PUBLISHED: 12:12 23 February 2016 | UPDATED: 12:12 23 February 2016
Simone Stanbrook-Byrne explores Exeter on a taster walk of ancient buildings and green oases, where medieval collides with modern
Start on the edge of Cathedral Green, outside Tea on the Green restaurant. Until the 17th century this area was Exeter’s main burial site. It’s estimated that half a million bodies were buried here.
The Norman cathedral was built during the 12th century and was 2/3 the length of the present building. It was rebuilt in the Middle Ages although Norman features were retained.
Walk towards the Royal Clarence Hotel, glancing ahead up enticing Martin’s Lane. On your right is ancient St Martin’s Church, the oldest part of which pre-dates the Norman Conquest.
Turn right here along Catherine Street, passing the ruined 15th century almshouses. Their tiny rooms were just 6ft x 5ft. By the late 19th century they were considered unsuitable as almshouses. The Church Army took them on as accommodation for destitute people. The buildings suffered war damaged and are preserved as a memorial to the Exeter Blitz of May 1942.
Continue ahead to the T-junction within 50m. Turn right and in another 50m go left into the contemporary Princesshay Shopping Precinct. Glance behind for a lovely view of the cathedral peering over its modern neighbours.
Keep ahead through the shops, passing the Blue Boy statue, who marks the site of an old ‘Blue Coat’ school, founded in the 1630s. There are remains of the Roman city wall on the right. Exeter, as a settlement, predates the Roman town by centuries but it was the Romans who built the protective wall. When they left decay set in but restoration has been undertaken over succeeding centuries.
Keep ahead beyond the wall, passing Nando’s on your right. At the T-junction in about 50m turn left, soon passing the entrance to Exeter’s Underground Passages on the left. These passages were built during the 14th century to house pipes transporting fresh water from springs outside the city. The lead pipes often leaked so to avoid the disruption of frequently digging them up they were housed in vaulted passages. They are open to the public.
A little further, at the crossroads with High Street, cross over bearing slightly left towards a small arcade about 30m away, beneath an ornate clock. Walk down this arcade and at its end continue ahead up Northernhay Place to enter Northernhay Gardens, the oldest public open space in the country. The gardens developed from a ‘public walk’ dating from 1612 and are Grade II listed. Bear left on the main path passing statues of local dignitaries. There is an obelisk on the left commemorating the founding in Devonshire of the Volunteer Force of Great Britain. A bandstand is to the right.
After this seek a path on the left going uphill back on yourself. Follow this as it bends right and climbs to Athelstan’s Tower, Athelstan being a Saxon King prominent in Exeter. If its gates are open, peek through the tower into adjoining Rougemont Gardens.
Retrace your route from Athelstan’s Tower back to the top of the flight of steps. Don’t descend them, instead follow the path left to rejoin the main path. Turn left and continue past the War Memorial to the exit gates. A short road leads down to Queen Street, turn left, passing the excellent Royal Albert Memorial Museum, then take the next left into atmospheric Gandy Street. In about 50m Gandy Street turns right, go with it. Cross over at the junction and continue until it leads you to High Street.
Turn right, admiring the gorgeous Tudor façades of the shops on your right. Pass Martin’s Lane on the left and, a little further on, Laura Ashley, whose premises once hosted Judge Jeffries during the Bloody Assizes. Continue to the grand entrance of Exeter Guildhall. If opening times permit, pop in and savour its ancientness, it’s one of the oldest municipal buildings in the country and is still used for council meetings. Today’s building is largely 15th century with its stately portico dating from 1593.
Continue down High Street, passing tiny Parliament Street on the right, a mere 25 inches in places and possibly the world’s narrowest street. Beyond this on the left is medieval St Petrock’s followed by the crossroads with South Street. Turn left.
In another 15m go left through a broad opening into the cathedral area again, walking towards the superb west front of the building. Cross the green with the cathedral on your right and beyond it turn right, away from the shops and with the ancient buildings of Cathedral Close to your left.
Go through gates and soon you pass through the ancient city walls. The iron bridge spanning the road was built for the former mayor, Burnet Patch, so that he could traverse the walls without having to negotiate steps down to street level and up again.
Beyond here continue into Southernhay, an elegant area with many gracious Georgian buildings and central public gardens that follow line of the city’s old defence ditch. There have been public gardens here since the 17th century. Return through Cathedral Close for Tea on the Green.
Distance: under two miles, unless exploring
Start point: Outside Tea on The Green, Cathedral Close, EX1 1EZ
Recommended extra: Join the free ‘Red Coat’ walks to visit the Catacombs and Quay areas