Although half the size of Plymouth, Exeter is the county town of Devon, and was founded at the lowest bridging point on the River Exe. The Romans called it Isca, the wool trade made it rich, and the Germans destroyed much of the city centre on a single night in 1942. Exeter's therefore a mix of old and new, with charm, and a fair amount to see should you ever be in town.[Visit Exeter]
1) See what's left of Britain's earliest hotel
The Assembly Rooms opened on Cathedral Green in 1769, advertising itself the following year as an "hôtel", most probably the first in England. It was renamed the Royal Clarence Hotel after William IV's consort dropped in, hosted concerts by Franz Liszt in 1840, and was taken over by a celebrity chef in 2000. But last October all its history burned away, after a fire in a neighbouring building spread through its timbers and firefighters were unable to douse the flames. When the facade had to be knocked down this proved a complete heritage disaster, although the entrance and porch survive, and the owner has plans to rebuild in identical style. A crane, a demolition team and stacks of scaffolding now despoil this formerly picturesque corner of the Green, although the adjacent tearooms still trade, and the row of medieval buildings alongside look delightfully untouched.
2) Look inside the Cathedral
An Exeter postcode, a date with Evensong or seven pounds fifty gets you inside this unusual Norman building. Because its tower is off-centre the cathedral boasts the longest uninterrupted medieval vaulted ceiling in the world, complete with ribs and compound piers, creating a particularly striking prospect. Also on the list of "stuff to see" is the the astronomical clock, one of not very many in Britain, and the unique minstrels' gallery fronted by twelve instrument-playing angels.
3) Take a free tour with a Red Coat
This is a nice tourist touch which other historic cities might emulate. Twice a day, bar Christmas, red-jacketed tour guides wait outside the west front of the cathedral primed to offer 90 minute walking tours of Exeter. A different pair of tours runs each day of the week, and each is completely free of charge. I didn't join one because I was dashing around elsewhere, but I suspect they're a lot busier in August than in February.
4) Follow one of three self-guided heritage trails
If you don't fancy listening to an expert you can walk round the city centre by yourself following one of a trio of trails (download here, or pick up a leaflet from the Tourist Information Office). One tracks the city walls, still 70% intact, and based on foundations laid by the Romans. Another hunts down numerous medieval buildings, while the third follows the woollen trade, which isn't as tedious as it sounds. You'll know you've stopped in the right place because an information board is provided, and these are rather good in themselves.
5) Go shopping
Exeter has a lot of shops, as befits the largest place for miles. Many of these are in the High Street - a particularly post-war affair dotted with the occasional timber-fronted survivor. But the city's modern pride and joy is Princesshay, a revamped retail quarter completed about 10 years ago, and full of all the favourite brands that Visitors Who Spend Money enjoy. It covers the most heavily firebombed part of town, but a few heritage features have been incorporated, including a chunk of city wall, some almshouse footprints and the statue of a Blue Boy. A second more typical mall off Market Square is unusual for curling round a 13th century sandstone chapel, while all the more interesting independent shops are located on a steep descent down Fore Street.
6) Explore Exeter's Underground Passages This is the best six quid spend in town. When cathedral clergy needed a fresh supply of drinking water in the 14th century they dug a cut and cover tunnel from a well outside the city walls and laid a lead pipe within. Exeter's townsfolk followed suit 150 years later, digging a second tunnel for civic use, and around 80% of the original network survives. Guided tours have been offered since 1933, but the redevelopment of Princesshay allowed for a much-improved visitor experience, and flashlights are no longer required. From the new interpretation centre under the shops (which reveals more about medieval water supply than anyone would generally need to know), groups of up to 15 are led through to watch a video and then kitted out with safety helmets. The helmets are genuinely necessary, because what follows is a guided crocodile through quarter of a mile of very narrow brick-lined tunnels, including a fair bit of crouching and with some definite 'duck' moments. Our jovial guide pointed out pipe supports and sentry positions and former floor levels on the way through, and we wondered how on earth so cramped a facility was ever used as an air raid shelter. On our return (from a point six metres below the King Billy pub) we were offered a choice of routes, the passageway with less than a metre's headroom being taken up only by the most agile in the party. An utterly unique experience, either way.
7) Explore the Guildhall
Exeter's Guildhall juts out into the High Street on four granite pillars, and claims to be the oldest municipal building in England still in regular use, although the existing structure 'only' dates back to 15th century. No longer the centre of city government, receptions and the occasional council meeting are still held here, and the public are welcome to pop in and gawp... so long as the building isn't closed all afternoon for a private tour, meh.
8) Stroll round England's oldest public park
Rougemont Castle once perched at the highest point in town, but was replaced by a courthouse in the 1770s so now only the walls and a Norman gatehouse remain. Don't come for that, come for a stroll in Northernhay Gardens which run in a crescent-shaped sweep around the northern slopes. First opened up to local residents in 1612 this curving park is apparently the oldest public space in England, though now laid out in a more Victorian style with statues, lawns, flowerbeds and a bandstand, plus fine views across the northern suburbs.
9) Take a look round the RAMM
The Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, as it much prefers not to be called, is Exeter's cultural repository, and very much not your typical local museum. All the Devon history stuff is downstairs, in galleries that perhaps focus more on craftspersonship than telling a story, plus another that's heavily geological, plus the obligatory cafe. Upstairs features stuffed Natural History, a series of artefacts from classical cultures and a parade of dusty ethnographic displays from all round the world, like walking through the old Commonwealth Institute or perhaps the Pitt Rivers. Throw in three art galleries, tucked where you least expect, and the RAMM is one meaty portmanteau treasurebox.
10) Head down to the Quay
Exeter used to be an thriving port, linked to the Channel via ship canal, but now very much no longer is. Instead the Quayside has been done up as a heritage quarter, probably more successfully so in the summer months, with pubs and restaurants, watersports and climbing wall, visitor centre and craft market, though it left me somewhat cold.
11) Walk a bridge across the Exe
Only a handful of bridges span the Exe in Exeter, the most recent of which is Millers Crossing, a millennial cable-stay footbridge leading to some playing fields. But the oldest is quite something else, an 800 year-old stone structure that crossed the medieval river, and now lies landlocked amid the ring road, just off the modern realigned channel. Not only can you trot down the grassy banks to walk beneath the arches, but you can also walk across the top (at your own risk, according to a spoilsport council notice), perhaps imagining you're entering the old city with a straggle of livestock following behind. Quite fantastically out of place.
12) Hike up to the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum
To find the main campus of the University of Exeter and its fascinatingly unusual museum, follow the streams of students north out of town, or up the hill from the station. The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum houses tens of thousands items of moving image ephemera, bequeathed eponymously, and displays a crowded selection of these over two floors in The Old Library. Upstairs it's cinema-going and Hollywood stars, from James Bond jigsaws to James Dean ashtrays, while a much larger space downstairs focuses on how cinema came to be. Magic lanterns, panoramas and zoetropes each get their own case, along with early works from Friese-Greene, Lumière and other moving image pioneers. The curator works in an adjacent office, approachably if you want to learn more, as dozens of students on the university's Film Studies course evidently do. And because the museum is embedded in a university library, free public access is available daily, and highly recommended.