Thursday, 16 December 2010

Nos. 5 & 7, West Street, West Quarter

Point the camera in the right direction and this little ensemble in West Street, with the lovely 15th century church of St Mary Steps as the centre-piece and the so-called House That Moved, is the single most evocative remaining fragment of Exeter's medieval past outside of the Cathedral Close.

 No. 5 and No. 7 West Street are only two of dozens of similar buildings which were unfortunately swept away between 1900 and 1935 during the city's mammoth slum clearance operations around Smythen Street, Stepcote Hill, Paul Street, Catherine Street, Preston Street, Coombe Street and Frog Street. No. 5 and No. 7 West Street were spared. No. 5 was built in the 15th century on the corner of West Street with Stepcote Hill and originally stood just inside the city's West Gate.

For centuries, every person who crossed the medieval Exe Bridge and passed under the West Gate would've seen this house as they climbed into Exeter via Stepcote Hill. According to Pevsner and Cherry, No. 5 comprised three quite separate units. There was a shop on the ground floor with another room behind. Above these were another two shops which were accessed via a still-existing passageway at the rear. The ground floor is constructed from the local Heavitree breccia. The second floor oversails the first floor on brackets. The side which faces into Stepcote Hill has two small, two-light cusped windows in oak. Apparently some original features remain internally and despite some significant restoration, which replaced much of the wooden timbering, it remains a very picturesque building.

No. 7 (to the right in the photograph top) is also allegedly from the 15th century. It too has a ground floor of Heavitree breccia but is built on four floors rather than three. The slightly larger proportions have allowed an extra floor to be squeezed into the cockloft where a small window peeps out from under the gable. No. 7 has been significantly restored with much replacement of old timber and the complete reconstruction in modern brick of the southern side wall.

The postcard view above shows the area around the houses c1900 before many of the surrounding timber-framed buildings were demolished. Nos. 5 and 7 are visible in the centre of the photograph, prior to their restoration and when the timber-framing was still covered in render (as it probably would've been when first built). Unfortunately the historical context of Nos. 5 and 7 has been almost completely destroyed, firstly by the slum clearances and then by road-building in the 1960s.

This entire area of Exeter escaped significant war-time bombing and had retained much of its pre-war character until the 1950s when the local authority decided to build the highly destructive inner bypass, known as Western Way, which tore through much of the city that had been left untouched by German bombs. The view shown in the photograph at the top of this post is a favourite for those wishing to promote the historic aspect of Exeter to tourists, but turn the camera in the other direction and the view is quite different as the medieval houses stand just metres away from a four-lane highway of fast-moving traffic.


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