Exeter

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Exeter (/ˈɛksɨtər/ ek-si-tər) is a historic city in Devon, England. It lies within the ceremonial county of Devon, of which it is the county town as well as the home of Devon County Council.

Exeter is home to Exeter Cathedral.

Currently the administrative area has the status of a non-metropolitan district, and is therefore under the administration of the County Council. The city is on the River Exe, about 37 miles (60 km) northeast of Plymouth, and 70 miles (110 km) southwest of Bristol. According to the 2001 Census, its population in that year was 111,076, while the mid-2010 estimate was 119,600.

Exeter was the most south-westerly Roman fortified settlement in Britain. Its Exeter Cathedral, founded in the early 12th century, became Anglican at the time of the 16th century Reformation.

Exeter has been identified as one of the top ten most profitable locations for a business to be based. The city has good transport links, with Exeter St David’s railway station, Exeter Central railway station, the M5 motorway and Exeter International Airport connecting the city both nationally and internationally. Although a popular tourist destination, the city is not dominated by tourism.

The favourable location of Exeter, on a dry ridge of land ending in a spur that overlooks a navigable river that was teeming with fish, and with fertile land nearby, suggests that it would have been a site that was occupied early. The discovery of coins dating from the Hellenistic period in the city indicates the existence of a settlement that was trading with the Mediterranean region as early as 250 BC.

The Latin name for Exeter, Isca Dumnoniorum (“Isca of the Dumnones or Devonians”), suggests that the city was of Celtic origin. This oppidum, (a Latin term meaning an important town), on the banks of the River Exe certainly existed prior to the foundation of the Roman city in about AD 50, however the name may have been suggested by a Celtic adviser to the Romans, rather than by the original inhabitants of the place.

Such early towns, or proto-cities, had been a feature of pre-Roman Gaul as described by Julius Caesar in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (“Commentaries on the Gallic Wars”), and it is possible that they existed in neighbouring Britannia as well. Isca is derived from a Brythonic Celtic word for flowing water, which was given to the Exe and, elsewhere, to the River Usk on which Caerleon in Monmouthshire stands. This element is clearly present in the Modern Welsh names for Exeter (Caerwysg) and the River Exe (Afon Wysg). The Romans gave the city the name Isca Dumnoniorum in order to distinguish it from Isca Augusta, modern Caerleon. in 2010 two separate legionary camps dated at about the time of Vespasian were excavated at Saint Loyes on the Roman Road between Isca and Topsham adding evidence of military activity at the time of Vespasian before the Exeter site was consolidated.

Significant parts of the Roman wall remain, though most of the visible structure is later. Most of its route can be traced on foot. A substantial Roman baths complex was excavated in the 1970s, but because of its proximity to the cathedral, it was not practicable to retain the excavation for public view. Exeter was also the southern starting point for the Fosse Way Roman road.

More than 1,000 Roman coins have been found in the city indicating its importance as a trading centre. The dates of these coins suggest that the city was at its most prosperous in the first half of the fourth century. However, virtually no coins dated after AD 380 have been found, suggesting a rapid decline.

After the Romans left Britain in the early 5th century nothing is known of Exeter for about 270 years, until around 680 when a document about St Boniface reports that he was educated at the Abbey in Exeter.

 

The Saxons arrived in Exeter after defeating the Britons at the Battle of Peonnum in Somerset in 658. It is likely that amongst the ruins of the Roman city there was plenty of room for both peoples, and the Saxons allowed the Britons to continue to live in their own quarter of the city under their own laws. This was almost certainly in the same area as the ancient British settlement—in the locality of the present-day Bartholomew Street. Until 1637 this street was known as Britayne in memory of the fact that it was once the British quarter.

In 876 Exeter (then known as Escanceaster) was attacked and briefly captured by the Danes. Alfred the Great drove them out the next summer, and in the following years made Exeter one of the four burhs in Devon, repairing the Roman city walls in the process. In 893 the city held off another siege by the Danes.

In about 928 King Athelstan caused the walls to be thoroughly repaired and at the same time drove out the Britons from the city. It is not known whether or not these Britons had lived in the city continuously since Roman times—they may have been immigrants from the countryside when Alfred made the city a burh. According to William of Malmesbury, they were sent beyond the River Tamar, thereby fixing that river as the boundary of Devonshire, though Athelstan may have been restoring an old Dumnonian boundary. The quarter vacated by the Britons was then apparently adapted as “the earl’s burh”, and was still named Irlesberi in the 12th century.

