Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Exeter Walls Walk

Wall North of South Gate

I have long been fascinated by city walls and an opportunity arose for me to explore the walls surrounding Exeter while my wife was otherwise engaged during our trip to Devon.  The walls around the city of Exeter are surprisingly complete with nearly 70% still standing.  You could be forgiven for missing them though as the modern city has completely enveloped them and the central business district has spilled out beyond the original confines.  Apparently even more of the wall survived into the 20th Century but significant sections were removed to enable modernisation and ring roads to be built.  Now though Exeter seems to have rediscovered its love for the wall and a walk around the remaining sections has been laid out, complete with interpretation boards.  This is the walk that I completed although not in the official order of the boards.

Watch Tower

I started actually at the final board as this was the one that I found first.  I hadn’t actually set out to do the walk but faced with some time to spare and an invitation like this how could I resist?  The final board (number 8) is at the South Gate and I approached this from the Yaroslavl Bridge, which connects two parts of the wall removed to make way for the inner ring road in 1961.  It seems amazing to me that a historical structure that has been around for several hundred years could have been vandalised in this way.  Attitudes were different back in the 1960s and progress and a desire to regenerate the city after the devastation of World War 2.

Decorative Bridge

Just along from the bridge and missing section of wall would have been the South Gate.  By all accounts this was the most impressive of all the gates but now you will need your imagination to ‘see’ it for the whole structure has been obliterated.  This was demolished in 1819, presumably for something as mundane as widening the road into the city.  The only clues as to its appearance are on old drawings and maps pointing to how impressive it must once have been.  For a good many years it acted as the local clink but the authorities moved it during the early 1800s after acknowledging the inhuman conditions in which they were keeping prisoners.


Immediately to the north of the South Gate is a stretch of wall that is pretty complete and the path runs alongside it for some distance.  Unlike walls in other cities it isn’t possible to walk along the top of the wall in Exeter, which is a shame.  However, what it does do is allow the walker to look closely at the structure of the wall and on this lengthy section it has clearly been maintained on many occasions for there are repair patches all the way along.  Apparently some of these repairs were effected as long ago as the English Civil War when the wall took quite a beating.  This is now a quiet section away from the hullaballoo of the city and only ends when a road leading to the cathedral cuts across it.  I don’t think there was a gate at this location.

Cathedral Precinct

I took the opportunity to go and have a closer look at the cathedral while the opportunity arose.  This is surely one of the finest mediaeval cathedrals in the UK and its precinct was thronged with people enjoying picnic lunches on the lawns outside and drinks and lunches in surrounding pubs and cafes.  Given that it was such a beautiful day it wasn’t surprising to see it so popular.  Sadly there wasn’t time to look around inside on this occasion but I shall be sure to when I come for another visit.

I returned to the wall and continued around to what would have once been the East Gate.  Some of the wall is in good shape, other sections are significantly denuded while the modern city looks on.  Fortunately what is left appears to be well looked after along this part but I couldn’t help feeling that it was a bit after the horse had bolted.  Eventually the wall ran out by some of the big modern stores that have been built in this part of the city centre.  I had to walk around them in order to find traces of the walls again.  The official start of the trail is here.
War Memorial

The wall leaves the bustling city shortly after to continue on a course through Northernhay Gardens.  This is a delightful oasis and a very popular place for people to enjoy the sunshine.  The gardens looked resplendent with the planting schemes devised by the Council’s Parks Department and they are to be congratulated for putting on such a colourful show.  The gardens are overseen by Exeter Castle, a stronghold that has its roots in the original Roman Fort built not long after the invasion in 55AD.  This is surely the oldest part of the wall?  In this area is a Norman Gatehouse; not part of the original wall but worth a look nevertheless for it shows that the wall had new relevance when this latest set of invaders took over the country. I also paused to look at the very fine war memorial in the gardens before heading down the slope towards what would have been the North Gate.

It is a great shame that none of the original gates now survive.  I am sure if they could have put in a few more years the preservationists would have got hold of them and maintained at least one for posterity.  The North Gate and the West Gate were a lot less decorative than the first two I passed but what the wall lacked in decoration was perhaps surpassed by the views across the valley outside.  Although some of the walk along the wall was through some parking areas it soon improved as it reached the park and old housing of Bartholomew Street.  This is a delightful corner of the city centre, largely away from the horrific traffic that blights a lot of the county town of Devon. 

Park Lodge

I lingered in the park awhile trying to imagine the views that Parliamentarian Forces would have seen from the now torn down Snayle Tower.  I wonder what they would make of the retail parks and ring roads of today’s scene?  Just beyond here is the site of the West Gate, once a very busy entrance for the woollen trade coming to market but demolished in 1815 to widen the road.  The road is now a rather brutal interloper on the scene, being very wide and busy at this point.

Yaroslavl Bridge

I was almost back to where I began at the car park but there was time for one more gate – the Water Gate (not associated with any scandal that I am aware of!).  This wasn’t part of the original defensive wall structure but was added in the 16th Century to enable further access to textiles from the nearby River Exe.  As with all the others imagination is now needed to get any idea about what the gate would have looked like.

Norman Tower

This marked the end of the walk.  As with many city walls walks it is of modest length and can easily be completed in a couple of hours.  I only just had time to complete it myself and so I didn’t get as much time as I would have liked to inspect all the associated structures.  Despite its 20th Century destruction in places the remains are fascinating and allows the walker to see beyond the glass and metal of the modern buildings to a different time in Exeter.  For that reason this is a walk to be commended.  Leaflets are available at the tourist office or you can obtain an online version.