Sunday, 17 October 2010

Southernhay West, Southernhay

After the Cathedral, these are my favourite buildings in the entire city: two terraces of Grade II* listed late 18th century red-brick townhouses built in the 1790s by their architect, Matthew Nosworthy. Nosworthy originally built four terraces in Southernhay West with a total of 42 houses. He also built 24 in Dix's Field as well as the New London Inn at Eastgate. Today only two of the terraces at Southernhay West remain, one comprising 10 houses and other 12 and, as architecture, they are exceptionally attractive.

Nosworthy was given the opportunity to create a series of housing schemes in Southernhay to cater for the increase in wealthy professionals and members of the gentry who settled in Exeter during the last quarter of the 18th century. Many other large cities in England at the time were being drawn into the burgeoning Industrial Revolution and perhaps Exeter was regarded as a place in the country, where the mild climate and surrounding agricultural landscape represented an escape from the noise and thunder of cities which embraced the coming Revolution with more fervour than Exeter did. The idea behind the Georgian expansion into Southernhay was always one of gentility, light and space, and a quiet sort of power which drew upon the prosperity of the people who would take up residence there.

The photo above shows the full extent of the first of Nosworthy's four terraces, Nos. 1-10. He was very fortunate in being able to use the locally made bricks which were fired in Exeter from the deep red clay which is such a characteristic feature of the fields of Devon. In full sun the facades glow like an ember, an effect which when seen en masse over the full length of the facade against a backdrop of blue sky is indescribably lovely.

Bedford Circus had already lead the way in 1773 with the construction of 14 spacious, red-brick townhouses inside the walled city. (The Circus wasn't completed until the 1830s.) The Georgian demand for more of the same resulted in the walls being either widened or breached in two places as the new terraces, taking their cue from the Circus itself, flooded out of the walled city and into Southernhay. Nosworthy's four terraces were all built with the medieval city wall acting as the boundary of the gardens at the rear of each house. Access in and out of the city was through two 18th century incisions made in the wall; one, called 'New Cut', was in reality a widening of a pre-existing postern gate and led past the Cathedral along an exceptionally picturesque route of medieval houses; the other, a new breach in the wall, led through to Bedford Circus from where it was possible to access the High Street.

The photograph above was taken looking down into the Cathedral Close through New Cut, with the end houses of the two surviving terraces to the left and right. The end houses both project out from the rest of their respective rows to give a slight sense of emphasis and statement to the entrance into the Close. Unlike the other houses, these end properties were all accessed from the side rather than through a doorway at the front. The photograph below right shows No. 10 Southernhay West looking down the length of the terrace towards No. 1. New Cut is on the far right of the picture. The photograph gives some impression of the spaciousness of each townhouse, although the end houses were slightly larger than the others. Also visible is the arched entrance in the centre of the side elevation of No. 10.

The townhouses weren't all constructed at the same time. Matthew Nosworthy, like Robert Stribling, the architect of Bedford Circus, was a speculative builder i.e. he would've constructed several houses, without a definite purchaser, and then built more as demand increased. Little is known about Nosworthy or his training. The land on which the terraces were constructed belonged to the Dukes of Bedford and it appears that Nosworthy took the almost-contemporary terraces at Bedford Square in Bloomsbury, London as his inspiration. Because each house was built individually there are subtle differences in all of them, despite the fact that as a whole they look like a uniform group. Sometimes one window is slightly higher than another, or a different batch of bricks were used resulting in a surprising variety in the colour of each house, but No. 4 below left is typical of the whole.

It consisted of five floors: a basement, with kitchens and scullery, accessed via steps from the exterior; three floors of accommodation for the owners and an attic with bedrooms for the servants. The dormer windows of the attic floor are hidden from the street behind a brick parapet. Beneath the brick parapet and highlighted in white is a modillion cornice of Coadestone which runs the full length of each terrace with a further band of Coadestone running across the facades two-thirds of the way down.

