Exeter’s Architectural Histories
Austin Taylor explores Exeter’s rich architectural histories, from its Roman roots to its Georgian splendour
Exeter’s architecture is a palimpsest of its long history. From its originally Roman walls, the 17th century merchants’ houses to 21st century student housing, Exeter’s phases of history and its significance in wider British history have left an indelible mark upon its architecture. All of this has combined to give this city its truly unique character. In this article I will explore some of Exeter’s rich architectural history, and will try to identify some structures of interest that you can seek out to better understand the changing face of Exeter as a city.
There have been settlements on the Exe estuary well into prehistory, but Exeter’s history really begins with the establishment of the Roman fort, Isca, around AD 55. City walls were built in the late 2nd century AD, and Isca grew in prosperity into the 4th century, but sharply declined following the Roman withdrawal from Britain.
The city experienced something of a revival under the Saxon kings, with the city walls being rebuilt and strengthened under Alfred the Great and Athelstan respectively. It was the Normans, however, who left the first significant architectural mark on Exeter in Rougement Castle. One of the earliest Norman structures in England, Rougement Castle was built in 1068 after the rebellious Exonians were defeated by William the Conqueror. The early Norman gatehouse can still be seen now, and the castle still remained home to crown and county courts until 2003.
It was the normans, however, who left the first significant architectural mark on Exeter in Rougement Castle
Another fascinating, and often overlooked piece of early medieval architecture is St. Petrock’s Church. A large, red building jutting out at a jaunty angle next to Café Nero on the High Street, St. Petrock’s seems a bit incongruous in its surroundings and is a building that I have always found interesting. The church may date from the 6th century, and the current building is early medieval. It was largely surrounded by shops until the Blitz, with the north face now opening onto the High Street. Exeter’s abundance of small churches like St. Petrock’s, St. Olave’s and St. Pancras is a testament to its significance as an early medieval religious centre. Indeed, Saxon Exeter was apparently known as ‘Moncton’ for a time.
In the early modern period, Exeter became a centre for the wool trade, and -owing to its estuary – became the third or fourth port in the country. You may have noticed No. 227 High Street, which, now occupied by Lakeland, was probably built for one of the many affluent merchants of the city. The building was originally constructed in the 1660s, although the only original part of it is now the facade, with the rest of the building having been demolished and rebuilt during the 1970s. It now stands as a slightly out-of-place reminder of Exeter’s past, on an otherwise largely post-war high street.
Southernhay represents some of Exeter’s best Georgian architecture. In the 1790s, four terraces of Georgian townhouses were built in Southernhay, only two of which now remain; the other two terraces were demolished after sustaining damage during the Blitz. Exeter was deemed too far from natural resources like coal during the industrial revolution and was thus spared the intense development that places like Bristol or Newcastle experienced. As such, Exeter was perhaps seen (much like Bath) as a rural escape for the gentry, who would have been interested in elegant townhouses like those in Southernhay. Opposite to the terraces, interestingly, a beautiful common garden can be seen, which is home to many Lucombe (or Exeter) Oaks. The terraces of Southernhay — not far from busy Princesshay and the town are one of my favourite parts of Exeter.
The Blitz killed 156 people in Exeter, whilst 40 acres of the city were utterly destroyed
The Victorian Age saw the coming of the railways to Exeter. Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed St. David’s station, which opened in 1844. The Great Western Hotel opened soon after, whilst the current station facade dates from 1864. The 1860s also saw the construction of the Victorian Gothic Revival Royal Albert Memorial Museum, which is certainly one of the most prominent buildings on Queen Street. Indeed, John Haywood, the architect of St. Luke’s College, won a competition with his design which originally incorporated a central tower in the style of Oxford’s Museum of Natural History.
It is the 20th century, however, which has had arguably the biggest impact upon the architectural makeup of Exeter. The Blitz killed 156 people in Exeter, whilst 40 acres of the city were utterly destroyed. The pioneering town planner and opponent of the ‘garden-city’ movement (later exemplified by towns like Milton Keynes), Thomas Sharp, wrote the re-development plans for Exeter, which were largely responsible for Princesshay – the first pedestrianised shopping street in the UK. Another very obvious (and perhaps slightly less stylish) post-war construction is the 1969 Civic Centre. The Civic Centre is a fascinating example of Brutalism in a city which has largely escaped this architectural movement. It can be found opposite the bus station, and is a testament to the progressive intellectual milieu of the late 20th century, and is certainly worth a look.
Exeter’s eclectic architecture from its medieval bridge to the 2013 Printworks building is a fascinating reflection of the changing face and history of the city. With more people out and about in their local area, this lockdown is an excellent time to explore some of the rich architectural legacy that Exeter’s long history has to offer.