Take a city break in Exeter
PUBLISHED: 10:36 22 November 2007 | UPDATED: 14:56 20 February 2013
Exeter has a huge amount to offer, especially at Christmas. The city is brilliantly lit and decorated, with an exciting arts programme, including pantomime, carols, concerts, music, dance, film and visual arts.
With its thriving university, theatres, arts centre and galleries, Exeter is very much alive in the present. Its new £230 million shopping and residential development at Princesshay was opened on 20 September and got off to a flying start. Handsome and modern, it is a worthy rival to Plymouth's Drake Circus development, opened last year. Adding further variety to Exeter's many shops, Princesshay has big-name chain stores, long-established family firms and independent niche retailers.
The city is distinguished by its long history and retains a wealth of historic buildings, despite being severely blitzed in 1942. The Cathedral, with its two Norman towers and richly decorated west front, is outstanding, as is the medieval Guildhall - the oldest municipal building still in regular use in England. Large sections of Exeter's city walls still stand, including much Roman masonry, whilst its handsome Quay, with the Customs House and period warehouses is another treasure. A ring of red-stone churches and a range of timber-framed houses offer further scope for exploration.
Explore the City's Treasures
Exeter is one of England's most rewarding cities to explore. Every major stage of the city's history, stretching over 2,000 years of continuous settlement, can be traced on the ground. There are excellent free guided tours offered twice daily in winter, more frequently in summer. Alternatively, download a self-guided tour from www.exeter.gov.uk/index or try this condensed circuit from the Cathedral.
Begun in 1112, the Cathedral has a 300ft (91m) run of Gothic vaulting - the longest in the world. Among other treasures are its beautiful west front, medieval clock and bishop's throne. Take time to explore the Cathedral Close, with its medley of charming buildings, before moving on to High Street where many shops are within historic buildings, some jettied and timber-framed. The 600-year-old Guildhall with its Beer stone arch is outstanding.
Turn left into Gandy Street and walk on to the splendidly Victorian Royal Albert Museum - unfortunately closed from 1 December for major refurbishment. Turn right into Northernhay Gardens for a delightful view of the surrounding countryside. Nearly three-quarters of Exeter's city walls still stand and define the old city. Long sections, including that in Northernhay, are founded on durable Roman masonry.
Turn right into Rougemont Gardens. Rougemont Castle still impresses, even in ruin, especially the massive gate tower. This is the best-preserved early Norman gatehouse keep in England: one can readily appreciate how it withstood a three months' siege in 1136.
Return to the Cathedral Close and leave by the Palace Gate. Cut across South Street to Exeter Quay. The traders who visited Exeter in prehistoric times unloaded and loaded their vessels here. Exeter remained a substantial port until the railway arrived in 1844, as its imposing 19th-century warehouses - familiar from BBC's 'Onedin' Line - testify.
What to do in and around the city
One of Exeter's unique attractions, recently reopened after closure for the Princesshay development and now enhanced by a new interpretation centre, is the Underground Passages, where you can take a guided tour beneath the city's streets.
As my wife reminds me for some months prior to Christmas, there's shopping to do. Central Exeter boasts all the big names and more than 350 independent shops. As well as High, Sidwell, Fore, Queen, Gandy and adjoining streets, there are also the Guildhall and Harlequin shopping centres (great if the weather is awful, as it's all undercover), plus the new Princesshay development. The Cathedral Yard and Close also have an excellent range of shops.
There are more shops on the Quay, as well as cafes, restaurants and inns. The fascinating history of this area is explained at the Quay House Visitor Centre, which offers a lively display of historical artefacts and illustrations, plus a free audio-visual presentation, 'Exeter: 2000 Years of History'.
The handsome Customs House is the Quay's most commanding building. When it was built in 1680, a million pounds of local woollen serge was shipped annually from Exeter and Topsham, representing one sixth of the English woollen market. Often the cloth went direct to The Netherlands. Dutch bricks frequently came back as ballast on the return trip and some of these can be seen in the so-called 'Dutch' houses on Topsham's picturesque Strand.
Topsham, four miles south and on the railway, retains its independent and historic character, including a range of traditional shops. Enjoy the views of the Exe and remember your binoculars. Great flocks of birds can be seen, especially at low tide during winter. You may even like to take an RSPB Avocet Cruise to see the spectacular winter wildfowl displays (01392 432691).
Another way to see the Exe and its canal is to take a walk along the west bank from the Quay - a walk that can be extended for up to five miles. Alternatively, make the journey by bike or even kayak - phone Saddles and Paddles (01392 424421) (www.saddlepaddle.co.uk) for hire details. Whether walking, cycling or paddling, continue by the attractive canal towpath past the Double Locks Inn and right out of Exeter to the Turf Hotel.
Killerton (National Trust, (01392 881345), near the handsome cob and thatch village of Broadclyst eight miles north of Exeter, is an elegant and beautifully furnished 18th-century house. Open 8-23 December daily, it includes a costume collection, plus paintings and other heirlooms of the Acland family. The splendid hillside garden and park (open all year) is crisscrossed with paths and includes many specimen trees amidst a large estate.
