Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Bear Street, Bear Gate & Bear Tower

Today Bear Street hardly exists. The north side is nothing but a car park hidden behind a modern wall and the south side is completely dominated by the side wall of a late 19th century church left. But the area is thick with history and Bear Street, just 180ft (56m) long, was the site of several structures of significant historical interest. Traces of its medieval past remained until 1966 and yet none of it now survives. So what went wrong?

The site of Bear Street is ancient, lying within the boundaries of the mid-1st century Roman fortress. In 1953 part of a Roman drain or conduit was found in Bear Street. The drain carried waste water away from the public baths which stood near the Deanery's garden c180 AD. There is some archaeological evidence that Bear Street was first laid out on its current alignment as early as the 9th century. It might've once connected South Street with the Anglo-Saxon minster which stood just west of the present Gothic cathedral. According to this theory, Saxon Bear Street would've been much longer than it is today, extending across the city as far as what is now Princesshay. The street was considerably shortened in length when the boundaries of the cathedral precinct were established and by the end of the 13th century it only led to Deanery Place and Palace Gate, as it still does today. In 1286, following the murder of the precentor Walter Lechlade, the Dean and Chapter received a royal licence from Edward I to encircle the cathedral precinct with a wall and gatehouses, and one of these gatehouses was situated in Bear Street.

The Bear Gate

A document relating to the circumvallation gives quite precise details about the location of the gate, later known as Bear Gate. It was located at the top of Bear Street and consisted of one gate 8ft wide for pack-horses leading into "the lane between the house of the Dean of Exeter and the house now of Roger de Derteford". The gate had wooden doors that were locked every evening at the curfew. It must've been a relatively simple structure, especially in comparison with the great Broad Gate on the High Street. Hooker's 16th century plan of South Street shows Bear Gate with a simple pitched roof. On the Braun and Hogenburg map of 1587 the gate consists of just a stone archway right. The range of buildings on the right side of the street formed the north wall of the Bear Inn, the former townhouse of the Abbots of Tavistock Abbey.

There's some evidence that by 1584 the gate had a chamber above it as a Mr Barcombe was required to pay two pence every year in consideration of "his new building over the gate going into the churchyard by the said Bear Gate". The Bear Gate was demolished in the Spring of 1813. According to Michael Fodor in his booklet 'Gates of the Close', the materials were salvaged by Thomas Matthews for £10.

The Bear Tower

Of almost equal interest was the Bear Tower. It was embedded within a later property, close to the junction with South Street and opposite the side wall of the Bear Inn. It dated at least to the 14th century and was built from blocks of purple volcanic trap. A blocked Gothic doorway in the south wall of the tower once gave access directly onto Bear Street. There was also a very large blocked archway in the east wall, almost like the chancel arch of a church. The tower was perhaps 20ft high and approximately 15ft square at the base. Jenkins saw it in 1806: "The opposite corner of Bear Lane bears evident marks of antiquity. According to tradition it was a Nunnery". Lega-Weekes also recalled seeing the property in 1915: "The ancient side wall of the house at one corner of Bear Lane shews traces in its masonry of a large arched window or doorway at first floor level, and a smaller stopped window above that; and this, like other old masonry in the house is about three feet thick".

The drawing above left © Devon County Council is by local artist John Gendall and dates to c1840. It shows the interior of the Bear Tower. The partially open door which once exited onto Bear Street is visible in the centre. A stone spiral staircase can be seen rising through the centre of the tower. (The staircase was removed c1860.) No-one knows the function of the Bear Tower. Jenkins believed it was related to an Augustinian nunnery which was possibly on this site. It's also possible that it was connected to an earlier phase of the townhouse of the Abbots of Tavistock, on the other side of the street. The townhouse was reputedly rebuilt in 1481 and perhaps the Bear Tower was part of the earlier townhouse. The Bear Gate always seems to have been located at the other end of Bear Street so it's unlikely that the Bear Tower was related to that. The purpose of the tower remains a mystery. The image below right shows Bear Street as it appears on Hedgeland's early 19th century model of Exeter.

During the Exeter Blitz of 1942 the early 19th century house which had been built around the Bear Tower was destroyed by fire. But the fire was no match for the tower's thick masonry and a significant amount of the 14th century structure remained standing (much like the Gothic windows and medieval walls at the Black Lions Inn on the other side of South Street). The Bear Tower stood on the corner of Bear Street and South Street for a further 24 years.

Despite being listed as one of Exeter's ancient monuments in the 1950s, in December 1965 the city council obtained permission from the Minister of Public Works to demolish the tower completely. In an act of either gross stupidity or pig ignorance, the remains of the 14th century building were destroyed in January 1966. It's not surprising that some people believe the philistine post-war city council merely finished what the Germans had already started in 1942. The government had stipulated that the foundations be left preserved and exposed. Naturally, this didn't happen and today the site of the Bear Tower is a flower bed.

Nos. 2 to 8, Bear Street

The image left shows a detail from the 1905 OS map of Exeter overlaid onto an aerial view of the same area. Properties demolished since 1905 are highlighted in red.

