Exeter Sights and Walks

Taken from the summary of Exeter’s history from W G Hoskins’ book ‘Devon’ (1954)

Exeter is one of the historic cities of England. The Romans halted their advance on the Exe: beyond lay the Celtic West into which they did not bother to penetrate. And here, on a steep-sided ridge rising a hundred feet above the river-frontier, they founded about a.d. 50 the town of Isca, which took its name from the river. Isca became the tribal capital of the Dum-nonii, the people who occupied Devon and Cornwall, and at Isca Dum-noniorum their kings must have reigned for centuries.

Since 1050 it has been the seat of a bishopric; since 1068 it has had a castle; since the 12th century (if not earlier) there has been a guildhall in the High Street. Its mayors begin very shortly after those of London. Exeter had a mayor in 1205, second only to Winchester among the provincial cities.

From the 10th century to the 18th it was a considerable port, at times the third or fourth in the country, for it lay at the head of a fine estuary and also at the lowest bridging point of the river, where land- and sea-traders met. Its archives are among the richest in England, unsurpassed perhaps by any city outside London. Though the history of Exeter has been closely interwoven with that of Devon from Roman times onwards, and can hardly be separated from it, the city has also had a rich, unique life of its own.

Of the Roman period there remain considerable stretches of masonry in the city walls, which survive largely intact. The Roman portions (built about a.d. 200) are best seen in West Street, in Northernhay, and in Southernhay. Of the Saxon period nothing survives except a few fragments of walling here and there. The Norman period is re­presented by the castle (Rougemont), built by William the Conqueror in 1068, of which the main gateway, the curtain wall, and one tower survive in Rougemont Gardens. It is also repre­sented in the remarkable twin towers of the Cathedral (1114-33), and in St. Mary Arches church, perhaps the most complete Norman church in Devon.

The architectural history of the Cathedral is a complicated story of which fuller details will be found in the official guide-books. The main structure is as perfect an example of early 14th century architecture as Salisbury is of the early 13th. Internally, Exeter may well claim to be the loveliest of all English cathedrals, with its vista of blue-grey Purbeck marble columns, soaring to a rich ribbed vault that is unique in England.


Next to the Cathedral, the Guildhall is the most interesting building in the city. The present hall was built in 1330, and remodelled in 1468-9, which is the date of the fine roof. The portico over the pavement of the High Street is Elizabethan (1592-5). The hall is hung with portraits, including two by Sir Peter Lely of Queen Hen­rietta Maria and General Monk.

The little medieval parish churches of the city are more picturesque than interesting, but the visitor should cer­tainly see St. Mary Arches, St. Martin, and St. Mary Steps. Among the other noteworthy ecclesiastical buildings is St. Nicholas’s Priory, in the Mint, founded in 1087 and retaining many 15th and 16th century features. Wynard’s Alms-houses, founded 1430, make an attractive group of red sandstone buildings around a cobbled courtyard. The Tuckers’ Hall (1471) is inter­nally an interesting medieval building; also the Law Library in the Close.

The underground passages of the city, which run beneath the main streets, are a remarkable feature of its topography and can be explored by visitors. These passages were originally made to bring water into the walled city from outside, and are probably early medieval in date. There is no reason to believe that they are partly Roman.

Though the city was heavily damaged in the air-raid of May 1942, several good examples of Tudor and Stuart domestic building survive in and near the centre, especially in the High Street. The city was once rich, too, in Georgian architecture. It was Georgian Exeter that suffered most in the air-raids, many beautiful terraces and crescents – most notably Bedford Circus – being destroyed; but Barnfield Crescent, Southernhay West, and Colleton Cres­cent survive for contemplation. Regency architecture is best seen in Pennsylvania Park and Crescent, and in and around St. Leonard’s Road. Scattered about the city are many individual buildings of great distinction, among them the Custom House on the Quay (1678-81), Rougemont House (c. 1820) in the bailey of the Norman castle, and the Higher Market in Queen Street, a grand Greek revival building (1835-8). Before the Second World War, Exeter was one of the most beautiful and appealing cities in England, full of colour, light, and movement. Even now, crowded as it is, it has an appeal unlike that of any other town in Western England.