Gareth Huw Davies

Things to do - various destinations

Time to pause in Exeter, no longer the West Country’s hurry-on-past city

Tarry awhile in Exeter's wide spaces: cathedral city out west

Tarry awhile in Exeter’s wide spaces: cathedral city out west

It was always so easy  to hurry on past Exeter, on the way to the seaside resorts of Devon and Cornwall. But there are good reasons to resist the siren call of the beach, at least for a while. My list of the things to see and do in this ancient Devon city include Britain’s prettiest cathedral, one of the world’s narrowest streets and a prince’s prize-winning museum. And there are free, daily guided walks too.

Gothic glory

Exeter’s cathedral in the Decorated Gothic style, with twin, stout Norman towers, is the distinguished central feature of this old city, alongside elegant Regency terraces. Begun in 1112, it has the world’s longest (300 ft) unbroken Gothic ceiling – compared to an avenue of stately trees. The magnificent west front features sculptures of some very weathered monarchs – Alfred, Athelstand, Canute and Willliam the Conqueror, sitting informal and cross-legged as if they are chatting. There’s an excellent cafe, under a fabulous vaulted stone ceiling and 18th century stained glass windows. This is a good place to try the famous Devon cream tea. The illustrious choir sing at evensong, Monday to Friday. Admission to the cathedral is £6.

Treasure trove

The brilliant, adventurous and magical Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM) effortlessly spans three centuries. It opened in 1868, promoting the vision of Queen Victoria’s husband to bring art and science, design and technology together for the people. It reopened in 2011 after major works, with a new wing, and was named Museum of the Year 2012. The judges praised it for its “ambition and imagination”. Quite randomly I came across a Greek hoplite helmet found in the Straits of Euboea in 1870; Gerald the giraffe, a popular exhibit since 1920; the regalia of Issapumahsika, leader of the Blackfoot nation; and an outstanding collection of medieval Devon woodwork. There’s nothing remotely old-fashioned here. Information notices are bang up to date. I was so absorbed, I missed my train, but it was worth it.

Guide to go

Exeter has an appealing tourist institution, the Red Coat Guided Tour. Walks are free, leaving most mornings from the city centre, taking in the Norman Castle, Roman wall, cathedral and colonnaded Guildhall, possibly England’s oldest municipal building still in use. Other tours take in the historic Quayside area around the canal and the river Exe. The medieval bridge leads to restored Cricklepit Mill. Then do your own exploring through Georgian crescents and past black-and-white-timbered buildings. Gandy Street is one of the old cobbled side streets of character. Parliament Street, just 25 inches wide in one place, is among the narrowest anywhere. There’s a two miles circular walk around the old city, through the city’s famous formal gardens.

Top town

Topsham is a gem of a little town, on the Exe Estuary four miles from central Exeter. Stroll there along the very first English canal to use locks. Once a larger port than Exeter itself, It has a proud shipbuilding and maritime history. The story is told in Topsham Museum, in the Strand, a riverside street with some notable 300 year old merchant houses in the Dutch style, with curved gable ends. There are antique shops, tea rooms, pubs and some good restaurants. Something else to see out of Exeter is 14th century Powderham Castle, a setting for The Remains of the Day, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Honition, 16 miles north east and famous for its lace making, is another visit. Allhallows Museum has a big collection of local lace.

Take the train.

Exeter, at the end of the M5, is a comfortable drive for many of us. I took the train, recalling the thrill of childhood holiday visits, when expresses rolled down to the West Country from all parts. Today trains still arrive from as far away as Glasgow. I took the South West Trains service from Waterloo, via Salisbury, through steep Devon valleys, past little stone-built villages and over twinkling rivers. There are day trips possibilities by rail all over Devon from Exeter. My favorites are the Avocet Line down to Exmouth, with bird watching from the train as it skirts the river Exe. My other pick is the line north to Barnstable, where the famous Atlantic Coast Express ran in the glory days of steam trains. Today you can alight from a little diesel train for a drink in many a village pub.

Meet the moors.

Exeter is a convenient base for day trips to the South Devon seaside resorts, such as Torquay and Dartmouth. It’s also on the doorstep of two national parks, grand, empty and wild. Dartmoor begins just six miles away. It’s an easy drive to some fine walking country, and there are trains to the pretty town of Okehampton, in the heart of Dartmoor, on summer weekends. To the north east is Exmoor, a short drive up the M5, and easily reached by train. The epic Tarka Trail weaves in a great 180 mile long figure-of-eight across Northern Devon, centred on Barnstaple. It follows the route taken by Tarka the Otter in Henry Williamson’s book.