A PERSONAL VIEW FROM A FOUNDER MEMBER ON OUR NEWSLETTER`S 100TH ANNIVERSARY
Born in 1945 meant that the first impressions I had of Exeter as my home town was of streets around the centre being largely devoid of any buildings. “Waste ground” my parents would say, not wishing to explain the episodes of war that had caused such dereliction. These bombed sites had been adopted as unofficial car parks, not that many people had cars in those days, so traffic jams were yet to come.
Mother shopped at the International Stores in Goldsmith Street, a narrow thoroughfare that ran been High Street and Paul Street, on one side of which were a flight of steps up into the Higher Market which ran through to Queen Street. The structure of the market is still there today, into which lock-up shops were added during the Golden Heart redevelopment of the late ‘sixties. Mum knew the Manager of the International and we always seemed to have an extended visit there, to catch up on any gossip. Afterwards a stroll through the Market would see me rummaging through second-hand books and magazines and I well remember the excitement when a bundle of Meccano Magazines were discovered, going for a modest sum. I had been very lucky in having a large Meccano set handed down from an uncle, so constructing mechanical things that worked had an early appeal, strengthened by ideas read in those magazines. As I became more proficient and the models more complicated, I needed extra parts. These could only be obtained from the official Meccano agent in Exeter – Webbers Sports in the High Street, roughly where Dorothy Perkins is now. Later on Currys took over the agency and the lady who served me there always took an interest in what the next lot of parts would be needed for.
Each year my younger sister and I would go to the Navana Studios to have our picture taken. One would have to sit on a chair and try to make 48 different facial expressions as the man under the black cloth said “Next”. This process was called Polyphoto and they emerged on a large contact strip. My parents would then choose the least disgusting one and have an enlargement made from it. The studios were in part of Bobby’s store on Fore Street hill, roughly opposite The Mint. Having reached a certain age it suddenly occurred to me that I must have come from somewhere, so I asked Mum where it was. School chums had been born under gooseberry bushes, or a Stork had brought them, but she said I had come from Bobby’s. This is where all boys called Bob came from, so I was told, to save any parental embarrassment .... until I asked where my sister had come from!
The start of a new school year often meant new uniform. We would go to Thomas Moore & Wonnacott on the corner of Market Street and Fore Street. The building is still there, now displaying wedding dresses. Further up the ruins of Lower Market (currently the site of the Corn Exchange), built in the Italianate style, stood like the Temple of Artemis. Within these columns, open to the sky, I recall an exhibition being held to celebrate the armed forces.
If the right size jumper hadn’t been found at Thomas Moore, then across the road to Cornish’s on the corner of North Street and Fore Street, we would go. This narrow building is another survivor and with its turret and flag pole can be best admired from South Street. Internally it comprised a basement and four floors, access to which was by lift. They employed the same man to operate this device, who spent all day for several years going up and down repeating at every level what exciting things could be purchased there, except his inflection never changed. He was the epitome of a perfect English gentleman, well-spoken, smartly dressed with grey dust coat and sporting a neat moustache. Cornish’s would not be same without him. I figured out that everything he wore must have been bought in that store on discount.
Sometime during the ‘fifties there was a large trade exhibition in Sidwell Street. Using waste ground on both sides of the street, one could walk across a temporary bridge from one side to the other. My Dad worked for the gas company, yet we had no gas in the house, so Mum cooked by electric. At the exhibition we bumped into some neighbours of ours seriously inspecting a gas cooker. He worked for the electricity board! My attention, however, was drawn to something else. On the north side of Sidwell Street stood the fuselage of an air liner. One could ascend steps at the rear and walk along inside it towards the front exit. You could even peer into the cockpit, and to a very small boy this was far more interesting than the hostess ushering you through!
For much of the late ‘forties and early ‘fifties Exeter underwent post war rebuilding. New shops populated upper High Street, set back to a new building line, creating a street wide enough to have dual carriageway. Talk at the time suggested this would continue right through by demolishing all the old buildings, but of course that thankfully didn’t happen. Currys, previously mentioned, was the first shop set back at the new line but on the other side Bedford Street was also getting a new look. Remnants of the old Circus was pulled down and a new Post Office emerged from the rubble. A new shopping mall called Princesshay was opened by our present Queen on 21st October 1949, when still a Princess, and a little seating area contained a statue, rescued after the bombing, of a blue gowned school boy from the St John’s Hospital School which had once stood on the site.
