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A few weeks ago this page featured Dresden, which was bombed out of sight by the British Royal Air Force in 1945.
Actually, the Brits were getting their own back on the German Luftwaffe for taking some fair-sized chunks out of Exeter three years earlier. The city in the English county of Devon had raised eyebrows in Berlin as one of the UK’s most enchanting and historical cities, and was duly targeted despite having posed no strategic importance in the course of the Second World War.
The dogged Devonians went on to rebuild their city, and notwithstanding a small degree of some rather bland 1960s architecture, have succeeded.
Exeter, which lies on the River Exe, is one of the UK’s most attractive cities in which to live and work, and its proximity to Dartmoor (an Area of Outstanding Beauty), nautical Dartmouth and traditional seaside resorts such as Torquay (the birthplace of Agatha Christie), Sidmouth and Exmouth all make it a particularly British gem.
The University of Exeter is one of the UK’s most prestigious, and the presence of youth helps to give this compact city of 120,000 inhabitants a vibrancy as attractive as that of any of its larger and better-known rivals.
While tourists might be in a tearing rush to drive down the M5 to sample the rugged scenery and resplendent beaches of Cornwall – Devon’s neighbouring county to the south – there’s an array of stately homes, castles, museums and churches within and just outside Exeter to keep the adults entertained after the kids have had their turn at Crealy Great Adventure Parks, in nearby Clyst St Mary.
And let’s not forget the delights of the traditional Devon Cream Tea. That’s a couple of huge scones smeared with strawberry jam and topped with lashings of clotted cream, along with a pot of tea.
My favourite place- Exeter Cathedral, which is unquestionably one of the finest in England. With its towers (built in the Norman era) and built in the Gothic style, this wonderful edifice presides over the city and its benign presence extends to surrounding gardens and a delightful market square. The cathedral’s 90-metre unvaulted ceiling is the largest in the world, and construction began on it in the 12th century. Outside, its splendid facade features sculptures of the English kings Alfred, Athelstan, Canute and William the Conqueror all sitting down, as if they’re about to enjoy a cream tea, which, if you fancy one, they are there to enjoy at a smashing little café underneath a quite wonderful vaulted stone ceiling.
Highlights- Exeter Quayside is about five minutes’ walk down some steps and cobbled lanes from behind the cathedral. Here, old 18th-century warehouses have been converted into an eclectic array of shops, cafes and night spots. This is where Exonians will come to relax after work at the weekend or will simply chill out. The Custom House Visitor Centre lifts the lid on the city’s noble (and less than noble) maritime history and is itself housed in a building that was erected in 1860 on profits made from the city’s wool industry. Despite the Luftwaffe’s best efforts, Exeter held on to Gandy Street, a cobbled thoroughfare steeped in history and where you can find some of the city’s funkiest shops, as well as its grand Georgian crescents and Tudor black-and-white timbered buildings. Rougemont Castle, with its adjoining Northernhay Gardens (the oldest public space in England) is a relaxing place for a walk, and offers an insight into some of the city’s glorious and occasionally grisly past.
Lowlights- I can’t think of any.
Souvenirs- Most of the souvenir shops can be found on the quay but Insideout at the Princesshay shopping mall, in the centre of the city, is a hard place to leave empty-handed.
Getting there- Fly from Muscat to London’s Heathrow. By train, Exeter is about three hours and 20 minutes from London’s Paddington station.
Where to stay- For hotel options, check out Trivago, Expedia, Kayak, Hotels.com, Booking.com and the others. However, for a real Devonian experience there are some delightfully quaint but very comfortable little hotels in nearby Topsham, a little town about four miles from the centre of Exeter. It’s wonderfully atmospheric, and has a maritime history all of its own. Now, it’s a favourite mooring ground for today’s modern yachtsmen.
1. Gaze in wonder at the magnificent Exeter Cathedral
2. Stroll around, chill out and relax at Exeter Quayside
3. Wander the city’s medieval underground passages
4. Take a (free) walking tour with a uniformed city guide
5. Delve into history at Northernhay Gardens around Rougemont Castle