Sunday, 4 December 2011

Nos. 50 to 52, High Street & Exchange Lane

Located between Nos. 48 and 49 on the left and No. 53 on the right, Nos. 50 to 52 ranks as one of the ugliest, most inappropriate buildings in Exeter's city centre. The fact it was ever constructed at all is scandalous and it stands today as a monument to the sheer insensitivity of both the city council and the architect responsible for the building's appalling design.

It's no surprise that it dates to 1963, a dismal period in Exeter's 20th century history when huge swathes of the pre-war city which had escaped the bombings of World War Two were being indiscriminately destroyed.

The council's own conservation report states that 50 to 52 "is probably the least well designed modern building in the High Street"; and in his book 'Aspects of Exeter', Peter Thomas writes that "it is as unsuitable to the site as it could possibly be". It squats on the site of what were two separate properties: Nos. 51 and No. 52 High Street. For many years No. 51 was the premises of J. Webber, selling games and sporting equipment. It was a three storey building, three bays wide with quoins running up the sides of the frontage. The facade at least dated to the end of the 18th century. The rest of the building was probably of a similar date. Next to it was No. 51. This was constructed on a much narrower plot, a visual memory of an earlier medieval building. It too was three storeys high but only one bay wide.

Nos. 51 and 52 are both shown in the image right © Devon County Council, highlighted in red. The photograph was taken in the 1930s. The division between No. 51 and 52 is marked by the quoins which frame the facade of No. 51. At some point No. 52 received a new facade in order to make it match its larger neighbour. Most of the tall and narrow houses on the opposite side of the High Street which are externally 18th century in appearance have earlier 17th century or earlier timber-framed cores and it's likely that the remodelled facade of No. 52 also hid an earlier interior. Also visible in the photograph, to the left of the two figures looking into Webber's shop window, is a doorway. This doorway led down what was known as Exchange Lane, a shortcut from the High Street into the Cathedral Close. Prior to the late-16th century a similar shortcut called Lamb Alley existed further up the High Street next to No. 46.

Exchange Lane was gone long before I was born but Peter Thomas has an interesting description of it in his book 'Aspects of Exeter': "[Exchange Lane] was picturesque, full of interest, and convenient too. One entered it through a doorway adjoining the east side of No. 51 High Street and one emerged from it through the doorway of No. 21 Cathedral Yard. From High Street or from Cathedral Yard, one went through a narrow covered passage first, before reaching the long, flagstoned, open court which was between them."

Between 1962 and 1964, Nos. 51 and 52 on the High Street, Exchange Lane and No. 21 Cathedral Yard were all demolished. (No. 21 Cathedral Yard was an early-18th century townhouse with a regionally important Grade II* listed interior but its listed status didn't prevent the city council from consenting to its complete destruction in 1964). The pre-war aeriel view of Exeter above left shows the extent of this particular episode of demolition highlighted in red. The facades of Nos. 51 and 52, looking across into the now much-demolished Goldsmith Street, are at the bottom with the pitched roofs and tall chimney stacks of No. 21 Cathedral Yard visible at the top.

There's little more to be said about the current building on the site of No. 51 and 52. A tree has been planted in front of it in an attempt to mask its dismal appearance but this fig leaf does little to cover up the loss of yet another part of Exeter's historical architectural landscape.


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