"Architecture above the Eyeline in Central Exeter"
A Guided Tour by Malcolm Grigorey
We met on Cathedral Green and, walking forward to the junction, gazed up at two items on the roof of Marks & Spencer: a statue and cupola, both removed when the original building was condemned as unsafe and had to be demolished in 1980. The statue of the young Queen Victoria was replaced in fibreglass, moulded from the original, and the whole, typically Georgian, side wall facing Queen Street was rebuilt from precast concrete sections moulded from the original design. The Cupola was remounted on the new corner structure.
Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, but architectural fashions do not change overnight and the Georgian style continued to dominate. However, the growing fashion for travelling to Italy meant that the Victorian period saw styles less associated with Greece and more inspired by, for example, Venetian palaces. This made Queen Street, which became a new thoroughfare based on ambitious 1835 plans, a remarkable treasure house of architectural styles.
We noted the building on the corner of Little Queen Street which had been designed as a hotel and called, surprise-surprise, ”Queens Hotel”. Across the road was the beautiful Georgian edifice known then as the “Higher Market”, constructed (for cleanliness ) shortly after the cholera epidemic which claimed 440 people in just 2 months in 1832. Lower Market (now the Corn Exchange) and Higher Market were built by Charles Fowler following a competition. Lower Market was demolished after severe bomb damage in 1942, but Higher Market with open space inside for stalls selling meat , fish, bread and vegetables in clean conditions continued until 1970 when the market was closed and the building altered to join it to the Guildhall Shopping Centre. A quick look at the rear of the market showed the downhill slope away to the west where, before the cholera outbreak, housing had been crammed together with little regard to hygiene for an ever growing population!
Returning to Queen Street we faced the building once known as the “Central Post Office” with its magnificent carved façade. Walking through the building we reached charming Gandy Street and noted the now-filled “open ditch” down the centre of this area of what were once tanneries. This process can be very unpleasant and the deep drain down the middle of the street could once have been choked with putrefying flesh and blood - very smelly! We passed down narrow lanes between old buildings showing what the density of buildings must have been like, and admired the 1926 memorial window to Right Worshipful Provincial Grand Master for Devonshire, George Christopher Davie, another item most of us had never noticed before.
The Phoenix building was erected by the University College of the South West who moved there from the Royal Albert Memorial Building (the RAMM). A photograph was shown of the original hall in the RAMM next door where the University College had started. The Phoenix showed itself to be surprisingly large and spacious when viewed from the left and was certainly far grander than most of us had previously realised.
Next we went on to the RAMM which, though its external architecture is well known to all of us, is still worthy of further examination and we also learnt that this building marked the end of the old walled city and the beginning of the Victorian expansion north west.
At the Rougemont Hotel we met Karen who showed us the magnificent ballroom, a great meeting place for the rich and famous in Victorian times. The building was constructed over the remains of the original city prison which had previously transferred here when the old Southgate prison had closed. Some basement cells still survive and until recently old manacles still hung on the walls. The prison inmates were moved to the new County Jail in New North Road. This was built in 1853 with a magnificent entranceway. We managed a glimpse of this from Northernhay Gardens. Malcolm then gave a talk on the history of building the hotel and we examined the magnificent stained glass window depicting Richard III’s visit to Exeter on its main staircase (see picture at end of article).
We noted the valley in which we now stood and compared old views of the valley before and after the arrival of the railway. We followed the line of the railway back to Queen Street, noting the low level as it passed below the Queen Street road bridge. This also revealed how the rail line then went down a steep incline to St David’s Station via a tunnel demonstrated with another old photograph. The route was so steep that two engines were needed to pull the returning carriages back up to Queen Street Station (left) for the return run to London!
However, when we returned to Queen Street along the footpath at the back of the building the station building displayed to us its true height and magnificence. From this viewpoint we realised that the 2-storey Queen Street frontage was actually on the third and fourth floors of the building - because the train line ran under Queen Street to the platforms which were considerably below street level.
Our walk ended at the Clock Tower, first passing a magnificent Georgian terrace of houses, now converted to offices, that had, as a result of the cholera epidemic, been built well outside the city of those days. The clock tower’s full name is the “Miles Drinking Fountain and Clock Tower”, named after retired army officer William Miles who was so concerned for the welfare of carriage horses plying the route in
and out of the city that he built a granite water-trough for them. When he died in 1881 his widow expande
d the memorial to her husband and also to mark
Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
Finally, local architect T.A. Andrews replaced her obelisk with this splendidly eccentric monument we see today.ut of Mind" A Guided Tour by Malcolm Grneed to notif