Friday, 31 December 2010

The West Gate, West Quarter

First built by the Romans in the 2nd century AD, the West Gate above was one of five defensive stone gatehouses set within the perimeter of Exeter's city wall. North Gate, East Gate, South Gate and West Gate all roughly aligned with the cardinal points of the compass but Water Gate, probably medieval in origin, was located near the Quay and straddled a route through the city wall from Exeter's port. Accurate information on the structural details of all of Exeter's gates is frustratingly sparse. It seems certain that there was a Roman gate in the vicinity which gave access to what was probably a timber bridge over the river Exe and the surrounding marshes. Despite the fact that Exeter was one of the most westerly outposts of the Roman Empire in Northern Europe, there were a number of small forts and Romano-British settlements west of Exeter which extended into Cornwall. A Roman road is believed to have lead from the West Gate, over the timber Exe bridge and into South Devon via Haldon, although most of these roads were probably little more than trackways perhaps first used by the Celts in prehistory.

The Anglo-Saxons reused and refortified the original Roman West Gate during Athelstan's overhaul of the city's defences in the early 10th century, but the West Gate which was known to 19th century antiquarians probably dated to the 14th or 15th century.

It was constructed from the exceptionally durable purple volcanic lava first quarried by the Romans within the city at Rougemont and, from the late-Middle Ages onwards, at other sites outside of the city e.g. Thorverton.

The East Gate was largely rebuilt in the 16th century and volcanic ashlar was used in the rebuilding so it seems likely that the other gates were built of a similar material. The local Heavitree breccia familiar from Exeter's parish churches was altogether too soft and friable for such strategically important locations. The image above right shows a section of the city wall that still contains some of the volcanic ashlar blocks quarried by the Romans at Rougemont in the 2nd century. Little holes left by bubbles of gas which coursed through the lava when it was first erupting are easily visible.

Before the construction of a new bridge over the river Exe in the 1770s, the West Gate was still the main entrance in and out of Exeter for anyone arriving or departing on this side of the city. Access from the far side of the river into Exeter was over a huge 700ft long, 13th century stone bridge which ended not far from the walls of the West Gate itself. An archway then lead through the gatehouse before a traveller had to make the long haul 150ft up to the city centre either via West Street and Fore Street or, at least during the Middle Ages, via the steep climb of Stepcote Hill and Smythen Street. The creation of the new Exe Bridge in the 1770s on a different alignment to its medieval forerunner also saw the building of a new access road into Exeter, rather uncreatively known as New Bridge Street, which literally bypassed the West Gate completely. Jenkins described the old route through the West Gate as "intricate and inconvenient".

The Tudor scholar, John Leland, visited Exeter in 1542 and left a brief description of the city's gates, stating that "the east and west gates are built in similar style and are now the best". Leland's note-taking is clearly in error though. The architectural form of the East Gate, a central gateway framed by two enormous drum towers, was radically different to that of the West Gate and the West Gate was far from being "the best", a term more appropriate for the great South Gate or East Gate. One of the earliest known representations of the West Gate appears in the Braun and Hogenberg map of 1587 left. The arches of the medieval Exe Bridge are just visible at the bottom with Frog Street on the left. The West Gate itself is shown as a simple crenellated structure. Almost on top of the city wall to the right is Allhallows-on-the-Wall, a medieval church that was almost totally destroyed during an assault on the city during the English Civil War. West Street runs to the left and right inside the City Wall and almost immediately behind the West Gate is the church of St Mary Steps with Stepcote Hill shown ascending past the church towards the centre of Exeter.

The image right shows a drawing of the West Gate executed long after the gate had been demolished. It is almost certainly based on the etching shown at the top of this post. From the 16th century onwards a small undercroft at St Mary Steps functioned as lodgings for the West Gate's porter. Jenkins recalls that all of the city gates were "constantly shut during the night; in winter, from nine in the evening to six in the morning; in summer, from ten to five". It was the porter's job to open and close the West Gate at the correct time and to quiz people who wanted to leave or enter the city outside of these hours. In 1330 the porter of the West Gate was apparently punished and removed from his position for leaving the gate open during the night against the mayor's instructions.

Although post-dating the West Gate's demolition in 1815, the image at the top of this post gives what is probably the most accurate depiction of the building itself. It shows a very simple structure built into the city wall consisting of little more than an arched entrance surmounted by a square crenellated tower. Through the archway can just be seen the corner of the church of St Mary Steps and the beginning of Stepcote Hill. Jenkins was less than complimentary when he recorded his impressions of the West Gate at the beginning of the 19th century:

"A very ancient but mean structure, and inferior in point of architecture to the other City gates; it consists of a square tower, something loftier than the walls, without any projection on the outside, or flanking bulwarks; in this tower is an ill-contrived room with a small window looking towards the suburbs; on the interior front is the remains of an inscription now obliterated: the entrance into the City is through an irregular pointed arch, and the whole has the appearance of remote antiquity; it has no insignia of arms or ornament remaining on it, and being now in a very ruinous state, will, in all probability, be soon taken down."

The West Gate might've been unimpressive as military architecture but it had played a role in some of the most important events in British history. During the reign of Edward VI left the city was placed under siege by Catholic rebels from Devon and Cornwall during an event known as the Prayer Book Rebellion. The rebels were opposed to the implementation of a new prayer book written by Thomas Cranmer and published in English rather than Latin. After amassing in Credition the rebels turned their attention to Exeter. The city's mayor, John Blackaller, was approached by the rebels and asked to open the city gates to give them free access. Blackaller refused and, according to John Hooker, who left an eyewitness account, on 02 July 1549 up to 2,000 rebels besieged Exeter, "in order to take by force that which by words they could not obtain."