Each facade is three windows wide and on the ground floor the windows are set into arched openings. Each arched entrance is characterised with vermicuated Coadestone surrounds. The keystone above each entrance is in the form of a moulded sculptural head, also in Coadestone. Coadestone was a sort of durable ceramic created by Eleanor Coade at the end of the 18th century. It proved to be immensely popular and was used on many Georgian houses in England from the late-18th century until the 1840s. Nos. 13-24, the second of Nosworthy's terraces, is much the same as the first. The most significant difference is that the central four properties project out slightly from the line of the other facades. This element was repeated in the lost third terrace. Also, some of the houses have Regency wrought-iron window guards added at first-floor level. The photo below shows Nos. 13-24.

Opposite the terraces was a private park, once ringed around with iron railings. Today it is a public area, the borders surrounding the lawns filled with flowers in the summer, amidst which stand some of the largest and most statuesque trees in the city. The whole ensemble is extraordinarily beautiful.

It seems churlish to nit-pick, especially as this is Exeter and it's surprising that the two terraces have survived at all, but in the mid-1970s all the old townhouses were converted into offices. So, despite the magnificent facades, most of the interiors have been completely gutted. Modern fire doors were fitted, lifts carved their way through the floors, fireplaces were ripped out, walls were ripped down, rooms were partitioned, etc. etc. If you're lucky you'll sometimes find the remains of a fireplace, a Georgian staircase or a room with some of the original plaster frieze or rose left intact around the ceiling, but it's the exception rather than the rule. Now Southernhay is the preserve of lawyers, solicitors, accountants and estate agents who trade in million-pound Devon longhouses.

However a much worse fate befell Nosworthy's other two, almost identical terraces. Originally built in a line stretching along the side of the city wall, the two terraces to the east were badly damaged by fire during the Exeter Blitz of 1942. The photograph left shows one of the two most easterly terraces c1920 (the other curves away out of sight as it follows the contour of the city wall). I've given it some colour which was lacking in the black and white photograph. In the far distance can be seen two other red-brick Georgian townhouses. These were part of a little terrace of just three houses which stood at 90 degrees to the other terraces. Very similar in design, it's likely that they too were the work of Nosworthy. After the bombing raid both of the terraces were left as fire-damaged shells.

The photograph right © English Heritage was taken from almost the same location as the one above left i.e. looking up Southernhay in the direction of Paris Street. The man to the left would've been looking towards the remains of Bedford Circus. The photograph shows that significant parts of the townhouses remained intact despite the fire-damage.

As with nearly all of late-18th century Exeter which was damaged in the war, enough probably remained of the original structures to make reconstruction feasible. For whatever reason the city council decided to demolish nearly all of the Georgian buildings damaged in 1942, including the two terraces in Southernhay West. Dix's Field and Bedford Circus both went the same way. It's difficult to understand how such important and beautiful things were so casually disposed of without at least some effort being made to reinstate them. Just in the small area around Southernhay and Bedford Circus, Exeter lost approximately seventy almost identical red-brick townhouses dating to between 1773 and 1835, a huge number considering that in 1942 Exeter was a relatively small city with a compact historical centre.

The Georgian facades were relatively simple with little or no external decoration beyond the Coadestone in the entrance arches. Even if they had been obliterated then a complete reconstruction would always have been a possibility, and enough of the late-18th century bricks probably survived even to rebuild at least the facades using some original material. The site remained empty for years and was used as a car park until the local authority permitted the construction of Broadwalk House above left in 1974, an insipid office block which pays lip service to Georgian proportions but which fails to attain even one percent of the beauty of the terraces that it replaced. The white wrought-iron window guards are a particularly ludicrous touch. Hugh Mellor is particularly dismissive of Broadwalk House, describing it as "a hopelessly insensitive attempt to emulate the originals. The result is preposterous". Pevsner and Cherry describe it as "hopelessly failing to disguise its greedy bulk".

Broadwalk House is just another post-war fiasco but at least the two remaining terraces in Southernhay West survive with Colleton Crescent, Barnfield Crescent and Southernhay East as some of the finest remaining highlights of Exeter's Georgian past.


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