Having only seen glimpses of Exeter from the train on previous trips down to Cornwall, this time I thought I’d stay in Devon’s capital for a short while and take a closer look. With its Roman walls and a medieval Guildhall, this city has a curious mix of architecture, with its chief landmark being a beautiful Norman Cathedral. This was closed (for 3D scanning of all things), so I spent much of the day exploring its shopping precincts instead.
An abundance of post-war architecture gives this otherwise historic city the appearance of a new town like Crawley or Hemel Hempstead. I rightly assumed this was the result of German bombing, but as is so often the case, what the Luftwaffe started, overzealous town planners finished. Exeter City Council demolished much of Exeter’s high street between 1950 and 1980, and stretches of it are now home to unsightly carbuncles such as an insipid brown brick-clad building currently occupied by Sports Direct and Tesco, and a Marks & Spencer whose frontage can be found in the 1986 LEGO catalogue.
The area actually bombed during the Blitz was rebuilt as the Princesshay shopping district. A mix of limestone-coloured concrete and red brick, its multi-paned windows framed by protruding masonry, rounded awnings and embossed crests of former tenants give the area a coherent post-war – new Elizabethan? – feel. And yet, Princesshay also fell victim to the bulldozer when large parts of it were redeveloped in 2005 (somewhat successfully, I should add). For in Exeter as is the case elsewhere, what goes up, must eventually, come down.