The mayor ordered "great pieces of ordnance planted at every gate, and in all convenient places along the walls". The rebels proceded to fell all the large trees surrounding the city, demolishing several bridges and posting guards on every road leading to and from Exeter. They tried setting fire to the gates. They broke the pipes which led into the Underground Passages and which delivered fresh water to the Great Conduit in the High Street, and recycled the lead from the pipework to make bullets. Another rebel scheme involved undermining the city wall. Hooker writes that at the West Gate, having first tunnelled under the foundations of the gate itself, "the besiegers had placed a large quantity of gunpowder, pitch and other combustible matter".

A tinner from Teignmouth, John Newcombe, happened to be within the besieged city and noticed the rebels' excavations. Using a pan of water he was able to assess exactly where the rebels were mining "by the shaking of the water in the pan", and then "set about counter-mining them" i.e. digging a shaft directly above where the rebels had laid the explosives. As previously mentioned, the West Gate stood 150ft below the plateau upon which the centre of Exeter lies. The steepness of the descent became part of the city's attempt to foil the rebel plans.

The order was given for everyone living in the steep streets around the West Gate i.e. Stepcote Hill, shown right prior to its demolition in the 1930s, Smythen Street, Preston Street and West Street, to place large tubs of water outside their houses. Upon the given order, all the tubs were upturned at the same time sending a torrent down the streets towards Newcombe's shaft, flooding the tunnels dug by the rebels and rendering the explosives useless. Hooker writes that "the rebels, being thus disappointed, attempted nothing more of this kind". The siege lasted for five weeks. The Prayer Book Rebellion was a serious challenge to the religious policy of Edward VI and involved many thousands of people. Over 5500 rebels were killed during its suppression, most of them from Cornwall. Numerous battles took place around Exeter, and it wasn't until the rebels were repulsed by John Russell, the owner of Bedford House, that the siege was finally lifted.

The West Gate also saw a lot of action during the English Civil War. In July 1643 when Exeter was under siege by Royalists loyal to Charles I, over 1000 Parliamentarians rode out from the West Gate, dragging cannon behind them, crossed the medieval Exe Bridge and attacked Royalist soldiers who were holed up in the late-medieval manor house of Hayes Barton on the opposite bank of the river Exe. The Royalists were eventually forced to retreat but the house itself was destroyed during the battle.

The West Gate was also the scene of the entry into the city of William of Orange left, Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Guelders and Overjissel, later crowned as King William III of England, Scotland and Ireland. William of Orange was the son of Mary Stuart, the eldest daughter of Charles I, and William II, Prince of Orange, and he later married Mary, the daughter of James II. The Catholic James II was ousted from the throne of England and was replaced by William of Orange who landed with an expeditionary force at Brixham in South Devon on 05 November 1688. Exeter was the first city he arrived at.

It was by no means certain that Exeter would welcome the Prince. Some of William's attendants, including Lord Charles Mordaunt, the 3rd Earl of Peterborough, rode ahead of the huge convey moving towards the city from Brixham. Jenkins writes that "when they arrived at the West Gate they found it shut against them; upon which Lord Mordaunt ordered the porter to open the gate upon pain of death, which being presently done he required him on the same penalty not to shut it again". Despite the mayor's refusal to greet William of Orange at the West Gate, the Prince's entrance into the city was triumphant. The "streets were thronged, and the windows filled with joyful spectators". William of Orange stayed in Exeter for twelve days, lodging at the Deanery, before departing for London where he was eventually crowned on 11 April 1689.

Unfortunately Jenkins' prediction turned out to be accurate as the gatehouse was demolished in 1815 after almost 1600 years of existence. In the late-19th century the position of the gate was marked with a commemorative plaque right.

It reads: "Site of West Gate. Successfully defended against the Rebel attacks in 1549. William Prince of Orange with his army entered the city in 1688 through this gate which was removed in 1815."

The only part of the gatehouse to survive is the key that was used to lock the doors and which is currently in the local Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Unfortunately, all of the main entrances into the walled city Exeter have been destroyed or disfigured either by war-time bombing, post-war reconstruction or road-building.

The photograph below shows the area outside of the West Gate as it appears today, the plaque marking the location of the gate outlined with a red circle. The inner bypass now carves through the city almost at the exact point where the Rebels in 1549 started digging to lay their gunpowder.


Thursday, 23 December 2010

Automaton Clock at St Mary Steps Church, West Street

Also known as the 'Matthew the Miller' clock, this interesting relic sits high up on the side of the bell tower at St Mary Steps, and has done so ever since its creation in the early 17th century. According to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, it was probably created by a local clockmaker named Matthew Hopping between 1619 and 1621.

The movement is contained within a small room about halfway up the tower, accessed via a spiral staircase from inside the church. The time is shown on a dial, carved from Beer limestone, above which are three automatons housed within a Gothic niche decorated with ballflower pinnacles. Jenkins recorded the workings of the automaton in the early-19th century as follows: "Over the dial is a small statue of Henry VIII in a sitting posture which, on the clock striking the hour, bends forward its body; on each side is a statue, in ancient military habit, their morions crowned with feathers; they hold in their right hands javelins, and in their left small hammers with which they alternately strike the quarter hours on two small bells placed beneath their feet". (Jenkins isn't entirely accurate here as the two statues either side of the central figure, known as Jacks or Jack o' The Clocks, are mirror opposites so one actually holds his javelin in his left hand and the hammer in his right.)

The two soldiers are made of lead, the sitting figure that Jenkins calls a statue of Henry VIII was originally made of wood and holds a sceptre in his hand. The problem is that no-one really knows if the figure is supposed to represent Henry VIII or not. Apart from the fact that 1619 was the 110th anniversary of Henry VIII's succession to the throne, there seems little reason why a representation of him should've found its way into the clock at St Mary Steps.

The dial below right is a replica of one of the earliest surviving dials of its type in Devon (like the statue of Henry VIII, the original was replaced with a copy during restoration carried out in 1980 and now resides in the local museum). It is very ornate. In the centre is a single gilt-metal hand, one end terminating in a crescent moon and behind which is a blue disc emblazoned with five golden stars and a small sun carved with a human face. Surrounding this are Roman numerals from one to twelve.

