Excellent Exeter

My meanderings take me to another of these small and charming English cities, excellent Exeter. This city oozes much charm and packs a lot of character into its relatively small city centre which is enclosed by a wall. Comparisons could easily be made with other cities that have recently been visited in these shores – their similarities are startling. It’s surprising, that in my mission to visit every city in England, I haven’t been here sooner. About an hour’s drive from my current home, it is the birthplace of my mother and as a result was a regular destination for my school holidays.

Surrounded by beautiful Devonshire countryside, the city’s location has been founded and forged over the centuries close to the river Exe. Unlike other cities the river doesn’t run through its heart, but the river has still played a key part in the city’s rise and fall. Perhaps the city centre is on raised land that overlooks this river and would therefore provide a strategic position. A walk down to the quayside would confirm its elevation above the river. The river and quayside like most other places in England would provide much of the wealth and regeneration of the city over the centuries before the railways came.

Exeter’s wealth was built around tin in the 11th century and wool in the 18th century. Exports at this time relied heavily on waterways and ports. Exeter is a good way from the English Channel so use of the estuary (at Topsham) and eventually manmade canals gave it two thriving ports. The first port used in Exeter wasn’t the quayside that I had discovered in the city centre but at Topsham on the outskirts. If more time was available perhaps a walk from the city to Topsham along the river might be advised, to explore and learn about this key part of the city’s history. When the Romans arrived at Exeter, they used Topsham as the port, although the river was navigable into the city centre. Over time, arguments ensued, greedy people who owned the port did strange things (weirs, mills and the like), ownership traded hands, which eventually led to a canal being built in the 15th century. This was expanded and developed in the 16th century as trade with Europe had grown. Due to the canal bypassing Topsham its port was ignored, and boats now embarked at the quayside near the city centre. This resulted in the first brick building in Exeter, the customs house. What was once a place for weighing and paperwork of imports and exports, it is now home to a museum/activity centre documenting this part of the city’s unique history. Sadly, time or access didn’t allow me to visit it. The rest of the quayside represents nothing of a port these days, canoes and kayaks the only noticeable boats in the harbour but it has undergone regeneration as quirky shops, eateries and drinking establishments adorn the industrious quayside to amuse this modern generation.

The quayside was a fascinating discovery to make about the city. I’d imagine I had been as a kid but it’s an area that I have rather disappointingly overlooked in recent times. As you leave the quayside you have to walk upwards towards the city. This confirms the raised hill that would have overlooked the river. It is here that you get your first glimpses of the city walls. The charm of the city is encapsulated like other favourite cities by these protective city walls. Exeter’s walls certainly aren’t as glamourous or accessible as others seen. They certainly seem a thing of nostalgia and neglect. The best views of the walls can be found situated in between Northernhay and Rougemont gardens. I rather stumbled across this tranquil set of gardens as I tried to get off the bustling high street. It was here that I discovered Exeter’s castle. Not much to report as I firstly found signs and information relating to history of the Castle and the former gatehouse. Access beyond this wasn’t easily found and not much sign of a keep. The parks are a combination of the former city walls, flowers and several statues. I would imagine on a nice summer’s day a perfect spot for relaxation and views of the city. Sadly, on my rainy autumnal day the views were washed away and I had the place pretty much to myself, each and every cloud.

Exeter was thriving in the 11th century, tin trade brought wealth and prosperity. In turn there was a  church established. This led to Exeter boasting as many as 30 churches in the city centre. Clearly not all remain as England’s turbulent history would impact on their legacy. I have discovered that as a result of this one of the streets in the city housed religious people and was referred to as ‘street of priests’. At the heart of the city lies its impressive cathedral. England is perhaps blessed with so much history. These cathedrals are a great demonstration of England’s turbulent and interesting past. The cathedral is surrounded by a close, entrances and walls. There is much to learn and discover about the cathedral and this particular area. It involves plots, executions and a royal visit to sort the mess out. As a result of that 12th century drama the building of a wall was commissioned by the King around the cathedral which had some 7 gates to provide access not only to the cathedral but the building yard that had caused the drama. A step inside the cathedral will lead to the discovery of a disappointing £7.50 entrance fee. The damp and wet weather outside meant that exploring this cathedral was a must, so payment was made to avoid traipsing around in the wet. Once the customary photos had been captured and the whole place had been explored it was time to get back outside. There is a green that surrounds one side of the cathedral which on sunnier days surely would be much more appealing. Along one side of the green is a row of houses that lead from one of the mentioned gates and merge into a warren of other buildings now housed in the city centre. A fire ravaged a hotel here recently (the oldest hotel in England?); building work has begun as it tries to return to former glories.

