Exeter: history, shopping and eating

by John Gaye

Exeter, the historic capital city of Devon, has so much going for it that any visitor would be hard pressed to exhaust all the options during a weekend, or even a week. Read on for my recommendations

Not only is Exeter ideally located right in the centre of one of England’s most beautiful counties, Devon, it also has plenty to see and do without ever having to use the car. It is blessed with excellent restaurants, pubs and bars and provides whatever sort of nightlife that the visitor desires.


History and city centre tour

I started my visit with a totally free guided tour, which lasted over 90 minutes. This was one of a number of different tours which are carried out by volunteers, known as Red Coats. (I promise you - there is no further resemblance to Butlin’s entertainment corps). The guides are all highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic in showing visitors round their city.

My particular tour was entitled Exeter Old and New and took us round most of the centre of the city. It is full of fascinating history and, although I thought I knew the place quite well, I was introduced to sights that I had walked past many times without seeing them. This included the narrowest street in the country (only 25” at its narrowest!).

Exeter was one of the cities which was graced in 1942 by Hitler’s re-development planning. On the night of 4 May the city was severely bombed as a result of Hitler’s research of England’s historic cities as listed in the Baedeker Guidebook, which also included York, Bath, Norwich and Canterbury. Sadly the raid was rather successful in Exeter.

However, given that Exeter has been occupied by Celts, Romans, Normans and many others too numerous to name, there was just too much history for it all to be obliterated and fortunately there is still plenty to see today.

Other Red Coat Guided Tours include the Cathedral Close and Cloisters, Elegant Exeter, Ghosts and Legends, Forgotten Exeter as well as a Children’s tour (in August only) and a Canal Trip (in June, July and August only). If you were staying for a whole week there are in fact enough tours to do a different one each day. It is a wonderful resource provided by the City Council and it is completely free!

Going underground

I then went underground. Exeter is very special in that visitors can explore passages under the main streets and buildings. I had no idea these tunnels existed but they are fascinating as they go back to the 14th century and were originally built to deliver water direct to the cathedral. It only costs £4.50 for a guided tour, which is preceded by a short film which gives the full history as the guide does find it quite difficult communicating to all the tour group in what is a very narrow space. Not for the claustrophobic, the very tall or the obese!

On the waterfront

Exeter’s wealth was built originally on wool. For this the River Exe was a major resource, not only for the processing but also for the transport of the finished products around the world. However Exeter is some miles inland and the river was not really navigable for sea-going ships. In the 16th century the good burghers of the city built a shipping canal alongside the river. Now this area is a hive of activities throughout the year.

Down on the quayside are a number of good restaurants and pubs, nearly all of which have tables overlooking the river. On a lovely sunny day I cannot think of anywhere I would rather be. The Prospect Inn is a 17th Century inn (EX2 4AN; www.e-calibre.co.uk/prospect ; 01392 273152 with wi-fi available), which does excellent ales and good pub grub in a delightful looking building.

In addition I can highly recommend the restaurant and bar On the Waterfront, (EX2 4AP; www.waterfrontexeter.co.uk ; 01392 210590) which is housed in an old warehouse. Not only does it serve excellently kept cask ales, always difficult to find in restaurants, but the food is both good value and generous. It serves pasta, pizzas and a wide range of other dishes. It is popular, even in winter.

Running alongside the quay are numerous workshops which sell their eclectic products: furniture, glassware and many other crafts goods. Among them you will find the emporium Paddles and Saddles which has the amusing website address of www.sadpad.com (EX2 4AN; 01392 424241) and which rents out bicycles (from £5) and canoes (from £7). There are some excellent, virtually flat, bike rides from here along the river or canal side right down to the coast and there are a number of pubs on the various routes. They will even provide you with a map of the dedicated bike paths.

If you cross over the bridge to the other side of the river and walk past the cream or pink coloured modern apartments you come to the canal basin. This was where large sea going vessels would arrive, originally to pick up the products from the Exeter woollen trade but more recently to offload coal, timber or other heavy cargoes. The last cargo ship left in 1975. Now it hosts various boats and yachts, some more seaworthy than others and some that are definitely more of a project in the eyes of their owners at the moment.

Where to shop

Exeter is also a very good, and at times quirky, shopping destination. Of course it has all the major brand stores scattered around various shopping arcades and in the High Street, however the new Princesshay shopping centre (www.princesshay.com) is the latest addition and is a very attractive modern arcade with some very upmarket names including Debenhams, Fat Face, Apple, Hotel Chocolat, among many others. It also has some excellent cafés and restaurants, including Carluccios (www.carluccios.com/caffes/exeter ; 01392 410492; Bedford Street EX1 1GJ) and Café Rouge (www.caferouge.co.uk ; 01392 251042; Bedford Street EX1 1LL), both of which I can highly recommend.

But for quirky or unusual shops it is sometimes better to get back into the older part of the city. Gandy Street offers everything from African giraffes through to fossils and art galleries. It is right beside the Prince Albert Memorial Museum which is currently closed for refurbishment but will probably open again in late 2010 or early 2011. Waterbeer Street (where in medieval times water was sold) is another interesting area for unusual shops.

I also found a rather different type of bookshop, Book Cycle (www.book-cycle.org), just five minutes' walk from the centre in West Street. In this fascinating Tudor building they sell second hand books and you choose the price you wish to pay for your purchases. As all the proceeds go to a charity that sends books to Africa, most people give generously. You are limited to buying three books a day maximum. While you are there, check out the shop opposite that is selling bridal dresses - "the house that moved" – it seems to defy gravity in that it is still standing.

Where to stay

There are numerous hotels available in the city centre:

The Royal Clarence Hotel (also known as Abode Exeter) is the most historic and is located in the Cathedral Close, having started its life as a bank in 1769. It is now owned by the aBode Group. Over the years it has hosted many famous people including Admiral Nelson, Bishop Tutu, Czar Nicholas II and the Beatles. It has an award winning restaurant and 53 delightful and well-appointed rooms (Cathedral Yard, Exeter, EX1 1HD).

Just off the High Street is St Olaves Hotel which is based on an old Georgian Townhouse with its own courtyard in which you can park your car. It has 15 double rooms including three in a 1,000 year old house just opposite the main building. It has a more intimate and friendly atmosphere than most hotels (Mary Arches Street, Exeter, EX4 3AZ).

Just recently completed and just below the Princesshay shopping arcade is Jury's Inn Exeter. As you would imagine, this 2009 building is extremely modern and well equipped and, although it may lack the old world charm of the more traditional hotels, it is very comfortable with plenty of modern facilities (Western Way, Exeter, EX1 2DB).

Slightly cheaper than the above hotels is Silversprings Hotel, which has off street parking, free wi-fi and 10 rooms. Just a short walk from the city centre it still offers much of the character you would expect in the older style hotel but with very good facilities (12 Richmond Road, St Davids, Exeter, EX4 4JA).

John Gaye

I have three great enthusiasms- writing, photography and travel. Thus being a freelance travel writer and photographer and contributing to magazines and newspapers both in the UK and abroad seems to my friends hardly to be work, apart of course from the time spent in airports, in cataloguing my images or having to wait for hours for that special light in some remote landscape. I have in my past also been a soldier, a land agent and a farmer. My enthusiasm is for independent travel in the less visited places of the world. Deserts and jungles are very special to me but then so also is much of the UK, particularly my home county of Dorset. Why not read more about me on my website at www.johngaye.co.uk which also includes my blog.