Carved into the spandrels are the four seasons represented by the Roman god Apollo with his lyre (Winter), Mars (Spring), perhaps Aestas, often depicted carrying sheaves of wheat, for Summer and finally Ceres holding a cornucopia (Autumn) . The quarterly-hour points are marked with miniature cherubim.

Since at least the mid-18th century the three automatons have been known locally as Matthew the Miller and his two sons. According to Jenkins and numerous other historians, Matthew was a rather corpulent miller who worked at Cricklepit Mill situated on Exe Island just west of the church of St Mary Steps itself. His punctuality in passing the church on his way to work was so acute that the residents of the parish named the clock after him and his two sons. One 19th century source even claims that the church was known as 'Matthew's Church'. Several local rhymes sprung up around Matthew the Miller in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as:

"Matthew the Miller's alive
Matthew the Miller's dead
For every hour in West-gate tower
Matthew the Miller nods his head"

Charles Dickens, a frequent visitor to the city, recorded another version in his periodical "All the Year Around":

"Adam and Eve would never believe,
That Matthew the Miller was dead,
For every hour in Westgate tower
Old Matthew nods his head"

Dickens goes on to write: "If Exeter had been a Spanish city we should have had a hundred legends about these figures, the magicians who framed them and the goblins that haunted them". The precise identification of Matthew the Miller will probably always remain a mystery.

The postcard view left shows the church of St Mary Steps c1900. One last mystery surrounding the clock is simply why it was placed here in the first instance. On the edge of Exeter's medieval industrial zone, St Mary Steps was by the 1620s one of the city's poorer parishes and yet the clock would've been a very expensive piece of kit. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum suggests that perhaps the clock was originally intended for Exeter Cathedral but, for whatever reason, it was assembled at St Mary Steps instead. The museum cites a similar automaton called 'Jack Blandifer' at the cathedral at Wells as evidence for the theory.

Another possibility is that the clock was funded by a wealthy private donor, but the most wealthy parts of the West Quarter lay within the parish of St Mary Major not that of St Mary Steps. The clock just seems to appear in the early-17th century, and unless some documentary evidence turns up, the exact origins of the clock will also remain a mystery. The maintenance of the clock today is partially funded by the Exeter Civic Society. It is a pity that such a colourful piece of history should be squirrelled away next to the inner bypass where only the most determined tourist or sightseer ever ventures.

One of the original figures and the dial are shown below as displayed at the local museum.


Tuesday, 21 December 2010

St Mary Steps Church, West Street

Staying on the theme of the West Quarter, and the Church of St Mary Steps on West Street vies with St Martin's in the Cathedral Close as Exeter's most attractive surviving medieval parish church. Both have extremely picturesque locations, but the medieval charm of the surrounding timber-framed houses, as well as the addition of an unusual clock in the tower, probably gives St Mary Steps the edge despite its close proximity to the city's inner bypass. The photograph left shows the church with Nos 5 & 7 West Street to the right.

Two theories have sprung up to explain the name by which the church is known locally. It is dedicated to St Mary but at some point acquired the epithet of St Mary Steps, probably to distinguish it either from the great church of St Mary near the Cathedral or the church of St Mary in Mary Arches Street. Cresswell stated that the name derives from the close proximity of Stepcote Hill, with its sequence of steps either side of what was once an open gutter. Jenkins however thought that the name originated from the fact that the church was built into a steep slope. The floor of the church is therefore elevated above street level and accessed via a flight of steps beyond the entrance door at the base of the tower.

There has been a church on the site since at least 1199. Cresswell believed that it was founded before the Conquest of 1066 but the exact date of the foundation is unknown. Nothing of the 12th century church remains, except perhaps the font, as it was rebuilt in the 15th century from the local red Heavitree breccia. The photograph right shows the south wall and tower of St Mary Steps looking up towards the surviving remnant of West Street. The entrance into the church is via the arched doorway under the tower. The small doorway to the right leads into the vaulted undercroft which receives light from the adjacent stone mullioned window.

From the 12th century until the 1400s the church probably retained a basic plan consisting solely of a nave and a chancel. The exact chronology of the later additions is uncertain. The south-west tower was probably either added or rebuilt first, followed by the south aisle. In 1462 a wealthy parishioner called Felicia Selman bequeathed money and property to St Mary Steps so that a priest could commemorate the anniversary of her death. Any money left over was to be used on the fabric of the church itself. One interesting possibility is that the south-east corner of the south aisle was originally built separately as a chantry chapel dedicated to Felicia Selman. Whatever the truth, the church had attained its current dimensions by 1500.

The steep inclination on which the church is located allowed the construction of a vaulted undercroft. This undercroft, accessed now via an arched doorway in the south face of the church, was once used as a lodging for the porter of the long-vanished West Gate. It is believed to have been constructed c1600 but the undercroft only extends under the south-west portion of the south aisle. Is it possible that it was originally a crypt added in the mid-15th century when the church was extended and related in some way to the potential Selman chantry chapel? It's an intriguing idea but remains unproven.

In 1805 Jenkins reported that, at least since the 18th century, a stone bench formerly ran along the face of the south wall, "designed for the accommodation of the soldiers". He continued: "[T]his seat being much resorted to by idle and disorderly persons obtained the name of the pennyless bench, and at length becoming a public nuisance it was taken down, about the year 1757". Opposite the east end of the church, on the other side of Stepcote Hill and running along the back of Nos. 5 & 7 West Street, was a very narrow alley called Parson's Lane, at the end of which was "a small ancient house", now demolished, which was where the rector lived.

The photograph above left shows the view from the nave looking towards the south-west tower. The base of the tower opens into the church through two arches. Part of one of the wide, very depressed arches dividing the south aisle from the rest of the church can be seen to the left.