 

Exploring this intertwined maze of buildings is an absolute pleasure. Modern buildings hide the old ones. It is difficult to view these now as Exeter’s appeal for shoppers has enticed everyone in and people walk past carrying loads of bags. The new modern shopping complex is built a stone’s throw away from the cathedral yet has still managed to keep the ruins as part of its meandering landscape. Exploring here leads to many points of interest – alleyways, ruins, etc. – and my inquisitive nature leads me to explore some old churches and pubs. St. Martins church was a particular favourite and rumours are one of the oldest in the city. Its close proximity to the cathedral I found rather puzzling. The city has undergone some serious renovation in my short life time that I can visualise and remember. It is regarded as a excellent place to shop, wine and dine. How many of those enjoying those leisurely activities are blissfully unaware of the intriguing history and beauty in the city.

So excellent Exeter, a regular childhood destination, and place of former work has been added to my ever growing list of favourite English cities. I look forward to returning and exploring it again and again.

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Delightful Dartmouth

A regular destination on my meanderings and one of my favourite spots in England is what I consider to be the unique and delightful maritime town of Dartmouth. It boasts history, castles, architecture, boats and an iconic college. A combination of nostalgia and the nautical make for a charming and atmospheric town. Its deep-water port made for its strategic importance and the town has been built up the steep banks of the River Dart. The Dart river flows from its source on Dartmoor and upstream is Totnes (see blog).

Dartmouth on the one bank of the river sits opposite the town of Kingswear. Kingswear is like the mirror image of Dartmouth, with both possessing a castle, streets adorned with quaint and colourful houses, and a church. It was only last week that a friend remarked that it’s like a scene from Balamory. For all their similarities, Kingswear boasts something that Dartmouth doesn’t – a railway line! It terminated at Kingswear after someone realised it wouldn’t be possible to get a bridge across the river!! Sounds a bit like Brexit planning. That didn’t stop Dartmouth, this side of the river estuary, building a railway station in anticipation of the line that never reached it!! The railway station building is a striking sight as you approach it from the river perhaps from a ferry crossing or on one of the superb boat tours. Rather than destroy the building due to the absence of a railway line meant that the building became a general ticketing office for a while, and these days, a charming café!!

This branch line on the other side is no longer part of the national rail services. Instead it has become part of the heritage scene with a steam train running the 7miles from Paignton. Each train that arrives or departs is laden with tourists/enthusiasts making the evocative, emotional and gorgeous journey. It has been a common way for me to arrive here from earliest days, and one that perhaps everyone should consider making. There is a poetic feel to arriving as people did in times gone by and surrounded by England’s green and pleasant lands en route. After disembarking and crossing the river (by ferry and not bridge!!), you can sit on the edge of the harbour and watch the steam train puff along the river edge back to where it came from.  This scene that is repeated throughout the day.

A visit to Dartmouth should be to enjoy the river. It is a hive of activity, but no vessel seems to bump in to another. Its strategic importance cannot be ignored as it was home to the Royal Navy since as far back as the reign of Edward III. A walk to the castle takes you past the Warfleet Creek where several boats were made as far back as the 12th Century. During the Spanish Armada, Dartmouth provided ships for the English fleet and a captured Spanish vessel was docked in the town. The town has been home to the Britannia Royal Naval College since 1863. The iconic college has been at the forefront of education and development of naval officers with the imperious building sitting proudly on the hill and overlooking the beautiful town and estuary. It was where her Majesty Queen Elizabeth met her husband. The river plays host to a famous regatta in summer months.

If crabbing off the quay isn’t what you are looking for, the charming Elizabethan streets provide some independent, fashionable outlets. The pubs allow you to spill out from inside and onto the edge of the river to enjoy your pint of choice. Recently I made the walk from the town to the castle having made it on boat previously. Not a member of the English Heritage, the entrance fee to the castle wasn’t paid but instead an exploration of St Petroc’s church along with a customary spend in the coffee shop for refreshments and cake took place. From this point you can pick up the South West coastal path and go off to explore Castle and Compass Coves. This is highly recommended though not in the mud and after a few wet and snowy days (a spectacular fall).

My love of history, fascination with boats of any shape and size, and sense of calm and pleasure that any expanse of water brings, shows why Dartmouth is one of my favourite places in England. Those who have visited with me endorse my approbation, and those who will join me in the future will, no doubt, agree that this town is an absolute delight.

Boring Buckfast

The second abbey visit from my wanderings to Dartmoor. This is a complete and utter contrast to my meanderings around Buckland Abbey (you can read about that here). As I arrive can’t work out whether it sits in its own village or is part of the town of Buckfastleigh. The view as I drive in is dominated by the tower of the abbey from which, I imagine, the whole of Buckfastleigh may be seen.

As most abbeys lost their wealth and land because they were dissolved during the Reformation, it was surprising to learn that this was still an active and clearly wealthy monastery. Whereas Buckland Abbey had been sold to someone who converted it to their home, Buckfast was an active place of living and worship.