In 1001 the Danes again failed to get into the city, but they were able to plunder it in 1003 because they were let in, for unknown reasons, by the French reeve of Emma of Normandy, who had been given the city as part of her dowry on her marriage to Æthelred the Unready the previous year.

In 1067, possibly because Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, mother of King Harold, was living in the city, Exeter rebelled against William the Conqueror who promptly marched west and laid siege. After 18 days William accepted the city’s honourable surrender in which he swore an oath not to harm the city or increase its ancient tribute. However, William quickly arranged for the building of Rougemont Castle to ensure the city’s compliance in future. Properties owned by Saxon landlords were transferred into Norman hands, and on the death of Bishop Leofric in 1072, the Norman Osbern FitzOsbern was appointed his successor.

In 1136, early in the Anarchy, Rougemont Castle was held against King Stephen by Baldwin de Redvers. Redvers submitted only after a three month siege, not when the three wells in the castle ran dry, but only once the large supplies of wine in the garrison that they were using for drinking, baking, cooking and for putting out the fires started by the besiegers, were exhausted.

The city held a weekly market for the benefit of its citizens from at least 1213, and by 1281 Exeter was the only town in the south west to have three market days per week. There are also records of seven annual fairs, the earliest of which dates from 1130, and all of which continued until at least the early 16th century.

In 1537, the city was made a county corporate. In 1549 the city successfully withstood a month-long siege by the Prayer Book rebels. The Livery Dole almshouses and chapel at Heavitree were founded in March 1591 and finished in 1594.

The city’s motto, Semper fidelis, is traditionally held to have been suggested by Elizabeth I, in acknowledgement of the city’s contribution of ships to help defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588; however its first documented use is in 1660.

Exeter was at first a Parliamentary town in the English Civil War in the largely Royalist South West, but it was captured by the Royalists on 4 September 1643, and it remained in their control until near the end of the war, being one of the final Royalist cities to fall into Parliamentary hands. During this period, Exeter was an economically powerful city, with a strong trade of wool. This was partly due to the surrounding area which was “more fertile and better inhabited than that passed over the preceding day” according to Count Lorenzo Magalotti who visited the city when he was 26 years old. Magalotti writes of over thirty thousand people being employed in the county of Devon as part of the wool and cloth industries, merchandise that was sold to “the West Indies, Spain, France and Italy”. Celia Fiennes also visited Exeter during this period, in the early 1700s. She remarked on the “vast trade” and “incredible quantity” in Exeter, recording that “it turns the most money in a week of anything in England”, between £10,000—£15,000.

Early in the Industrial Revolution, Exeter’s industry developed on the basis of locally available agricultural products and, since the city’s location on a fast-flowing river gave it ready access to water power, an early industrial site developed on drained marshland to the west of the city, at Exe Island. However when steam power replaced water in the 19th century, Exeter was too far from sources of coal (or iron) to develop further. As a result the city declined in relative importance, and was spared the rapid 19th century development that changed many historic European cities. Extensive canal redevelopments during this period further expanded Exeter’s economy, with “vessels of 15 to 16 tons burthen [bringing] up goods and merchandise from Topsham to the City Quay”.

In 1832, the pestilence cholera, which had been erupting all across Europe had reached Exeter. The only known documentation of this event was written by Dr Thomas Shapter, one of the medical doctors present during the epidemic.

The first railway to arrive in Exeter was the Bristol and Exeter Railway that opened a station at St Davids on the western edge in 1844. The South Devon Railway Company extended the line westwards to Plymouth, opening their own smaller station at St Thomas, near the lower end of Fore Street. A more central railway station, that at Queen Street, was opened by the London and South Western Railway in 1860 when it opened its alternative route to London. Butchers Lloyd Maunder moved to their present base in 1915, to gain better access to the Great Western Railway for transportation of meat products to London

Exeter was bombed by the German Luftwaffe in the Second World War, when a total of 18 raids between 1940 and 1942 flattened much of the city centre. In 1942, as part of the Baedeker Blitz and specifically in response to the RAF bombing of Lübeck, forty acres (160,000 m2) of the city, particularly adjacent to its central High Street and Sidwell Street, were levelled by incendiary bombing. Many historic buildings were destroyed, and others, including the grand Cathedral of St Peter in the heart of the city, were damaged.

