Back in October last year I wrote a post about Smythen Street, once one of Exeter's most important medieval routes. Apart from a medieval fireplace hanging halfway up the wall of a late-19th century warehouse I was unaware that anything of historical interest still existed in the street, much of which was torn down between 1930 and the 1960s.
But it seems that one building older than the late 19th century does indeed survive and has recently been threatened with almost total demolition. The house in question was formerly known as No. 30 Smythen Street and can be found at the back of Nos. 102-104 Fore Street. Part of it is visible in the photograph left and below, facing onto the grot of modern-day Smythen Street, an admittedly unprepossessing facade spanning three floors with a partially slate-hung gable end with a further collection of associated buildings at the rear, not visible from the street itself.
About ten years ago the building was investigated by the Exeter Archaeology Unit [part of Exeter City Council, the much-valued EAU has recently been axed as part of the city council's cutbacks after 40 years in existence]. At the time of the EAU's investigation the building was being repaired with the aid of a grant and the EAU's findings revealed that parts of No. 30 date back to the 15th or 16th centuries, probably a unique fragment of the collection of medieval buildings known as Butchers Row, most of which were demolished in the 1830s to build the Lower Market. The core of the building is a medieval merchant shop, rebuilt above first floor level in the late 18th century and remodelled again in the 19th century.
Incredibly, a planning application was recently made to the city council seeking the almost complete demolition of the building to enable the construction of "residential units". An organisation known as the Devon Buildings Group lodged an objection to the plans. The following statement comes from the DBG's website:
"The DBG objected to this application as it involved the almost complete removal of a much repaired but extremely historic 15th or 16th century building at the rear of the development facing onto Smythen Street. This building is included within the Exeter Local List of buildings of historic interest. The replacement building was in an entirely modern idiom. We believed that the City Council had taken on board our objections and, although we were given no opportunity to see them, understood that revised plans had addressed the conservation issues. In fact these revised plans, although incorporating internally some of the historic features which were previously to be destroyed, still completely remove the existing street elevation of the building which was carefully reconstructed in 1999 following a detailed analysis of its historic importance by Exeter Archaeology. Moreover we understand that this reconstruction was actually grant aided under the Conservation Area Partnership shared by English Heritage and the Council! We strongly regret another development which will reduce the historic quality of the conservation area and the city."
The statement is dated April 2011. It seems unbelievable that the council would even consider allowing the building to be altered, let alone demolished, especially given the paucity of historic buildings in Exeter's old West Quarter (or the city centre generally for that matter). The council's own Exeter Local Plan Policy C3 states that alterations and extensions which harm the architectural or historic value of the building will not be permitted. The revised plans would apparently retain the "original basement and ground floor footprint", whatever that means, and the Heavitree stone walls would also remain along with some roof trusses. Despite the stipulations of the Local Plan Policy, it seems likely that the development will be given the green light by the council's planning department and much of the building will be demolished, including the Smythen Street facade, the remnants subsumed into a completely new structure.
If the Devon Buildings Group hadn't intervened then it's possible that everything would've just been bulldozed out of existence. (Three late-Georgian brick-built townhouses in Sidwell Street, Nos. 70-73, are also currently under threat of demolition, some of the last pre-war survivors in a street almost completely destroyed by the Baedeker Raid in 1942 and by massive post-war demolition. There have been a number of objections made by individuals and organisations, including English Heritage, and despite initially allowing the demolition of the buildings, the city council has been forced to reconsider. A decision is currently pending.) An update on the fate of No. 30, Smythen Street will be posted when more is known.