10 October 2014

England: A day in Exeter

Steeped in history, with a stunning cathedral and the lure of river-side cafes, Devon’s county town of Exeter is well worth a visit.

Exeter Cathedral facade
We drove to the outskirts of city then opted to park ‘n’ ride as parking is expensive in the city centre – indeed, in most English city centres. The heavens opened as we hurried from car to bus stop and as my jacket was only shower-proof I got rather soggy, not an auspicious start to the day’s sightseeing. But I soon dried off, the sun came out and the weather continued good for the rest of the day.

First stop, Exeter Cathedral, where we mooched for the better part of an hour. Entry wasn’t cheap at six quid each, particularly considering they’d run out of free guidebooks, and the organ was being renovated and parts of the cathedral’s exterior were being restored, meaning photo opportunities were restricted by the cumbersome scaffolding inside and out, by areas of the cathedral being roped off and by the truck parked in the entrance. I was not particularly impressed at being charged full price in those conditions. But my moaning ends there, as it is an incredible structure, one of England’s most noteworthy cathedrals and as fine an example of Gothic architecture as you’ll see anywhere.

For me, the delight is in the details. First, the ceiling bosses – a long way up to be sure but worth craning your neck and zooming in with your camera to see the intricate designs, all finely carved and coloured with subjects including biblical stories, human figures, naturalistic and fabulous scenes.
And, if your neck’s arthritic or your lens doesn’t zoom, there’s a replica boss to admire. Rather than weighing two tons, like some of the largest on the ceiling, the replica is almost as light as a feather, made from papier maché over a wood and wire frame and then finished with acrylic paints. It’s an almost exact copy of the 700-year-old boss in the centre of the crossing between the transepts and its subject, three dragons and a knight, apparently represents the Christian soul trampling on the world, the flesh and the devil.

The cathedral contains more statues, memorials and effigies than I’ve ever seen in one religious building before and the variety is such that, when we visited, one corner of the building was devoted to an exhibition explaining the changing fashions in grave markers over the centuries. The photo above shows two of the more grand memorials. On the left lies Bishop Qinel, the 13th bishop of Exeter, who’s credited with initiating the construction of the cathedral we see today. He died in 1291. On the right, the fabulous woman with the skull, who died in 1614, was Lady Dorothy Dodderidge.  Her inscription translates as follows: ‘Here lies Dorothy the wife of John Doderidge, knight, one of the Justices of the Lord King assigned at the Pleas held before the King, and daughter of Amisus [Latinised form] Bampfield, knight, who died on the first of March in the Year of Our Lord 1614’.

I couldn’t help but feel I was constantly being watched as I strolled Exeter’s hallowed halls and it was nothing to do with a religious presence. There are human heads and faces everywhere, not only on the effigies and memorials but seemingly carved into every available surface, stone and wooden. And then there are the animals – elephants, eagles, crocodiles, you name it – the place is a veritable Noah’s Arc of creatures. 

Designed by George Gilbert Scott in the 1870s, the choir stalls, in particular, are alive with beasties. And don’t even get me started on the misericords – Exeter has the earliest set in England, dating from the mid-13th century, or the owls – one of the side chapels is full of these, in wood, stone and tapestry. I’ll leave you to discover why.

One thing I didn’t expect to see in the cathedral was the magnificent clock that hangs on the north wall. Gifted by Bishop Courtenay in 1484, at its centre is a globe representing the earth, around which revolves the moon, turning on its axis to show the phases. The motto, ‘Pereunt et imputantur’, at the bottom of the clock, is from the Latin poet Martial and can be translated ‘the hours pass and are reckoned to our account’ – or, in more modern parlance, ‘time passes, spend it wisely’. Good advice!

So far, I’ve focused here on the cathedral’s interior but the exterior is equally magnificent. The façade is particularly imposing. As regular readers will know, I am a huge fan of gargoyles so, for me, the gargoyles were a special highlight – those around the exterior of Exeter Cathedral are some of the finest I’ve ever seen. The oldest ones have deteriorated badly through time and are almost completely eroded away in places but there are newer ones that have some incredible expressions on their faces. The modern sculptor obviously had a keen sense of the bizarre and the fantastic.

A lovely square and old buildings surround the cathedral. We discovered a couple of wonderfully carved wooden doors, the black-and-white half-timbered buildings date from the 1500s and, in one corner, sits St Martin’s Church, dating from the Norman Conquest.

We lunched in the square at an outdoor café, enjoying the sunshine and people watching, before walking along a couple of streets to RAMM, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum – another splendid building, with a new construction butting on to its rear; an elegant foyer, with pink painted walls and a life-size statue of Prince Albert in pride of place halfway up the grand branching staircase; and interesting exhibitions about the local area, from Neolithic and Roman times (the town has about 70% of its Roman wall still extant) to the modern day (clay mining and pottery works, tin mining, etc).

To finish our day, we headed down to the quay via two of the oldest buildings in the city (one of which, below left, had been moved to make way for a modern road) and made a quick visit to nearby Cricklepitt Mill (the mill wasn’t working that day but two of its three wheels are used to generate electricity and it boasts a lovely wild garden which we explored).

The quay sits alongside the River Exe and the Exeter Ship Canal, where ships would have loaded and unloaded their cargoes in centuries past. The old warehouses are now being converted to apartments and shops, restaurants and cafes, like the one where we enjoyed drinks and cake. Kayakers, peddle-boaters and rowers were enjoying the waters, and one rather quirky feature was the hand-powered ferry that was doing a roaring trade carrying folks across the canal (30p for adults, 20p for kids). And these were just a few of Exeter’s attractions. I’m obviously going to visit again – and so should you!

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