Three things to take home
For something distinctively Westcountry, visit Quayside Crafts and Gifts (01392 214332). It offers affordable gifts from 64 craftspeople, ranging from jewellers to wood turners, food and textile producers.
The Tourist Information Centre in Paris Street (01392 665700) is currently displaying and selling hand-thrown and painted ceramics by Pauline Zelinski, prints and cards of Exeter scenes by photographer Adrian Oakes and greetings cards of Exeter by Ruth Yendell. All three artists are local. Local pottery, replica maps and books about Exeter and Devon are also available from the Quay House Visitor Centre (01392 271611).
Opus Mosaics in Fore Street (01392 496393) has an unusual selection of mosaic designs, and all the equipment needed if you want to tackle a mosaic project yourself - just the thing to start off a new hobby.
Stop for a bite to eat
The Treasury Restaurant at St Olave's Hotel, off Mary Arches Street, (www.olaves.co.uk) offers both a snack menu and two- or three-course lunches. Just 400 yards from the Cathedral, it's a little secluded escape with its own walled garden. (01392 217736
Michael Caines' Restaurant at ABode Hotel (01392 319955) (www.abodehotels.co.uk/exeter/ ) offers fine dining based on local and regional produce from chefs who trained with Michael at his Michelin two-star Gidleigh Park Restaurant.
Diners enjoy Mediterranean and North African foods and wines, whilst reclining on cushions under silk awnings at La BoCa (01392 427524). Expand your gastronomic horizons with a batata harra - potatoes in olive oil and chilli - followed by a beef tajine cooked in coffee and spices. Belly dancing and other entertainment are also offered.
For a highly varied Indian menu - there are twelve sorts of bread alone, plus special vegetable, fish, lamb, tandoori and chicken dishes - try the Ganges Restaurant (01392 272630).
Gino's Restaurant (01392 493696) proposes a traditional Italian menu, including fresh fish, seafood, steaks and chicken, plus a special Christmas menu.
Exeter's Boston Tea Party (01392 281181) prides itself on freshly prepared, original and affordable meals, tea, fresh juices and coffee. It offers comfortable chairs and a relaxing ambience - you're unlikely to be assaulted by irate colonials in fancy dress.
Like cinema? For a pre- (or post-) movie drink try the Picture House's excellent cafe and bar (01392 435522).
Where can we stay?
Visitors have a huge choice. The White Hart Hotel (01392 279897) has 55 en-suite rooms and is one of the city's most historic inns. Behind the handsome Georgian facade and high arch for coaches, a cobbled floor leads to the 16th-century parlour.
ABode Exeter (formerly the Royal Clarence) was established in 1770 as England's first hotel. Comprehensively refurbished in 2005, ABode (01392 319955) combines modern design and comfort with Georgian elegance - and Michael Caines' famous cuisine.
Another classic hotel, refurbished and renamed, is The Thistle (01392 254982), formerly The Rougemont. Completed in 1877, this grand four-star establishment emphasises old-fashioned service and modern facilities. The Cavendish Room has fine paintings of Devon by W Widgery.
Centrally located, the Town House (01392 494994) provides contemporary bed and breakfast in a spacious Edwardian house. Recently decorated and modernised, it has won three diamonds from the English Tourism Council.
As well as a large selection of guest houses and B&Bs, there are plenty of self-catering options. Wisteria (07831 486987) is well placed and well priced. It has three bedrooms and a comprehensive range of modern facilities.
What's on this month
There are plenty of alternative shopping experiences to tempt you into the city this month, apart from the late-night opening. There's a Christmas Fair in the Corn Exchange on 8 December, and stalls along Fore Street for the Exeter Christmas Gift Markets on Fridays and Saturdays from 30 November to 22 December.
An improved German Christmas Market at Castle Street until 2 January provides the chance to enjoy a glass of spiced gluwein while browsing arts, crafts, jewellery and decorations.
Support local producers by filling your bags with local produce from the Farmers' Market, held every Thursday on Fore Street from 9am-1pm.
Exeter always celebrates Christmas with that delightful and (to foreign visitors) bizarre entertainment, pantomime. The Northcott Company (01392 493493) (www.exeternorthcott.co.uk ) presents Cinderella from 12 December to 20 January. After a piano recital on the 5th and Christmas concerts on 7, 8 and 9 December, the Barnfield Theatre (01392 270891) will present Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves from 29 December to 12 January.
Christmas is very special at the Cathedral (01392 271354), (www.exeter-cathedral.org.uk) with an extensive programme of concerts and services. These include the Christingle Service, 2 December at 3pm; the Advent Carol Service, 3 December at 6pm; and the National Trust Concert on 6 December at 7.30pm. The Lord Mayor's Carol Service will be on 11 December at 2.30pm. There are also free interactive walking tours of the Cathedral, created especially for children, on 2, 9 and 16 December from 11.30am-12.30pm
Exeter Ice Rink is back again this year, newly located in the courtyard of Exeter Castle near Northernhay Gardens. It will be open every day until 2 January, except Christmas Day, from 10am-9pm (closing early on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve) for 45-minute skating sessions.