The Bear Tower wasn't the only historical structure on Bear Street which managed to stagger into the 20th century. Nos. 2 to 8 Bear Street occupied almost the entire north side of the street, facing out onto the side wall of the Bear Inn (and later the Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart). An auction annoucement in 1809 stated that several of these houses, "situate adjoining Bear Gate, and fronting Bear Lane" were held "by lease under the Dean of Exeter". In fact all of these properties on the north side of the street were owned by the Dean and Chapter and were part of the boundary between the city and the cathedral precinct.

In the summer of 1871 the 'Exeter Flying Post' carried a report that the Dean, in conjunction with the city council, had decided to authorise the widening of Bear Street "on the north side by fifteen feet throughout, from the junction with Palace Street to the last house fronting South Street". The fronts of the houses on the north side of Bear Street were all apparently set back to allow the road to be widened. I'm not convinced that this actually happened to the extent suggested in the newspaper report. Either way, the rears of Nos. 2 to 8 Bear Street were much older than the street facades. Arthur Everett examined the row of properties in the 1930s and discovered that the back walls and roofs dated to c1500. The great age of the buildings was of little consequence as the entire lot was demolished in 1938. It never seems to have occurred to the local authority that Exeter's stock of medieval housing was a finite resource. It's a sobering thought that more medieval and early post-medieval buildings were probably demolished in Exeter between 1900 and 1939 than were ever destroyed during World War Two.

The location of the ancient houses today is a car park partially hidden behind a shabby wall. There's now no sign above ground of the Bear Gate or the Bear Tower, the ancient houses or the old Bear Inn. The photograph below shows the site of the Bear Tower, the foundations lying somewhere beneath the flowerbed to the right of the remarkably poor flat-roofed post-war shack on South Street. The entrance into Bear Street is visible to the far right.



Jim Riddle said...

Have or were the council decision makers of the time ever been taken to task over this destruction of our once beautiful city?

If they are still alive today, I hope they wander around the city and appreciate what an absolute mess they made.

Jim Riddle said...

Just to expand. This blog has annoyed me so much because the destruction of this tower just seems almost spiteful. To knock it down for the sake of putting a flower bed in its place. It defies belief.

Great blog, by the way - keep up the good work!

wolfpaw said...

I agree, the local authority has made an absolute mess of Exeter. It's easy to view decisions with the benefit of hindsight but the catalogue of errors made by the City Council both before and after the war is extensive. The decision to demolish the entire area around Stepcote Hill, Preston Street, Smythen Street, Rack Street, Coombe Street and Paul street was an error. The decision not to restore any of the more important buildings damaged in 1942 was an error. The decision to demolish the surviving buildings in Sidwell Street was an error. The Guildhall Shopping Centre, with the impact it had on North Street and the Higher Market, was an error. The decision to destroy the Southgate district was an error. The decision to divorce the river from the city with the inner bypass was an error. The result is a mess, a patchwork of a few surviving historical areas surrounded by post-war redevelopment. I think we're supposed to find the juxtaposition between old and new 'exciting' but it's like Milton Keynes or Swindon with a cathedral in the middle.

As for why it happened and I think that's a lot more complicated. As I said in another post, if a historical building or area was in the way of a new road or a new shop then it didn't stand a chance. Then there's the naive post-war dream that modernism was going to deliver clean, streamlined living for everyone where we could all whizz around the new city on empty new roads in our new cars without a care in the world. The old city was regarded as an obstacle to achieving that ideal and so it came down. This was a common mindset, not just in Exeter but across the whole of post-war Europe. The Communist regimes did much worse to much greater cities (e.g. Google 'Paulinerkirche Leipzig').

I think most of the decisions in Exeter sprung from relatively good intentions, which only makes the disastrous consequences even more pathetic. I know that some of the members of the City Council in the 1950s and 1960s admitted in retrospect that they had got it badly wrong. Their excuse was that they were at the mercy of large companies who demanded to do what they wanted or they would withdraw investment in the city. So the City Council gave way.

I think the people who sat on the council were largely ignorant, ignorant about the city's history and of its architectural heritage. If you see no value in a 500-year-old building or the history it represents then you would have no qualms about authorising its demolition. Professor Hoskins, former chairman of the Exeter Civic Society who battled to save the Higher Market from complete demolition, believed that somewhere around 1860 Exeter ceased to become a cultured city. The cloth market dried up follwing the Napoleonic Wars, the wealthy stopped retiring here and the city became an intellectual backwater. It's easy to see how narrow-minded ignorance can proliferate in such an environment.

I would have more time for the City Council if it had shown any willingness to restore at least some of the city's pre-war highlights. The Blitz was an unavoidable disaster but the subsequent actions of the City Council were a totally avoidable catastrophe. The wrong people always seem to be in charge, don't they. The fact that the City Council in the 1960s thought that the Exeter Civic Society was an 'ineffectual nuisance' says it all.

Exeter has just been very unfortunate, and not only in its city councillors. Slum clearance, war-time bombing, post-war redevelopment. Each of these affected a different area of the city. It's no wonder that so little is left.

As for the Bear Tower, and I can only assume that they looked up the road, saw the ruins of the Hall of the Vicars Choral and thought 'we've already got ruins on South Street. We don't need any more'. I'm not sure how they managed to get away with blatantly disregarding the stuff about leaving the foundations exposed though. It was probably regarded as a nuisance.

Anonymous said...

Is the blog finished now or will it return?

The latter, I hope!

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