The interior of the church is full of interesting things. Perhaps most notably there is a 12th century Norman tub font right, one of the finest of its type in Devon. It's cylindrical design makes it unusual in the county where the majority of surviving Norman fonts are cuboid. It's very likely that the font was part of the fittings of the remodelled 12th century church and retained for use in the new structure. It makes the font a contemporary of the two great Norman towers of the Cathedral. The font is decorated with a striking vine and leaf motif which encircles the upper part. Beneath the vine is a sequence of arcading and under that is a band of plaited moulding, all carved out of one giant block of limestone. It's remarkable that the same font has probably been used in the same building for eight hundred years.

On top of the font is a very beautiful conical wooden cover left. This is often attributed to the prodigiously talented sculptor Harry Hems who worked in Exeter throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The little figure of the Virgin and Child which perches on top is probably Hems' work but it's more likely that the cover is Hems's restoration of an existing 17th century piece of woodwork. The crispness of the carved pierced leaf motifs is wonderful. It was well within Hems' ability to execute the carving but there are signs at the base of the cover that it is older than the 19th century. The little hatch in the side enabled the rector to access the water without having to remove the heavy cover itself. The first recorded rector of the church was Alan de Baucumbe, appointed by Bishop Bronescombe in 1273.

Along with the font, the most important medieval relic is undoubtedly part of the rood screen that was brought here from the ancient church of St Mary Major when it was demolished in 1865. From around 1215 onwards, a rood screen divided the nave and chancel to maintain the sanctity of the Eucharist. The name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word 'rood' meaning 'cross'. Until they were destroyed in the Reformation, large sculptures of the crucified Christ were often affixed above the rood screens. These sculptures were known as the 'rood', hence the name of the screen which supported them, although in Protestant countries most of these statues were destroyed during the Reformation. A rood loft often ran above the screen where candles could be placed during services or from where a choir could sing. The doorway which led via some stairs to the rood loft can be seen behind the pulpit at St Mary Steps. A surviving document from the church's Wardens' account book shows that the rood was restored in 1557 during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary.

Only three bays of the original screen from St Mary Major were installed at St Mary Steps right. It extends across the south aisle. Dating from the 15th century, the screen is of a high quality with much finely carved tracery. At the base of the screen are 12 surviving painted panels depicting various saints. According to Hugh Meller, the rector of St Mary Steps "enlisted an inexpert parishioner to repaint [the panels], thereby destroying much of [their] charm". Cresswell agreed that the panels have been "much over-restored" but enough remains to suggest the vibrancy of the original paintwork.

The screen itself poses another mystery. Because the portion from St Mary Major only filled the south aisle, it is widely-believed that the rector commissioned Harry Hems in the 1860s to create a copy of the medieval screen to stretch across the nave. The nave screen is five bays wide and does look very similar to the medieval original. As Bridget Cherry states, "it is quite an accomplished copy". Cresswell goes further: "The copy is wonderful, neither from the carving nor the colouring could one suspect that this piece was quite recent work." The design of the tracery and the style of the carving are almost identical but close examination of the Hems' alleged copy reveals a problem: it doesn't fit.

The photograph above shows interior of the church looking east towards the altar. The full extent of the screen can be seen. The three bays to the right, separated from the rest by the arch of the south aisle, are the medieval section brought in from St Mary Major. The other five bays in the nave are Hems's copy. Not only are the five bays of different widths but they don't fit the width of the nave.

Examination of the end of the screen which abuts the wall nearest to the pulpit also reveals notches and what appear to be the remains of mortise and tenon joints. If Hems's work really was merely a bespoke copy for a specific location then you would expect it to fit that location exactly. Hems was undoubtedly responsible for the screen but he was also a great collector of ecclesiastical architectural fragments. Perhaps he reworked some medieval timbers into the new screen or adapted an old screen which he reclaimed from elsewhere. It's a bit of a mystery but either way, the surviving medieval work at St Mary Steps is the only pre-Reformation chancel screen surviving in any parish church in Exeter. Incidentally, the screen once again has its 'rood'. A figure of Christ on the crucifix, carved by Harry Hems in 1907 and recycled when a reredos was dismantled in 1966, can now be seen above the screen.

Another fascinating feature of the church are its bells. A narrow spiral staircase leads up through the tower into a small chamber containing the mechanism for the early-17th century clock with automatons which sits high up on the southern face of the bell tower. From here the staircase ascends in almost total darkness to the belfry at the top of the tower. There, hanging in the gloom and affixed to a web of enormous oak beams, are four large bronze bells, all cast by John Pennington in Exeter in 1656 right. The belfry has barely been touched for decades. It is indescribably atmospheric and the four bells have tremendous presence. It's one of the most memorable things I've seen in Exeter.The mouth of each bell must be around 30 inches in diameter.

The bells are inscribed as follows i) When I Call Follow Me All I.P 1656 ii) Gloria Soli Deo Detur (Let Glory be Given to God Alone) iii) Richard Meredith John Ball Churchwardens, 1656 and iv) John Pennington of Exon Cast Us Four 1656. It's quite something, to think of the bells hanging here since the time of Cromwell and the Civil War and the changes which have swept across the world in the subsequent 350 years. The bells can still be rung via ropes which descend into the lower chamber (one of these ropes can be seen in the photograph). The ropes move the clapper rather than the bell itself but they can still make a very loud sound. Just two years later, on 14 September 1658 and at the time of the Commonweath, the church was sold for £100 but was bought back by its parishioners after the Restoration of Charles II.

In 1865 the Rector of St Mary Steps appealed for funds to restore "the ancient and dilapidated parish church". Plans by the architect Edward Ashworth had already been drawn up but £700 was needed to implement the restoration. The restoration eventually lasted at least until 1872. In 1870 the tower was overhauled with the removal of old plaster from the exterior and new battlements and parapet added. In December 1872 the rector wrote to the city council announcing that "they were about to lower the floor of the church, and in commencing the work they had found human bones". Permission was needed to rebury the remains in the city's Higher Cemetery. The tracery in the south windows was replaced and the 15th century waggon roofs over both the aisle and the nave were restored. Some of the carved medieval bosses left were replaced but others were retained. One depicts the ceremonial sword and cap gifted to the city by Henry VII in 1497. Cresswell found it difficult to decide which ones were genuinely medieval and which ones were Victorian copies but they're all well carved and some are very inventive.