Large areas of the city centre were rebuilt in the 1950s, when little attempt was made to preserve Exeter’s ancient heritage. Damaged buildings were generally demolished rather than restored, and even the street plan was altered in an attempt to improve traffic circulation. The post-war buildings are generally perceived as being of little architectural merit, unlike many of those that they replaced, such as Bedford Circus and a section of the ancient city wall.

Despite some local opposition, the Princesshay shopping centre has been redeveloped between the Cathedral Close and the High Street. The development was completed and opened on time on 20 September 2007. There are 123 varied residential units incorporated into the new Princesshay.

In order to enable people with limited mobility to enjoy the city, Exeter Community Transport Association provides shopmobility for use by anyone suffering from short or long-term mobility impairment to access to the city centre and shopping facilities, events and meetings with friends and company.

Previously regarded as second only to Bath as an architectural site in southern England, since the 1942 bombing and subsequent reconstruction Exeter has been a city with some beautiful buildings rather than a beautiful city. As a result, although there is a significant tourist trade, Exeter is not dominated by tourism. In May 2008 there was an attempted terrorist attack on the Giraffe cafe in Princesshay.

Exeter’s city council is a district authority, and shares responsibility for local government with the Devon County Council. Since 2003, no party has had a majority on the council. Exeter City Council’s bid for the city to become a Unitary Authority was initially approved by ministers in February 2010. A judicial review was called by Devon County Council and the Court held that the Minister had acted unlawfully in granting Unitary status to Exeter at the same time, however, following the 2010 general election the new government announced in May 2010 that the reorganisation would be blocked.

From Saxon times, it was in the hundred of Wonford. Exeter has had a mayor since at least 1207 and until 2002, the city was the oldest ‘Right Worshipful’ Mayoralty in England. As part of the Queen’s 2002 Golden Jubilee celebrations Exeter was chosen to receive the title of Lord Mayor. Councillor Granville Baldwin became the first Lord Mayor of Exeter on 1 May 2002 when Letters Patent were awarded to the city during a visit by the Queen. The Lord Mayor is elected each year from amongst the 40 Exeter city councillors and is non-political for the term of office.

The city of Exeter was established on the eastern bank of the River Exe on a ridge of land backed by a steep hill. It is at this point that the Exe, having just been joined by the River Creedy, opens onto a wide flood plain and estuary which results in quite common flooding. Historically this was the lowest bridging point of the River Exe which was tidal and navigable up to the city until the construction of weirs later in its history. This combined with the easily defensible higher ground of the ridge made the current location of the city a natural choice for settlement and trade. In George Oliver’s The History of the City of Exeter, it is noted that the most likely reasons for the original settling of what would become modern Exeter was the “fertility of the surrounding countryside” and the area’s “beautiful and commanding elevation [and] its rapid and navigable river”. Its woodland would also have been ideal for natural resources and hunting.

Exeter sits predominantly on sandstone and conglomerate geology, although the structure of the surrounding areas is varied. The topography of the ridge which forms the backbone of the city includes a volcanic plug, on which the Rougemont Castle is situated. The Cathedral is located on the edge of this ridge and is therefore visible for a considerable distance.

The Office for National Statistics estimated that Exeter’s population in mid-2009 was 118,800.

The city provides strong industries and services to a sizeable area. The Met Office, the main weather forecasting organisation for the United Kingdom and one of the most significant in the world, relocated from Bracknell in Berkshire to Exeter in early 2004. It is one of the three largest employers in the area (together with the University of Exeter and Devon County Council).

The city centre provides substantial shopping facilities. The High Street is mainly devoted to branches of national chains: A NEF survey in 2005 rated Exeter as the worst example of a clone town in the UK, with only a single independent store in the city’s High Street, and less diversity (in terms of different categories of shop) than any other town surveyed. Three significant shopping areas that connect to the High Street provide a somewhat more varied menu. Princesshay, a post-war retail area connecting to the south side of the High Street was home to a number of independent stores prior to redevelopment in 2007, but is now also largely occupied by national chains. It is an innovative, varied development, and it is still intended that a number of the new units will be let to local independent stores. On the other side of the High Street, the partly undercover Guildhall shopping centre houses a mixture of national and more regional shops, and connects to the wholly enclosed Harlequins centre where smaller businesses predominate. Smaller streets off the High Street such as Gandy Street also offer a range of independent shops.

