Exeter Cathedral to undergo renovation
Rosie Batsford outlines the history and significance of Exeter Cathedral, and the current extensive plans for renovation and restoration work set to continue to 2025.
Exeter Cathedral, or to use its full name, the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter, was founded in 1050 when Leofric, Bishop of Crediton, was transferred to Exeter; it was felt to be a more secure town protected by the 800 year old Roman wall. The construction of the Cathedral began later, in 1114, this included the two 44m (140ft) towers that continue to stand as dominant landmarks in Exeter’s skyline. Since its construction, Exeter Cathedral has undergone numerous reconstructions and renovations, which continue today. This has resulted in its unique mixture of Norman and Gothic architecture and notable features such as the longest uninterrupted medieval stone vaulted ceiling in the world, spanning approximately 96m (315ft) from east to west.
“Exeter Cathedral is one of Europe’s great medieval cathedrals; the most significant building in Devon. But it needs urgent investment to safeguard our heritage and improve our welcome.”The Very Revd Jonathan Greener, Dean of Exeter
In July 2022, it was announced the building would undergo substantial renovations costing £10 million, funded by Exeter Cathedral’s 2020s Development Appeal, with donations from the UK and overseas, including a £50,000 grant from Viridor Credits and a £4.3 million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. In a visit to the cathedral following the announcement of the renovations, the Chair of Historic England, Sir Laurie Magnus, said: “Exeter Cathedral is one of the glories of England’s rich ecclesiastical heritage, filled with many remarkable features and touched by some of the most significant events in our nation’s history.” The Exeter Cathedral Renovation project received Royal Patronage from the then Prince of Wales.
The renovations are set to be extensive, constituting “the most significant building project it has carried out in 135 years”, with a focus on the conservation of the site’s most notable features and the refurbishment of a large portion of the building, which is Grade I listed. This includes conservation work on the 50 misericords originating from the 13th century, which are the earliest complete set in the UK and the earliest known wooden depiction of an elephant in the UK. Work on a new cloister gallery began in July 2022, replacing the original cloisters, which were demolished in 1657 during the Civil War, and there will be a covered walkway between the Cathedral and its chapterhouse. There is also an emphasis on improving accessibility and environmental impact through building new toilet facilities and implementing a more sustainable heating system in partnership with Exeter-based firm Packexe.
This renovation project forms part of the city’s strategy to increase tourism, emphasising community engagement and celebrating the city’s status as a UNESCO City of Literature.
The Revd Canon Chris Palmer, Exeter Cathedral’s Canon Treasurer, said: “We know we are going to have to live with inconvenience for a while, but we are really looking forward to the day when our new facilities greatly improve the experience of all our visitors and worshippers.” The bulk of this work is set to continue into 2025, with some projects extending beyond this date.
This renovation project forms part of the city’s strategy to increase tourism, emphasising community engagement and celebrating the city’s status as a UNESCO City of Literature. Exeter Cathedral plays a vital role within this, with the Cathedral library dating back to Leofric, Bishop of Exeter from 1050-1072, who presented the Cathedral with 66 books, including the Exeter Book, which is regarded as “one of the four most significant verse manuscripts to survive from the Anglo-Saxon period.”
The library now has a far more impressive collection of several thousand books, with one of the world’s largest collections of Anglo-Saxon literature, some of which the Cathedral exhibits at events to celebrate the vast history of its collections. In November 2022, Emma Laws, the Cathedral librarian, led the first annual public talk on the library collections, following the theme of ‘the afterlife of books’, she shared excerpts from the library collection and discussed the various, and often unexpected roles books played within the home before they found their way into the Cathedral Library collections.