It has a long history dating back to 1018AD when there was a Benedictine abbey here. By 1150 it had become a Cistercian monastery. It remained so until the dissolution of monasteries during Henry VIII’s reign in 1539. After centuries of decay and rotting the Abbey was to be built again as some monks from France found their way to the site in 1882. The present church was consecrated in 1932 which is evident in that the church looks relatively new. Silly me, I thought I was on my way to see an 11th century building. The whole complex (living quarters for monks as well) is now part of an international organisation.

Upon inspection, the organised layout gave an aura of corporate and commercial management but that is not to say that a fee was demanded for entrance. I was immediately directed into a new looking information centre. Clearly there was some money being made somewhere and somehow. Has this got anything to do with the tonic wine that is produced here? Although I didn’t understand the need for this centre, much of the information gleaned there is quoted above. It also gave me a view of the monks who were, ostensibly, there to assist the tourist. Perhaps it is not the way I think of monasteries, but it was interesting to see two monks debating and trying to work out how to use a single mobile phone!! They were hardly millennials but were trying to embrace the technology.

Upon leaving the exhibition and getting the customary outside photos, I immediately headed into the abbey. Unlike some of the recent cathedrals and churches I have visited it had a rather dull and spartan looking interior. This is in no way meant to be offensive – it was just that it wasn’t that impressive. The only nice part of the ceiling was roped off and inaccessible. So, took a couple of shots and left without spending more than 10 minutes inside. Perhaps I discovered that not all abbeys are blessed with amazing architecture and craftsmanship as seen in many other buildings up and down the country.

So I left the abbey neither impressed nor inspired. The visit took place in October and this may explain why it has taken me so long to write this blog. It’s amazing to think how a little bit of commercialisation, professionalism and advertising can entice people to a place. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone making the effort to visit this place, but I believe on doing so you will be disappointed.

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Totnes Town

I’m very lucky. In order to do my work, I have to fetch myself to yet another delightful English town. This time my destination is located in the southern part of the charming county of Devon. I am headed for the delightful town of Totnes. It is spoilt with a wealth of charming architecture and fascinating history – how lucky am I.

As I start to put together some blogs about one of my favourite parts of England, I’m so happy to have discovered Totnes. I will admit that the first time that I arrived here as an adult that I wasn’t really interested in the town and happier to go about chasing the local steam train with my father while other members of the family hit the shops. How wrong was I to write the place off?

This fascinating market town sits on a hill, overlooking the breath-takingly beautiful Devon countryside and the River Dart. The view is slightly impeded these days as the town is built up. At the top of the hill sits Totnes Castle – it is easy to see why they built it here. The castle belongs to the English Heritage portfolio. Sadly, I’m not currently a member and pressed for time I had to forgo a visit here – perhaps next month.

Leaving the castle, one descends to the high street. The steep hill is full of charming buildings that have managed to keep their outside facades as the modern shops fill their insides. At the top of the town sits the Civic square, where the local markets are held on a Friday and Saturday. Nothing much happening here on this occasion, I followed the high street. Walking down the steep hill I am fascinated by the East Gate arch, which was once the gateway to the medieval town and has now been faithfully reconstructed after a devasting fire in 1990.

To the left of this archway as I wander down the hill there are a set of steps. Take these and follow the path as it meanders around St Mary’s Church. This 15th Century church is built in a glorious red stone – some research claims this is from Devon county. A step inside is worth it as always, although on this occasion I am rushing around so I take a couple of quick photos before departing on my exploration once more.

Directly adjacent to the Church grounds is the Guildhall. Founded in 1088 as an abbey, I believe, it was built in 1553 as the building it is today. For something that is tucked away and hidden, it is surprising that it once was the heartbeat of the town. It is now a museum to times gone by and a small fee of £1 – a suggested donation – gains one entrance. As time was an issue I had to save this visit for another day, perhaps when the cold and rain come. A quick peak inside reveals the names of the 600 mayors that have ruled the town and what looks like a royal standard on the wall.

I leave here and retrace my steps back to the high street where I follow it on down. Again, I admire all the lovely buildings either side of the street. I am drawn to a beautiful looking pub up the corner but as I’m working that pleasure has to be missed. It also distracts me from the ‘Brutus Stone’. According to local legend Brutus of Troy, the mythical founder of Britain, stepped off his ship here and the stone marks the spot. It is claimed that he said, “Here I stand and here I rest. And this good town shall be called Totnes”.  It is not that I would know what or where it is. I shall look out for it next time in Fore Street and near to number 51. At the bottom of the hill a striking pink building captures my attention as its brilliantly lit up in the autumn sunshine.

Its perfectly located next to the bridge over which I cross for wonderful views of the River Dart. Bathing in glorious autumn sunshine late in the day, it’s so still and peaceful even though the tide had gone out! Some customary shots were taken of mirror like reflections. A quick dash to the car and then a slower, mundane drive along the A38 lie in wait. Totnes, I can’t wait to see you again.

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