The stone pulpit is Victorian replacing the earlier one seen by Jenkins, described by him as a "fine piece of workmanship". It featured a gilt statue of an angel blowing a trumpet and was probably regarded as being too Baroque for a small medieval parish church. The pews also date from the 19th century restoration. During the rebuilding work a carved bench end was discovered under the floor. Probably dating to the 15th century, this bench end was used as a template for some of the new pews. Once again, the Victorian craftsmanship is of an impressive quality right, and although the Gothic template remains the same on all of the bench ends each one is characterised by individual details so that no two are exactly the same. The altar was another piece by Harry Hems which was installed in 1888. A further restoration took place in 1966 which is when the glass in the east window was replaced. The red and blue colouring of the roofs was added at the same time.

I've not yet mentioned the two oak coffers of c1600 or the lovely little metal strong box which might've once been a poor box and which is decorated with painted flowers and birds. St Mary Steps really is one of Exeter's most rewarding parish churches. Irrespective of the proximity of the inner bypass this tiny corner of old Exeter, with its handful of medieval buildings, remains one of city's most lovely locations, a remarkably atmospheric survival when so much else has gone. On a Sunday, in the summer and late in the afternoon, when the traffic flows less frenetically, the fabric of the church glows a deep red against the blue sky and with the Cathedral bells tolling in the distance the sense of stillness and timelessness is absolutely magical.


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.


Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Frog Street, West Quarter

A number of cities, towns and villages across England had a 'Frog Street' or 'Frog Lane', including London, Sheffield, Trowbridge, Lichfield, Worcester, Bristol, Swansea, Minehead, Cannington and the nearby market town of Tiverton.

In many instances the streets were located close to water, either mill ponds, rivers or lake. The example in Tiverton is near the moat of the castle and the watery connection seems to appertain to the example in Exeter too as Frog Street was located very close the medieval bridge that once spanned the river Exe and surrounding marshes.

The watercolour of c1900, above left, shows the entrance into Frog Street from Edmund Street. At the end of the 19th century the street retained much of its medieval appearance and a remarkable number of timber-framed properties still existed from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

During the Middle Ages the marshy ground was gradually reclaimed and became known as Exe Island. As Hoskins says, "before that [Frog Street] was simply the swampy bank of the wider river Exe, frequented by frogs which gave their name to the new medieval street." Archaeological evidence proves that until the 1960s Frog Street had been continuously inhabited since at least the 13th century. One particularly large assemblage of medieval pottery discovered on the site of the tenements that once fronted onto Frog Street dates to c1230.

The illustration, right, is based on an 1851 drawing by George Townsend. It shows the view from inside Frog Street looking out towards Edmund Street. The house with the cockloft window in the roof, far left, is the same one visible to the left in the image at the top of this post and eventually became known as 'The House That Moved'. The four gabled houses almost certainly dated to the 1500s, their timber-framing hidden behind rendered facades. They were demolished c1870.

The postcard view below left, dating to the 1930s, shows that between 1900 and 1930 many of the timber-frame properties have been demolished, probably as a result of the slum clearance initiative that laid waste to medieval architecture in Stepcote Hill, Paul Street, Smythen Street and Preston Street. At least three remained in Frog Street though, the house on the left, (formerly 16 Edmund Street and later known as The House That Moved), the jettied three-storey house halfway down on the right, dating at least to the 1500s and another 16th century property out of view at the end of the street. In the early 1960s pressure from local archaeologists forced the City Council to relocate No. 16 Edmund Street when the decision was made by the Council to drive an inner bypass road through the city's old West Quarter. No. 16 was duly moved to its new position on West Street, unfortunately the other buildings weren't so fortunate.

No. 15 Frog Street, a two-storey timber-frame house from c1570 with an over-sailing upper floor was demolished and the rest of Frog Street was bulldozed out of existence, along with Edmund Street, most of West Street, most of Tudor Street, most of Coombe Street, and a huge swathe of 17th and 18th century properties at the entrance into South Street at Magdalen Street and Holloway Street, to name just a few of the affected areas; and this was after the huge demolition and redevelopment of the slum clearances of the 1930s and after the massive destruction and reconstruction of World War Two.

It is easy to understand why so little of Exeter's historic cityscape made it into the 21st century. Four waves of demolition washed over the city from 1900 to 1980 involving slum clearances, World War Two bombing, post-war rebuilding and post-war redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s. The problem was that each of these phases affected different parts of the city. For example, the areas most affected by the slum clearances were also the areas which escaped the Blitz of 1942 largely unscathed. A more difficult question to answer is exactly how it was allowed to be lost in the first place as Exeter has been subjected to the sort of almost total clearance usually associated either with Haussmann's Paris, Ceausescu's Bucharest or with certain old towns which fell into Communist hands at the end of World War Two.

The map below shows a modern aerial view of Frog Street's former location overlaid onto which is a street map of 1905. It shows a tiny portion of the area which was demolished to build the inner bypass and the Exe Bridges road and river management system. The only surviving remnant of Frog Street today is the relocated house in West Street. Formerly No. 16 Edmund Street, its original location is highlighted in purple. Its present location is highlighted in yellow. The rest of Frog Street sits underneath a twin-lane carriageway. The section of the inner bypass which replaced the ancient street is still called Frog Street. What an insult to its medieval forerunner!!


Saturday, 11 December 2010

Preston Street Demolished

Like Smythen Street, Stepcote Hill, Paul Street, Goldsmith Street, Paris Street, Mary Arches Street, South Street, Sidwell Street, North Street, Guinea Street, Bear Street, John Street, Kalendarhay, George Street, Catherine Street, Pancras Street, Frog Street, Rack Street, Milk Street, Sun Street and much of the High Street, Preston Street is another of Exeter's medieval streets which today shows very few traces of its lengthy history.