My maternal grandfather lived with us and he and I would often take off for long walks along the canal footpath as far as Turf, though on one occasion we reached Powderham. Being of seafaring stock, he was drawn to anything afloat up to the City’s busy basin where coal was unloaded for the gas works and timber from Scandinavia. Vessels named Frank M, Fred Everard and Ben Johnson were frequent visitors, the latter bringing petroleum spirit to the National Benzole storage tanks from the Fawley refinery in Hampshire. On other occasions we would go train spotting in Northernhay Gardens. Here some seats faced the prison but in the valley below was Central Station, in those days a hive of activity with lots of shunting going on because, it seemed, Southern trains didn’t go down the bank to Great Western St Davids. For 1d (old penny) one could sit on the platform to get a closer look and say “Hello” to the Golden Retriever dog, strolling up and down the platform with a collecting box strapped to its back. Granddad would drop some coins in for the railway workers’ benevolent fund.
Our family doctor had a surgery in Barnfield Road, in a house called The Shrubbery. Visiting there one day the prescription was accompanied by a note saying this lovely old house was going to be pulled down to make way for a new road. The surgery would be moved to a new house close by, on the corner of Western Way, the dual carriageway inner relief road that grew no larger than a two-way road from the top of Sidwell Street to Magdalen Road, with a further piece extending from the top of Holloway Street to Exe Bridge. This project reached completion by the early ‘seventies and can probably claim to be one that transformed Exeter’s transport scene more than any other. It involved the demolition of the 1905 Exe Bridge after two new bridges had been built either side of it. These had slender supports for a wider span than the old bridge which had impeded the flow of water and had caused major flooding in Okehampton Street a few years earlier. Western Way also removed the twists and turns of Combe Street and Commercial Road which at the same time caused the careful move of the Tudor House, now repositioned at the bottom of West Street. At the Paris Street junction a new roundabout cut out the course it once took down to The Triangle (Summerlands) over which a new office block called Clarenden House was constructed.
Paris Street itself had also been realigned at the top end to form a cross roads with New North Road. This had closed off the entrance to Southernhay to no more than a pedestrian precinct with an entrance to the underground passages. A lot of Paris Street had been bombed both sides and for many years nearby Dix’s Field remained a gaunt reminder of the devastation of war, bearing the skeletal remains of town houses which wouldn’t be rebuilt until much later. A solitary church, the Elim Pentecostal, had escaped hostilities and for several years was the only building on the bus station side of Paris Street. This was demolished in the early ‘sixties to make way for the new two-tier bus and coach station which opened in July 1964 to replace the three-tier one in Paul Street. Up until then country buses coming in from Plymouth and Torquay came over Exe Bridge, up New Bridge Street, then turned left into Bartholomew Street and on to Paul Street. Those coming from Exmouth used South Street and North Street, in those days two-way. Buses from Sidmouth, Honiton and Cullompton would use New North Road and back up Queen Street to Paul Street, the last section also being used by those from Tiverton and Crediton. All this changed when the bus station moved to much better facilities.
At some impressionable age my Dad and I walked to the bus stop at Butts Road, only to find the bus actually waiting in the turning area by Mowbray Lodge. Dad recognised the driver and we wondered across to speak with him. The next thing I can remember was being hauled aloft into the driver’s cab, rested between him and the steering wheel and then allowed to ‘drive’ the bus onto the bus stop where people were waiting. This journey, all of 30 seconds, must have had a lasting influence on me because for most of my life I have been involved in public transport.
So what makes me proud to be an Exonian? First of all both my parents happened to be born there, though a generation back neither side of my family did so. My roots firmly established, education and employment followed but not before joining the Cubs. There was no Cub Pack in Heavitree to start with, so it was to St Marks I trundled one night a week to the church hall in Manston Road. At one end, high up in a recess on the interior wall, was a large model of a ship’s hull. I wonder what the significance of that was? Later a Pack was formed at Heavitree and the ritual of DYB DYB DYB and DOB DOB DOB continued in a hut at Wingfield Park. Later I moved up to Scouts and being of the right strength and stature was nominated to be the standard bearer at ceremonial parades. Marching through the High Street to the Cathedral, supporting the banner, was certainly a privilege.
For a while I sang in Heavitree Church choir at the time Revd Royle was there and Alec Harrod was organist. He was good at the keyboard, stop registration and improvisation, but dynamics usually erred towards forte or fortissimo all the time. From my stall I could look across and see the Swell Box shutters moving wide open, then wondered how that was connected to the remote console where Mr Harrod sat. Little did I know that fifty years later I would actually work on that organ when my career took a change to things musical. The choir was one of a few selected to cover Evensong in the Cathedral and this was regarded as a special treat. The awe and majesty of the building somehow brought out the ability to reach those high notes, in my case impossible at any smaller house of God.
With the passage of time things continue to change. Belonging to a Society encouraging the respect and appreciation of Exeter’s important history reinforces nostalgia and a desire to discover more about our local past. My greatest fear is that Exeter, like so many other towns and cities, is rapidly losing its identity, particularly in the retail sector as National chains dominate the High Street. You could be in Cardiff, Bristol, Plymouth or Reading. So much looks the same but Exeter’s gem, the ancient Guildhall, is one thing that no other town has in quite the same situation.