, and it was able to withstand another attack by the Danes in 893. 

Two years after the Norman Conquest, Exeter rebelled against King William who marched on the city and laid siege to it.  18 days later, the city surrendered, and William swore an oath not to harm the city.  He did, however, arrange for the building of Rougemont Castle to strengthen his control over the area.

During the Anarchy, the civil war sparked by the succession battle between Matilda and Stephen, Rougemont Castle was held by Baldwin de Redvers, the 1st Earl of Devon, against King Stephen, but he was forced to submit after a 3-month seige.  One of the first to rebel against Stephen, de Redvers never accepted the new king, and was eventually driven out of England.  He went to Anjou where he joined the Empress Matilda.

In 1549, the city experienced yet another siege, this time by the ‘Prayer Book’ rebels, people who decided to take a stand against the radical religious policies of King Edward VI.  They occupied the suburbs of the city, burnt down 2 of the city gates, and tried to undermine the city walls.  They were eventually defeated by the king’s army, and a number of rebels were executed.

Although secured for Parliament at the beginning of the Civil War in 1643, Exeter was captured by the Cornish Royalist Army, and remained under the king’s control.  However, it eventually fell into Parliamentarian hands, being one of the final Royalist cities to do so.  Its surrender was negotiated in 1646 by Thomas Fairfax who had led Parliament to many victories, like the crucial Battle of Naseby.  Although he became the military ruler of the new republic, he was overshadowed by his more politically adept and ruthless subordinate, Oliver Cromwell.  Unhappy with Cromwell’s policies, he refused to take part in Charles’ show trial, and eventually resigned.

General Thomas Fairfax

Exeter’s industry developed well in the early years of the Industrial Revolution.  The advent of steam power initially brought about a decline in Exeter’s fortunes as it was too far from sources of coal.  However, canal redevelopments succeeded in expanding its economy.

The Bristol and Exeter Railway was the first to open a station at St Davids in 1844; the London and South Western Railway opened an alternative route to London in 1860 with a more central railway station.

During the Second World War, between 1940 and 1942, Exeter was bombed by the Luftwaffe in a total of 18 raids.  Many historic buildings, including the cathedral, were either destroyed or damaged.  I covered this in one of my ‘This Week in History’ posts:

‘The Luftwaffe bomb Exeter as part of what came to be known as the Baedeker raids, referencing the eponymous popular travel guides.  These raids were in response to the RAF’s bombing offensive, which started with the bombing of Lúbeck in March 1942; so began a campaign of tit-for-tat bombing by the RAF and the Luftwaffe.  Exeter had already been bombed twice in April, followed by the bombing of Bath.  This coincided with the RAF’s offensive against Rostock.  After attacking Norwich and York, the Luftwaffe returned to Exeter, this time causing heavy damage to the city and 164 deaths.  “ Exeter was the jewel of the West … We have destroyed that jewel, and the Luftwaffe will return to finish the job” – German radio report 4th May 1942.’

The 1950s saw extensive rebuilding work in the city centre; unfortunately little effort was made to preserve its ancient heritage, with damaged buildings being demolished instead of restored. 

And I think that was my quibble with Exeter.  When I looked it up on the internet, it gave the impression – and this is my own personal opinion – that there was a lot of history on offer.  But the reality left me deflated.  There were ancient, interesting buildings, but you have to really look for them as they’re dwarfed by modernity.  I did like the way the older buildings melded with the modern shops, but, apart from the cathedral and the interesting little alleyways, I confess I was not that taken with Exeter.

I refused to be daunted by the weather, which had been awful and wet leading up to the weekend.  Stepped out of Exeter St Davids station, and the rain was coming down in buckets!  Waited a few minutes, but there was no sign of it letting up so decided to just go for it.  There’s a path that leads away from the station, and eventually to the city centre, about a 20 minute walk.  I would not want to tackle that path when there’s been snow and ice!

Leading down, back to the station

Walked past a lovely-looking church, St David’s.  I did find the graveyard unnerving as its eye-level with pedestrians, with no separating fence.

Got pummelled by hail on the walk!  To begin with, didn’t take my camera out because of the weather.  But, after checking in to the hotel, the weather improved.  But only for a while.  The rain was, more or less, relentless through the afternoon and evening.  Had a late lunch at an American-style diner called ‘Ruby’ – yummy, affordable food; highly recommended.  Took most of my photos after that, in fading light, which my camera usually has trouble with, so apologies for some of the weird lighting.

Horses around the clock tower

Don't know what the significance of these murals are, but they are interesting ...

Part of St Catherine's Chapel and almhouses, founded 1457

There are underground passages, which used to be aqueduct systems that brought pure drinking water into the city, and these are open to the public.  I’m sure they would have made for an interesting visit, but with the amount of rain …

Sunday was much better, weather-wise.  After breakfast, got the chance to take more photos, starting with the cathedral, which dates from 1050.  When William Warelwast, a nephew of William the Conqueror was appointed to the see in 1107, he started the building of a new cathedral in the Norman style.  In 1258, it was rebuilt in the Decorated Gothic style but most of the Norman building was kept, including the 2 large square towers and part of the walls.  It was completed by 1400.  Although it suffered during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the fact that it was not a monastery went some way to ‘saving’ it.  The cathedral was damaged during the Civil War.  And suffered yet more damage in May 1942 in an early morning air raid.  It sustained a direct hit, which completely demolished the chapel of St James.  But the treasures of the cathedral had been removed for safekeeping in anticipation of just such an attack.

I was looking forward to entering such a majestic building, and seeing its treasures.  But the entrance fee of £6 put me off.  The argument is that churches don’t get government funding, and rely on the public to help with maintenance and restoration.  I am happy to make a donation, but when there is a specific fee to be paid – again, this is my own opinion – it sullies the church’s true purpose, which is a place of worship; it becomes more of a money-making venture.  When I visited Rochester Cathedral, instead of a charge, there was a small notice explaining their need for funds, and I was more than happy to make a donation, but there was no obligation to.  Back to Exeter, those who wish to attend service and pray aren’t charged a fee, but how is the distinction made?  I could be accused of treating the church like a museum, having said I wanted to see its treasures.  But when I enter a church, for me there is a sense of the divine, somewhere I can go and feel at peace.  And I always tread respectfully.  I mind having to pay to gain access to a place of spiritual peace.

This caught me by surprise.  Even though the plaque states these unfortunate women were the last to be hanged in England for witchcraft, there were other, not so well documented cases after this.  Although they were executed at Heavitree, they were tried in Bideford.  Heavitree, in Exeter, was once a significant village outside the city on the road to London; until 1818, it was a site for executions.

Would love to see the inside of this ...

Interestingly, the city’s motto is ‘Semper fidelis’, which means ‘always faithful’ or ‘always loyal’, the same as the motto for the US Marines.

Despite my misgivings, I wouldn’t have missed this trip for anything.