Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Canonry and Country House Inn, Catherine Street

In Catherine Street today are a jumble of semi-incoherent ruins, the medieval fragments of buildings which were largely destroyed during World War Two. One of these buildings was a complex of almshouses with a chapel dedicated to St Catherine. The other was a canonry, a house built for one of the Cathedral's 24 canons.

The canonry dated from the 13th century and predated the almshouses by over 150 years. It appears to have consisted of a sequence of rooms probably built as a residence for Canon Reginald le Ercesnek (Canon Ercesnek was found guilty of harbouring a felon after the murder of Precentor Walter de Lechlade in 1283). It comprised a gatehouse entered via Catherine Street, a front range on Catherine Street itself, with a large hall, service rooms, chambers, malthouse and stables to the side and rear.

The area closest to the site of the almshouses was used as a service block, with a pantry, buttery and a large kitchen. Three doors inset into a thick wall led from these rooms into the hall, a typical configuration found in many similar medieval buildings. The only part of these buildings still standing are the ruined remains of the kitchen. The kitchen itself was probably substantially rebuilt in the 15th century. It is widely believed that the canon's house had been subsumed into the Annuellars' College by the beginning of the 16th century. The very extensive remnants of the canonry appear as the 'College of Chantry Priests' on the Ordnance Survey map of 1876. However recent research has shown that this was not the case and the Annuellars' College (occupying the site of Nos. 1 to 5 Cathedral Close) and the canon's house on Catherine Street remained two distinct and separate buildings.

According to Parker & Collings, the canonry was the residence of the Cary family in the 16th century although in around 1700 the property was subdivided into different tenements. The early 19th century historian, Alexander Jenkins was under the impression that the site of the almshouses and canonry was once part of a Benedictine nunnery. This is certainly incorrect, but he does state that there was "a great part of this ancient structure remaining". By the time Jenkins wrote his history one of the tenements carved out of the canonry was an inn called the Country House at No. 37 Catherine Street (highlighted in red on the image right). It appears that the parts of the upper floor have been rebuilt in brick during the 18th or 19th centuries, perhaps a replacement for a timber-framed upper storey such as can still be seen at No. 9 Cathedral Close.

In his 1821 'History of Exeter', George Oliver notes that "a beautiful arch, now closed up and disfigured by the window of an ale house is still to be seen near St Catherine Gate". The ale house mentioned is certainly the Country House inn, the arch was part of the canonry building and probably formed the main entrance into the residence. In 1855 an article appeared in a Trewman's 'Exeter Flying Post' which gives some clues as to what parts of the medieval building still existed. According to the article's author, the Country House inn's malthouse was formerly a chapel and still contained "a very good open timber roof" that was "in the style of the 15th century". A passageway led from the front of the inn to a courtyard at the back. Within the wall of the passage were five blocked-up Gothic windows of different types, with several other Gothic windows existing within the malthouse itself. Apparently similar arches existed "in the kitchen, and also in the bed chambers and the passages above stairs."

Exactly how much of the medieval canonry existed on the site prior to World War Two is uncertain. The kitchen certainly survived as part of the Country House inn and it's more than likely that other substantial medieval elements existed within both the fabric of the tavern, as mentioned above, as well as other buildings which fronted Catherine Street. The 1876 Ordnance Survey map of Exeter suggests that several properties on Catherine Street included significant medieval walls behind rebuilt frontages. Some of the buildings at the rear were demolished at the end of the 19th century and more demolitions followed in the 1920s, although Parker and Collings state that "despite these losses, the service wings of the house survived remarkably complete until the air-raids and post-war demolitions."

Ethel Lega-Weekes reported in her fascinating 1915 book 'Studies in the Topography of the Cathedral Close' that in 1912 she had visited a "long, low apartment" situated behind Nos. 38-41 Catherine Street (i.e. running from the current ruins nearly to the corner of the street at St Martin's church). One of the walls of this apartment was demolished soon after Lega-Weekes's visit but she recalled seeing two medieval arched doorways embedded in it. Another wall contained three small doorways, which she believed to date from the 14th century, and two large blocked doorways. One of the small doorways still "communicated with what are now narrow cellars or store-rooms used by the publican". These three doors would've lead into the large hall.

Unfortunately I am unaware of any existing photographs which show either the interior or exterior of the Country House inn. The inn, along with the 15th century almshouses, was completely gutted by fire in 1942. The photograph above left shows still-standing walls associated with the canonry after the inn had been destroyed in 1942. Significant remains of both buildings were demolished in the post-war rebuilding. Only the former kitchen survives to any significant height and both the south wall and the north wall of the kitchen contain the remains of huge fireplaces. The south wall fireplace has survived in a recognisable condition top, although it was significantly rebuilt after 1942. The fireplace on the northern wall is just a jagged hole above the fragments of a chimneystack below, propped up in the centre with a modern brick pier. A small blocked-up medieval window is visible to the right.

The ruins of the canonry have been designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. It was buildings like this, like the Country House inn, which made Exeter such a fascinating place prior to 1942. Between the redevelopment of the 19th century and the slum clearances of the early 20th century Exeter had ceased to be a visually medieval city, and even by the mid-19th century the scale of the survivals didn't begin to equal those of much larger continental cities, such as Rouen, Nuremburg or Frankfurt. But large areas of Exeter's medieval history were still hidden away behind newer facades. It truly was an architectural palimpsest and it is a tragedy that so much was destroyed before it could be fully understood and recorded for posterity. The photograph below shows the ruined 15th century kitchen in the foreground with the remains of St Catherine's chapel behind.


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