Until the end of the 19th century, the old West Quarter was particularly rich in surviving timber-framed domestic houses from the late-Middle Ages to the 17th century, most notably in Coombe Street, Rack Street, Frog Street, Stepcote Hill, Smythen Street and Preston Street as well as in many small courts and alleys. Almost none of them have survive today, mostly the victim of slum clearances between c1880 and the 1930s. By the time the bombs fell in 1942 nearly all of them had already gone.

The West Quarter was a sprawling jumble of alleyways, courtyards, lanes and streets, full of inns, workshops and houses, the commercial and, to a large extent, residential heart of medieval Exeter. By the 1800s, following a process started in the 16th century, the wealthier citizens of Exeter had moved from the West Quarter up into the High Street and, in the late-18th century, to Bedford Circus, Southernhay and the suburbs beyond the city walls at St Leonard's and Pennsylvania. In the 19th century the West Quarter had become a slum comprising dozens of rotting tenements, many of which had been carved out of what were once the dwellings of some of Exeter's wealthiest medieval and Tudor citizens. The poor lived in the cast off houses of the rich.

The image right shows Preston Street as it appears on Caleb Hedgeland's wooden model of Exeter. The model was built between 1817 and 1824 but depicts the city as it was in 1769.

All of the houses which made up Preston Street are highlighted in red. Up until the mid 19th century most of the street consisted of timber-framed frontages dating from the 15th to the 17th centuries.

It was a narrow, straggling street, one of the longest in the medieval city, starting at its junction with West Street in the west and exiting into South Street. (Although included in the highlighted properties, the upper quarter of the street was known as Billiter Lane, later Sun Street, and was eventually regarded as a street in its own right. More information about Sun Street can be found here.) Even if there is no trace of its antiquity today, Preston Street is ancient, probably dating to the 9th century and the time of Alfred the Great.

The name of the street itself is self-explanatory being simply "the street of the priests". Hoskins cites the name as being as early as the reign of Henry II in the mid-to-late 12th century. He goes on to suggest that, because there were no parishes of the sort which are familiar today, the priests of Exeter's numerous churches and chapels congregated in one area, much like the blacksmiths did in Smythen Street and the milk sellers in Milk Street. This theory is borne out by George Oliver in his 'History of Exeter' in which he quotes a lease of 1296 which mentions Prustene-Street or Vicus Presbyterorum (literally, "the street of priests").

The image left, a detail from Hedgeland's model, shows the Grendon Almshouses on Preston Street, also known as the 'Ten Cells'. Founded c1404, they were demolished in 1878. By the late-13th century Exeter had acquired a network of parishes and the priests would've lived within each parish, but clearly the name had stuck. Over 800 years later it is still called Preston Street. It is continuity like this which makes living in a historic city so enjoyable, although unfortunately in Exeter the street names are frequently the only historic element of the townscape that still survive.

Preston Street fell within the huge ecclesiastical parish boundary of St Mary Major, and a number of interesting properties once stood on the street including the Grendon Almshouses, endowed by Simon Grendon at the beginning of the 15th century. The Dolphin inn was located on the corner of Preston Street with Market Street. The Dolphin was an ancient tavern once owned by the Earls of Devonshire and the Guild of the Merchant Adventurers. It dated to before the 16th century but, according to Dymond writing in 1880, it had been significantly rebuilt and was later destroyed in 1942. Another inn of great historical interest was the Mermaid, accessed from Preston Street. Dymond states that, as an inn, it was almost the equal of the New Inn on the High Street in terms of its importance. It was a sprawling, rambling building. Features inside included a large oak staircase with a carved handrail and a huge room, 56ft by 17ft, frequently used as an assembly room in the 19th century, which had an arched and moulded ceiling, "enriched with gold and colour", and a stone chimneypiece dated 1632, emblazoned with the arms of the Shapleigh and Slanning families. It had been completely demolished by 1880. The Mermaid inn was described T.J. Toce as "the house of Tudor days and personalities, down to recent times, and a noble and old building. The destruction and wrecking of its goodly timbers was a grievous loss to Exeter".

Further down, on the corner of Preston Street and King Street, was the so-called 'Norman House' right © Devon County Council. The building was spared during the slum clearances of the early 20th century and restored, although the exact history of the property remains unclear. It was damaged in 1942 and subsequently destroyed during the post-war reconstruction. It's a bitter truth that of the very small number of buildings on Preston Street which were affected during the Exeter Blitz one of them should've been the street's oldest and most historically significant surviving structure.

The photograph at the top of this post was taken c1900 looking down Preston Street from the junction with Rack Street. Apart from the fine pair of gabled house on the left, which possibly dated to the 16th century, of particular interest is the paved street with its central gutter. Everything shown in the photo, including the street surface, no longer survives. An even finer pair of houses from c1600 existed in the street prior to the slum clearances. They were built on four floors with pitched roofs and small windows set into the gable end (a wonderful photograph of them can be seen in Peter Thomas's book 'Exeter's West Quarter and Adjacent Areas')

A medical officer's report from 1865 stated that "In Preston Street I visited a house of six rooms, each let to a separate tenant. There were in all 11 adults and 20 children, the largest of these families being 2 adults and their 5 children, who thus had only one upstairs room for all their necessities". In 1866, during an epidemic of cholera, the residents of Preston Street were described as dying "like sheep". Another contemporary report stated that "the disease raged very severely in Preston-Street, where 17 of the deaths occurred, two or three in a day". Regarded as unsafe and unhealthy, much of the street was consequently cleared of its buildings between c1880 and the 1930s. The old timber-framed houses were demolished and the street itself was dug up and massively widened.

