Friday, 8 April 2011

Parliament Street & No. 195, High Street

Sandwiched between No. 194 and No. 195 High Street left is Parliament Street. A bronze plaque near the entrance from High Street confidently states that Parliament Street is "believed to be the narrowest street in the world"*. It most certainly isn't but it is an interesting relic from Exeter's medieval past.

The alignment of the street itself, and its narrowness, dates back to the Middle Ages. Providing no-one else is coming in the opposite direction it forms a convenient shortcut from the High Street into Waterbeer Street, another very ancient thoroughfare.

In reality it is now just a gap left between the buildings on either side, just 64 cms wide at the High Street before opening out to a spacious 122 cms by the time it exits into Waterbeer Street. Originally called Small Lane, Hoskins believed that its current title only dates to around 1832 "when the Reform Bill put Parliament in the news" and that "the precise point of the name is not clear: perhaps it is an obscure joke." If it was a joke then it was probably not complimentary towards Westminster. Hoskins also adds that in 1836 the residents of Parliament Street petitioned the local authority to have the street widened and subscribed £130 for this purpose, but nothing was done and the "street remains one of the narrowest in England".

Apart from its origins, there is little that is ancient about Parliament Street now unfortunately. Two thirds of the walls were rebuilt in modern red brick in the 1970s as part of the Guildhall Shopping Centre. The postcard view right shows Parliament Street prior to its rebuilding when it still had some character. However the two properties that mark the entrance into Parliament Street from the High Street, Nos. 194 and 195, do have some history. No. 194 is discussed here, along with its neighbours Nos. 192 and 193 High Street.

No. 195, the pale pink structure to the right in the photograph at the top of this post, has a complicated history. It is a Grade II listed building and has a simple mid-19th century stucco facade spread over four floors with a cellar beneath. The early-20th century shop front is a rare survival in the High Street, but behind the early Victorian facade is a much earlier structure dating to c1700. As suggested in another post, it seems likely that No. 195 is the rebuilt front block of what was once a 16th century townhouse. Its twin was at No. 196 High Street, although that was demolished in 1973. No. 195 escaped demolition and its rendered masonry side wall now forms part of Parliament Street.

The interior contains much of interest. The upper floors are all accessed via a fine late-17th century staircase, although the lower section was replaced in the 1800s. There are also stretches of 18th century panelling and a late-17th century bolectian moulded ceiling. A 16th century carved overmantel showing the Judgement of Paris in bas relief was removed from the house in 1928. It's possible that the panel had been reused from the earlier building on the site. It is now in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter.

Probably originating in the Netherlands and shipped to Exeter c1600, the overmantel above shows Athena to the far right, dressed in a warrior's helmet and holding a spear, her shield resting on the ground. In the centre is Hera with a peacock, the sacred symbol of the goddess. The two figures on the left depict Paris presenting Aphrodite with the apple. As well as being a beautiful object in its own right, the panel also illustrates how Exeter's most wealthy citizens surrounded themselves with opulent decorative artwork.

As a building, No 195 High Street is typical of much of the city prior to World War Two, with a rich and varied history hidden behind later additions.

*The world's narrowest street is reputedly Spreuerhofstrasse in the German city of Reutlingen which is half the width of Exeter's Parliament Street.


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