– a biased and somewhat quirky appreciation of a city.
Wouldn’t it be lovely to go on a trip and look at a well known place as it once was a millennia (or two) ago.
Make sure your trusty time machine has the latest firmware installed; the most recent one allows you to see into the Dark Ages after the Roman era.
The straight roads leading away from Isca Dumnoriorum, the most westerly of the fortified Roman towns and cities North and East, will remain forever, but many crumbling barrack buildings and bath-houses and those damned forums and ampitheatres will scar the landscape of England and Wales for a thousand years. The fascistic military chaps went home to their wives and dwindling empire, leaving the locals and deserters to get on as best they could growing food crops and fending off the Vikings and the French; the later with their obsessions (castles, canapés and conquest), the former with their terrible reputation for violence and talent for making wonderful jewellery and setting sail in long and very interesting boats.
Set the dial on the machine to an even earlier time and see the fast flowing river (not yet called the Exe) team with salmon, rush through the valley and delta to the sea; past settlements of thatched round-houses on higher ground and tribal peoples working the land on the fertile flood plains; maybe later you can see them head off to a sacred grove of trees to commune with the Goddess and ask for fecundity (of women and land and victory over marauding neighbours). The wonderful rhythm of their years is marked by celebrations of the changing seasons; the tyranny of priests and bishops, and a patriarchal God who advocates the subjugation of nature (and women) is well into the future.
Here’s a bit of fun – put your time-machine on shuffle mode, just like you do on your MP3 player and start turning up just anywhere. Who says that time must always be linear.
Watch the earliest Ship Canal begin construction in 1565 – the earliest public gardens being laid out at Northernhay Gardens in 1612 – the Royalists and Parliamentarians fight over Rougemont Castle in 1643 and 1646 – that very castle, built by the Normans in 1069 was the first of many.
Later, another fascist regime thought it was a good idea to drop enough bombs on Exeter between 1940 and 1942 to flatten 40acres of the city centre. They had read about how nice it was in their Baedeker guide, and thought that if it was that nice they ought to destroy it.
The planners, in the 1950s, decided in their wisdom (or lack of it), not to restore the city to its former glory like many other cities were restored after the destruction of WW2. Instead they jerry-built a rubbishy version of a city centre, some of which is still visible, (Sidwell Street, the bus depot, Paris Street and the Guildhall Centre). Bedford Circus was lost, as well as some of the City Walls; however much Roman and Medieval walls remain and the Guildhall frontage is still a stunner.
Exeter in the late 20thC focussed on the retail industry and still hosts more cloned chain shops and fewer independent shops than many modern cities. Exeter is now a giant Shopping Centre with some very nice old buildings interspersed that have been saved by chance. However if one searches the side streets, there are places to buy unprocessed, real food and galleries to look at art.
Thankfully, the Cathedral and Cathedral Close is still wonderful, indeed it is a gem, as is the canal basin, even though the wonderful maritime museum was lost to the city by an uncaring city council, it is still well worth a visit.
The recent tragic fire in Cathedral Close, resulting in the destruction of the Royal Clarence Hotel (the oldest hotel in England) and the gallery next door is a dreadful blow to the city.
The Millennium, when the 20th century of wars and destruction ended and the 21st century of hope began, was a cause of celebration worldwide. Cities planned and hosted enormous public celebrations with music and fireworks. Exeter planned nothing for its people – gave them nothing. The well heeled went to expensive private parties, the poor got nothing (I know, I was there). Even Plymouth, also irreparably damaged in WW2 had a huge public party on the Hoe with fireworks. Ha! Public parties with fireworks cost money and at that time of the night the shops would be closed. Exeter thrives on retail and what would be the point of spending money when the shops are closed. There is a precedent after all; in medieval times (1281 actually) Exeter was unique in the South West of England, in having three market days a week.
Maybe it is best to concentrate on pre-WW2 Exeter and wait for the next firmware update that allows glimpses of the city into the future. However ignoring the retail shopping centre nightmare of the present and the post 1960 treatment of the River Exe, when anti-flood works made the river into a fast flowing concrete canal and yes, before you jump down my throat, there WERE bad floods in the St. Thomas area of the city in October 1960. The River Exe is still a focus in the modern city.
Nowadays, downstream cycle paths extend to Dawlish one the West side of the Exe Estuary and to Exmouth on the East side. The Exe trails are a success and hugely popular. Every sunny weekend scores if not hundreds of people take to the trail on every sort of bicycle with children on small bikes or on trailers
The Double Locks pub, once a wonderful “alternative” venue where one could camp overnight with other hippies and students in the canal-side gardens after listening to a band or a folk session, has become corporatized and expensive (it still serves good beer though). Today, children climbing the tall pine trees and playing in the gardens, as my son did the mid 1980s, would bring health & safety bods with stern expressions, florescent yellow vests, wagging fingers and clipboards eager to rope nature off with strong plastic tape.
All is not lost, however. The Turf Lock Hotel has become immensely popular, thanks to the Exe Trail. The weekend that I rode the trail on both sides of the estuary, I saw that the Turf Lock Hotel had a band playing, a bouncy castle, tents and a glamping yurt (£90 a night for a couple, a lot more for an orgy! Including breakfast of course).
I was reminded of the Exeter of my younger years when my son (who rode the trail with me this weekend) was a baby/toddler/energetic child/teenager.
However some other things have got better, there is now a nature reserve alongside Exeter Canal complete with ponds and ducks.
A popup cafe now occupies the old lock-keepers cottage in July and August seving tea and very nice carrot cake; hope it continues every summer.
Walkers, cyclists, canoeists joggers and bird-watchers, have a lovely area to explore. Bold people still sleep on their boats in the basin and down at the Turf Locks where you can catch a ferry to lovely Topsham, where in the 16th century, the lordly landowners raged about a new canal that took big ships into the heart of Exeter avoiding paying the dues for unloading goods on Topsham Quay that heretofore they had relied on. Topsham is a pretty little town and has some great real ale pubs and every fortnight during evening high tides one can sit out with a glass of good Devonshire ale, and enjoy the last of the sun sparkling on the River Exe and the River Clyst.