Fragments of historical interest did linger on into the 1970s. The Sawyers Arms was an inn which appeared to be two timber-framed houses from c1700. It was demolished in 1970s. No. 15 Preston Street left was another fragment. It was granted Grade II listed status in 1974. Dating to c1570, No. 15 was a small timber-framed house built on three floors with an oversailing top storey. It really was almost the last of its kind, not only in Preston Street but in the entire West Quarter. Only Nos. 5 & 7 West Street and the house formerly known as No. 16 Edmund Street now remain. No. 15 Preston Street was demolished without record by the city council soon after it had been listed.

The only buildings of any age which survive on Preston Street today are a small cul-de-sac of late-Victorian terrace houses called Grendon Buildings (built on the site of the almshouses which were demolished in 1878), a couple of red-brick late-19th century warehouses (one of which houses the Spacex art gallery) and a dull red-brick Victorian school. All the rest is either semi-detached, two-storey houses from the 1930s or post-war blocks of flats and modern terraces. As happened so often in Exeter, over the course of the 20th century nearly everything which remained of historical or architectural interest in Preston Street was simply obliterated. The street today, shown below, is sterile, utilitarian and drab, and it would fit in perfectly well in an outlying suburb in any city in England. To find it in one of Exeter's most historically important areas is depressing. Since the 1960s, instead of opening into West Street and the city wall, Preston Street now ends abruptly at the four-lane inner bypass.


Sunday, 5 December 2010

St Stephen's Church, High Street

This church has diced with death so many times that it's remarkable that it even still exists. Much time and effort has gone into renovating it over the last few years by an umbrella group of local charities working under the name of the St Stephen's Project, and the building itself has Grade II* listed status.

It has admittedly been considerably altered and rebuilt since the Middle Ages and it is now perhaps underwhelming but its survival is a testament to determination in the face of often powerful opposition.

Unfortunately the church itself is now surrounded by insipid post-war rebuilding and redevelopment and totally lacks any visual context within a wider historical cityscape. Anyway, of Exeter's many medieval parish churches which once existed inside the walled city only six remain, and this is one of them.

The church dates back to before the Conquest and is mentioned in Domesday in 1086 at which point it was in the possession of William Warelwast, Bishop of Exeter and a nephew of William the Conqueror. Along with the gift of St Stephen's went several houses with high rents which together became known as St Stephen's Fee, a nice little earner for the incumbent bishop and one which Warelwast, at least, believed entitled him to a seat in Parliament. The Saxon church was rebuilt soon after the Conquest, perhaps as early as the 1080s at the same time as the new Norman cathedral was being constructed, and for centuries it was believed that nothing survived of the Norman St Stephen's.

The image above is a 1905 map of the city overlaid onto a modern aerial view of the same area. It shows the properties within the parish boundary of St Stephen's. The parish boundary extended across the High Street and included part of Gandy Street in the north and part of St Martin's Lane in the west. It also shows the extent of demolition in the area since 1905. All the areas highlighted in red have been demolished since 1905, a combination of bomb damage in 1942 and post-war redevelopment. The only properties within the parish that pre-date 1905, including the church itself, are highlighted in purple.

The church was possibly rebuilt again in the 15th century, along with many of Exeter's other parish churches, but after the execution of Charles I and the period of the Interregnum the number of parishes in the city was reduced to just four and St Stephen's, like many others, was auctioned off to the highest bidder. The church, "with cellar below", was sold for £250 to Toby Allen who used the cellar as a stable. The church fell into a severe state of ruin, the tower being partially demolished but, after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the church was reclaimed by the parish and work began on its reconstruction. Jenkins relates the contents of a Will signed by a George Potter Esq. on 04 March 1662 in which Potter bequeaths the then enormous sum of £500 "towards the new building of St Stephen's". Work appears to have been completed by 1664 and that is from when most of the present exterior dates.

The present building has an embattled tower and parapet typical of many of Exeter's parish churches. The tower has an exterior staircase surmounted by a little spire with a weathervane on top. The soft Heavitree breccia that was once used throughout the city has proved to be a problem in the preservation of nearly all the buildings which were constructed from it. At the medieval church of St Mary Arches the solution was to coat the entire facade with concrete.

At St Stephen's, as has been done at nearby St Martin's, the tower has instead been coated with a substance that protects the existing stonework. It's a pity that the salmon-pink colouring is so vivid. A similar problem affects the new render on the parapet which runs along the top of the north wall.

Jenkins visited the church in the early 19th century and described it as a "handsome Gothic building, consisting of a nave, one aisle, a chancel and a long gallery: it is light, roomy, well-seated and kept in good repair". He continues, "the chancel is erected on an arch, which crosses the adjoining lane, called St Stephen's Bow". At some point in its medieval past the church clearly needed to expand but was restricted by the presence of surrounding buildings. Therefore the easiest way to do so was by constructing out above the top of the "adjoining lane", little more than an alleyway known in the 19th century as Stephen Street. Stephen Street ran down the side of the church connecting the High Street with Catherine Street. The arch allowed the continued use of the narrow street while providing St Stephen's with extra floor space. Originally this small room was a side chapel dedicated to St John the Evangelist and was only used as a chancel after the Reformation. This feature, medieval in origin but much-restored after 1942, is still present today above left. An almost identical arch existed at St John's church in Fore Street. Known as St John's Bow it was demolished in 1863 (the rest of St John's followed suit in 1937).

In 1826 St Stephen's underwent a number of radical modifications, and it was during these works that a remarkable discovery was made. As workmen excavated near the eastern end they happened upon the crypt of the Norman church. Two round limestone columns were discovered in situ both just over five feet high, both with decorated capitals as well as some arches from a vaulted ceiling. The columns are Norman and of great historical importance as their survival makes them some of the oldest standing masonry in Exeter. Clearly the crypt was part of the "cellar" mentioned when the church was auctioned off in 1658 and which was then covered over again during the post-Restoration reconstruction. The image above right © Devon County Council shows a watercolour sketch that was done at the time of the crypt's rediscovery in 1826.

