Monday 4 October 2010

'The House That Moved', West Street

For me, 'The House That Moved' left is a bit of a let down. It's hard not to feel sorry for the few tourists who wander down here to take a photograph only to find themselves confronted with the four-lane inner bypass that sweeps past this tiny fragment of medieval Exeter. It reminds me of the Umgestülpter Zuckerhut, recently reconstructed in Hildesheim but still surrounded by post-war architecture.

The building itself is a perfectly good, if much restored, example of a timber-framed merchant's house, although no-one seems to have any idea how old it is. I've seen its age put at anything from the 14th to the 16th century, but a date of around 1450 seems most likely. Hoskins believed that it was the oldest example of its type left in Devon, and he was probably right. Very few 15th century timber-framed domestic houses survive in Devon. One notable feature are the cusped wooden windows.

For centuries the house stood on the corner of Frog Street and Edmund Street. In the early 1950s the city council embarked on a scheme to create a new road system to bypass the city centre. The resulting scheme inflicted inevitable destruction upon a huge tract on Exeter's remaining historic cityscape. One of many entire streets that were scheduled for demolition was Frog Street.

The photo right shows the merchant's house in its original position c1940, with Frog Street receding into the distance on the right. When it became known that the house was to be destroyed local archaeologists applied pressure on the city council to save it.

The house was listed and the government donated £10,000 to contribute towards the costs of moving it. It was decided to move the house in its entirety but first a suitable location needed to be found where the house could be repositioned. Just over 220ft away from Frog Street, near the medieval church of St Mary Steps, was a vacant lot that fulfilled the purpose. Unfortunately it was in exactly the same place where a similar house of a similar age had already been demolished in the 1940s (the house had first been offered to the city council but when the council showed no interest in purchasing it the property was demolished).

In essence, a house dating to the 15th century was moved 220ft in the 1960s to replace another house dating to the 15th century that had been demolished just 20 years earlier! The photograph below left shows the timber-framed house that once stood on the site prior to its demolition in the 1940s.

To move the house from Edmund Street it was stripped down to its wooden frame before being encased in timber and jacked up onto metal wheels. It was then gradually moved on a rail to its new location, a process which lasted from 9 December 1961 to 14 December and which was accompanied by much interest from the UK media. And the house has been there ever since. Nothing but some of the timbers date from the 15th century and the house simply does not work in its new location, totally dislocated from the context in which it was built. It was designed as a corner house but now it juts out from where it adjoins its neighbour at the rear, three of its walls exposed and looking faintly ridiculous in the process.

The photo below shows the house within its current context of the city's inner bypass. It's certainly popular with tourists, and the city council. It is frequently used as a desperately misleading publicity shot to advertise a fantasy 'Olde Worlde' Exeter which doesn't actually exist. But it looks good depending upon where you point your camera... "The House that Moved" just reminds me of what Exeter has lost and the thoughtlessness that has gone into preserving the bits that remain. It's a lovely house but it's a pathetic remnant. Frog Street and Edmund Street, the true historical context of the house, were both bulldozed out of existence.


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