Sunday, 31 October 2010

No. 1, Cathedral Close: Mol's Coffee House

After the Cathedral and the Guildhall, this is probably the single most-photographed building in the entire city, despite the fact that its unusual gable is a late-19th century invention. Still, it remains an important Grade I listed building and the finest of its type still left in the city.

A few local legends have attached themselves to the building, nearly all of them either untrue or unlikely. For example, No. 1 Cathedral Close has been called the first coffee house in England, opened by an Italian called Thomas Mol. The oak-panelled room on the first-floor is often cited as being the place where Sir Francis Drake regularly met with other Elizabethan sea captains, such as Richard Grenville, Martin Frobisher, John Hawkins and Sir Walter Ralegh (usually discussing the Spanish Armada...). There's no limit to people's imaginations. The Italian named Mol is mentioned by Jenkins in his mammoth history of Exeter first published in 1806. Jenkins seems convinced.

The building actually was used as a coffee house for much of the 18th century but it's more likely that it was named after Mary Wildy, who took out a lease on the property in June 1726 ('Mol' being a diminutive form of 'Mary'). The first coffee house in England is supposed to be in Oxford, the Grand Cafe, opened in 1650 and mentioned by Pepys in his famous diary. As for Drake & Co., unfortunately Drake was dying off the coast of Panama in 1596, the year in which the current property on the site was being built. According to Todd Gray in his book 'Exeter Unveiled', there's not even any evidence that Drake even visited the city. John Hawkins was dead by 1595, Frobisher died at Plymouth in 1594 and Grenville was killed in battle with the Spanish in 1591 at the Battle of Flores. Sir Walter Ralegh was born locally, at Hayes Barton in East Budleigh, but it seems far-fetched to believe that they all ever met at the house itself. And the 1588 Armada was already old news when the house was built.

Given its prominent location near the High Street and the Cathedral, and near the corner of two Saxon streets, it's likely that there has been some sort of building on the site for over 1000 years.

Some of the first documentary evidence for a structure here dates to 1410, when Bishop Stafford granted the Cathedral's chantry priests (known in Exeter as the Annuellars) this corner the Cathedral Close to use as a residence. Known as the Annuellars' College, this large complex of medieval buildings would, by the 16th century, have spread across into what are now Nos. 1 to 5 Cathedral Close, although it didn't include the Canonry on Catherine Street, as is widely believed.

The College was disbanded during the Reformation of the 1530s and the building on the site of No. 1 fell into private ownership. In 1596 the building was totally remodelled, probably by John Dyer, a wealthy Exeter yeoman. The late-16th century remodelling included a completely new facade and interior. The Elizabethan house might've had twin gables originally and was spread over four floors. Before the ground floor was converted into a shop in the 19th century three tiers of projecting windows rose from the ground floor to the third floor. The surviving oriel windows of the first floor are particularly noteworthy as the window lights run across the entire facade of the building.

Behind these first-floor windows lies one of the finest 16th century panelled rooms in Exeter, inappropriately called the 'Armada Room' in some guidebooks. The panelling is made of oak, the small rectangles divided by elaborate fluted carved pilasters. Inset into the frieze around the top of the panelling are 46 shields painted with the coats of arms of various Devonshire families, mostly from the 16th century, including the arms of Drake himself.

These coats of arms are almost certainly a latter addition from the 19th century, perhaps the work of artist John Gendall who lived in the house during the 1800s. But the quality of the late-16th century carving is absolutely superb. The room also features a geometric single-rib decorative plasterwork ceiling from the same period. Unfortunately the first floor is not open to the public. In 1596 the ground floor was leased by Thomas Dyer for use as the city's Custom House. Jenkins, writing in 1806, states that until "very lately there was a pediment over the doorway, on which was carved the arms of Queen Elizabeth, with the initial E.R and the date 1596". This coat of arms disappeared but was replaced with another above left, painted not carved, in 1885.

In 1800 the house looked significantly different right. There is no sign of the Dutch-style curly gabled parapet which is such a distinctive feature of the house today. When I was at school we were told that the reason for the distinctive gable was because it made the house look like the rear of an Elizabethan galleon so Drake, etc. would feel at home! In fact the Dutch gable wasn't added until the late-19th century when the house belonged to postcard seller, Thomas Worth, the author of many of the fanciful takes concerning the property. To the far left can just be seen the entrance into Catherine Street and the start of the row of timber-framed houses which were demolished in the early-20th century.

Despite the changes that have taken place the building remains one of the finest surviving pieces of historic architecture in Exeter and is now one of the most instantly recognisable places in southwest England. Its setting within the Cathedral Close is exceptionally picturesque. Almost everything lying to the immediate rear of the property was damaged either by bombs in 1942 or demolished as part of the post-war reconstruction. It is incredible that the house survived at all, given how close it came to complete destruction. It was parts of Exeter such as this which made the city a cultural target during World War Two. Fortunately, here at least, the bombs missed.


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