The crypt was resealed in the 1820s without further investigation. According to the St Stephen Project website, the crypt has been entered twice since then, once in 1932 and again in 1972. In 1932 it was reported that the crypt was full of coffins but in 1972 only one seems to have been left, dating from the 1600s. The crypt was resealed once again in 1972 but in August 2011 the crypt was once more partially excavated. Archaeologists working at the church uncovered the capitals of the two columns buried in back-filled rubble. There are only two known Saxon crypts in the whole of Devon. One is at Sidbury and the other is under the church of St Stephen on Exeter's High Street. There would've been approximately 20 such columns supporting the crypt's vaulted roof. It's not known what else might survive. Unfortunately fears that a full excavation might jeopardise the structure of the church has resulted in the early-12th century columns being reburied and there are no plans to reveal them again.

Unfortunately the modifications of the 1820s also removed almost all traces of any surviving antiquity still remaining above ground in the interior. Slender neo-Gothic pillars left were added along with some skylights and an octagonal font. The "long gallery" mentioned by Jenkins was removed in 1895. In 1894 the church was threatened with total demolition. A letter from Mr J Newnham, an architect, which appeared in Trewman's 'Exeter Flying Post' on 09 June that year was justifiably angry: "[St Stephen's] destruction would not only be vandalism but sacrilege. It is a historic building. It is a picturesque feature in the High Street. The spot is hallowed ground, and has been occupied by a church for at least 700 years. We have no right to destroy it". The letter continues: "That it is in a delapidated condition is no excuse for its wanton destruction" (although this has been the perennial excuse often used by the city council).

And then, warming to his theme, Newnham launches into an attack on demolition in Exeter generally: "The havoc wrought among the ancient buildings of Exeter during the last century or so has been appalling. We have lost our city and close gates. The treasury has gone, so has the old Grammar school [St John's Hospital School]. The churches of St George and St Kerrian have been destroyed. St John's Bow has ceased to exist. Much of the Castle and College of the Vicars Choral has been swept away...yet Exonians love to call historic Exeter 'that ancient and loyal city!' We have lost so much that we cannot afford to lose any more." If Newnham thought that the 19th century had been destructive then I can only imagine what he would've made of the impact of the 20th century on Exeter's historical cityscape. Anyway, the church was reprieved.

Somehow the church managed to escape complete destruction during the devastating air raid of 04 May 1942. The building itself was moderately damaged. A fire in the tower caused the three bells to fall to the floor, the roof was damaged, the stain-glass windows were all blown out and St Stephen's Bow was completely gutted. But it escaped comparatively lightly as the New Inn, which stood to the immediate left of the church was totally destroyed as was part of Colson's department store to the right. The photograph above right © Express & Echo shows firefighters amongst the smouldering ruins of the High Street with St Stephen's highlighted in red. One of the canted bay windows of No. 229 is just visible to the far left.

St Stephen's was one of the tiny handful of Exeter's historic buildings repaired after 1942. 30 years later, with congregations diminishing, all the Victorian fittings were removed to allow for a more flexible use of the space. Amongst the surviving items of historical interest are some of the wall memorials. There's a memorial to the above-mentioned George Potter who died on 26 November 1662 and who was buried in the church his money had helped to reconstruct. Of particular interest is another wall monument left from the late-17th century commemorating James Rodd of Bedford House. James Rodd was married to the daughter of John Bampfylde of Poltimore House, also the owner of Bampfylde House in Exeter, and therefore provides a link between what were two of the finest Tudor houses the city ever had: Bedford House and Bampfylde House.


Saturday, 4 December 2010

No. 67, South Street

Along with Nos. 41 & 42 in the High Street, this is the only surviving twin-gabled timber-framed house in the entire city which has retained both its original facade and significant portions of its interior. It is actually later in date than the example in the High Street. Nos. 41 & 42 are from the 1560s, but No. 67 in South Street is probably from c1600 or slightly later.

It sits in South Street as part of a small fragment of pre-1942 buildings which managed to escape both the destruction of war-time bombing and the demolition of post-war redevelopment. Unfortunately the same can't be said of the rest of South Street, once one of Exeter's four main thoroughfares. Today it's mostly insipid flat-roofed, brown-brick post-war shacks, its southern end demolished in the 1960s to build a four-lane bypass.

No. 67 is built on three floors. The rear wall has been completely rebuilt in modern brick and the ground floor gutted for retail space. Despite these alterations, No. 67 is important primarily for the preservation of its remaining interiors. Unlike many twin-gabled timber-framed properties which were once in Exeter, No. 67 was built as a single large house and not as a matching pair. The most impressive feature externally is undoubtedly the magnificent continuous 16-light window which stretches across the whole of the first floor. This would've lit a large first-floor hall. Two oriel windows exist on the second floor supported on brackets. The interior contains a two-flight 17th century staircase, some decorated beamed ceilings, a large fireplace on the ground floor with a massive oak lintel and other fireplaces in the upstairs rooms. There is also a fine and unusual early-17th century plasterwork ceiling decorated with lilies, tulips and pomegranates which still exists in the hall More information about this ceiling can be found here.

Admittedly, perhaps more impressive timber-framed buildings in Exeter were pulled down during the 20th century for slum clearances and road-widening, but No. 67 fully deserves its Grade II* listed status as a structure of special interest. It's one of my favourite buildings in the city and such a rare survival. No. 67 was a gallery and a shop but it has recently closed and is now a letting agency. The problem is that no-one ever goes down as far as No. 67 South Street unless they really have to.

Unfortunately, and this is a criticism which is often levelled at Exeter's surviving historical buildings, it is frequently difficult to appreciate them within a wider historical urban landscape. This is particularly true of No. 67 South Street. To the left is the remaining stump of the street's historical buildings, including the White Hart inn, but to the right is the vast tract of post-war South Street. The photograph below shows one gable end of No. 67 to the far left but almost adjacent is the horrendous Concord House and beyond that the majority of South Street stretches away into post-war blandness. Still, it does show how close the property came to destruction during the bombing raid of 04 May 1942.

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