On 26 June 2004, Exeter was granted Fairtrade City status.

Although a popular tourist destination, the city is not dominated by tourism, with only 7% of employment dependent on tourism compared with 13% for Devon as a whole (2005 figures).

  • See also below, Religion
  • The cathedral, founded in 1050 when the bishop’s seat was moved from the nearby town of Crediton (birthplace of Saint Boniface) because Exeter’s Roman walls offered better protection against “pirates”, presumably Vikings. A statue of Richard Hooker, the 16th century Anglican theologian, who was born in Exeter, has a prominent place in the Cathedral Close.
  • St Nicholas Priory in Mint Lane, the remains of a monastery, later used as a private house and now a museum owned by the city council.
  • A number of medieval churches including St Mary Steps which has an elaborate clock.
  • The Exeter Synagogue is the third oldest Synagogue in Britain, completed in 1763.
  • The ruins of Rougemont Castle, built soon after the Norman Conquest; later parts of the castle were still in use as an Assize court until early 2006 when a new Crown Courts building opened. A plaque near the ruined Norman gatehouse recalls that in 1685 Alice Molland, the last person executed for witchcraft in England, was imprisoned in Exeter. The future of the castle is at the moment uncertain, but moves are afoot to alter its use, possibly to a restaurant and housing.
  • The Guildhall, which has medieval foundations and has been claimed to be the oldest municipal building in England still in use.
  • Mols Coffee House, a historic building in the Cathedral Close.
  • The Guild of Tuckers and Weavers, a fine old building that is still used for smart functions.
  • The Custom House in the attractive Quay area, which is the oldest brick building surviving in the city.
  • “The House That Moved”, a 14th-century Tudor building, earned its name in 1961 when it was moved from its original location on the corner of Edmund Street in order for a new road to be built in its place. Weighing more than twenty-one tonnes, it was strapped together and slowly moved a few inches at a time to its present day position.
  • Parliament Street in the city centre is one of the narrowest streets in the World (see photograph).
  • The Butts Ferry, an ancient cable ferry across the River Exe.

Many of these are built in the local dark red sandstone, which gives its name to the castle and the park that now surrounds it (Rougemont means red hill). The pavements on Queen Street are composed of the rock Diorite and exhibit some fine feldspar crystals, while those around Princesshay are composed of Granodiorite

Northernhay Gardens located just outside the castle, is the oldest public open space in the whole of England, being originally laid out in 1612 as a pleasure walk for Exeter residents. Much of Northernhay Gardens now represent Victorian design, with a beautiful display of trees, mature shrubs and bushes and plenty of flower beds. There are also many statues here, most importantly the war memorial by John Angel and the Deerstalker by E. B. Stephens. The Volunteer Memorial from 1895, also in the gardens, commemorates the formation of the 1st Rifle Volunteers in 1852. Other statues include John Dinham, Thomas Dyke Acland and Stafford Northcote (a local landowner who was a Victorian Chancellor of the Exchequer).

The M5 motorway to Bristol and Birmingham starts at Exeter, and connects at Bristol with the M4 to London and South Wales. The older A30 road provides a more direct route to London via the A303 and M3. The M5 is the modern lowest bridging point of the River Exe. Going westwards, the A38 connects Exeter to Plymouth and south east Cornwall, whilst the A30 continues via Okehampton to north and west Cornwall. Travel by car in the city is often difficult with regular jams centred on the Exe Bridges area. To address the problem, Devon County Council is considering the introduction of congestion charges.

Country bus services, mostly operated by Stagecoach, run from Exeter to most places in East and North Devon, but some are very infrequent. Regional express services run to Plymouth, Torbay, Bude, and along the Jurassic Coast to Lyme Regis and Weymouth, some operated by Stagecoach and others by First Bus. National Express operates long distance routes, for example to Heathrow and London.

There are two main line railway routes from Exeter to London, the faster route via Taunton to London Paddington and the slower West of England Main Line via Salisbury to London Waterloo. Another main line, the Cross-Country Route, links Exeter with Bristol, Birmingham, the Midlands, Leeds, Northern England, and Scotland. Many trains on all three lines continue westwards from Exeter, variously serving Torbay, Plymouth and Cornwall. Local branch lines run to Paignton (see Riviera Line), Exmouth (see Avocet Line) and Barnstaple (see Tarka Line). There is also a summer weekend service to Okehampton for access to Dartmoor.

Exeter is served by two main railway stations. Exeter St Davids is served by all services, whilst Exeter Central is more convenient for the city centre but served only by local services and the main line route to London Waterloo. There are also six suburban stations, Topsham, St James Park, Exeter St Thomas, Polsloe Bridge, Pinhoe and Digby & Sowton, served only by local services.

Exeter International Airport lies east of the city, and the local airline, previously called Jersey European and British European but now known as Flybe, is a significant local employer. The airport offers a range of scheduled flights to British and Irish regional airports and charter flights, including a seasonal service to Toronto, Canada. Connections to international hubs began with Paris Charles de Gaulle in 2005 and later a daily service to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport.

The Exeter Canal was completed in about 1566, making it one of the oldest artificial waterways in Britain. It was cut to bypass weirs that had been built across the River Exe to prevent trade in the city and to force boats to unload at Topsham from where the Earls of Devon were able to exact large tolls to transport goods to Exeter. Originally 3 feet deep and 16 feet wide (0.9 m by 5 m), it ran 1.75 miles (2.8 km) from just below the Countess Weir to the centre of Exeter. It was later extended to Topsham, deepened and widened, and was successful until the middle of the 19th century since when its use gradually declined – the last commercial use was in 1972. However it is now widely used for leisure purposes, and the city basin is being included as part of a £24 million redevelopment scheme.

The Exeter Book, an original manuscript and one of the most important documents in Anglo-Saxon literature, is kept in the vaults of the cathedral. The Exeter Book dates back to the 10th century and is one of four manuscripts that between them contain virtually all the surviving poetry in Old English. It includes most of the more highly regarded shorter poems, some religious pieces, and a series of riddles, a handful of which are famously lewd. Some of the riddles are inscribed on a highly polished steel obelisk in the High Street, placed there on 30 March 2005. The Exon Domesday (so called from the preservation of the volume at Exeter), is a volume of Domesday Book that contains the full details which the original returns supplied, but only for part of south-west England, i.e. Cornwall, Devon, part of Somerset, part of Dorset and one manor of Wiltshire; it also contains a record of the geld of 1084 for the whole of these counties. One of Rosemary Sutcliff’s best-known children’s books, The Eagle of the Ninth, begins in Roman Isca Dumnoniorum. The Crowner John Mysteries by Bernard Knight are a series of books set in 12th century Exeter.

The Northcott Theatre is located on the campus of the university and is one of relatively few provincial English theatres to maintain its own repertory company. Its annual open air Shakespeare performance in the grounds of Rougemont Castle is well regarded nationally. This theatre is the successor to the former Theatre Royal, Exeter.

There are also two other theatre buildings. The Barnfield Theatre was converted in 1972 from the Barnfield Hall which was built towards the end of the 19th century by Exeter Literary Society. The theatre is a charity and is used as a venue for both amateur and professional theatrical companies. In January 2007 it received £200,000, about the same as the original cost to build it, to refurbish its interior. The New Theatre is the home of the Cygnet Training Theatre, a member of the Conference of Drama Schools. In addition, more innovative and contemporary performances, theatrical productions and dance pieces are programmed by Exeter Phoenix off Gandy Street in the City centre.

There are two festivals each year, of all the arts but with a particular concentration of musical events: the annual “Vibraphonic” festival held in March provides a fortnight of soul, blues, jazz, funk, reggae and electronic music. The largest orchestra based in Exeter is the EMG Symphony Orchestra which presents regular concerts at the University of Exeter and in Exeter Cathedral.

The city museum is the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Queen Street. The museum recently underwent extensive refurbishment. It reopened on 14 December 2011, and was subsequently awarded the National Art Fund Prize – UK Museum of the Year 2012. The Museum also runs St Nicholas Priory which is just off Fore Street. Exeter Phoenix and the adjacent digital Media Centre occupies the former university site in Gandy Street and programmes international, national and outstanding regional artists. The Spacex (art gallery) shows exhibitions of contemporary art and promotes artist-led projects, events and research.

The Exeter Times, formerly known as the Exeter Leader, a free weekly paper which ceased publication in 2011.

Exeter is twinned with Rennes, France; Bad Homburg, Germany; Yaroslavl, Russia; and Terracina, Italy.

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