An air of progress and positivity in vibrant Exeter
Becky Sheaves finds out what the city of Exeter has to offer to today’s house hunters.
There's a whole lot of history in Exeter, going right back to the days when the Romans lived here and called the city Isca. Here, you'll find everything architecturally from Roman walls to medieval halls and Regency mansions. Not to mention one of the world's finest Norman cathedrals.
But the historical event that shaped the city most dramatically took place in April 1942. Vast tracts of the city centre were destroyed when Hitler's Luftwaffe attacked Exeter as part of the so-called Baedeker Blitz.
It was an attempt to undermine British morale by flattening the prettiest cities listed in the then-famous Baedeker guidebooks. In just one night 40 acres of central Exeter, beside the High Street and Sidwell Street, were set on fire by incendiary bombs.
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To add to the destruction, many of the bomb-damaged historic buildings – including the beautiful Georgian crescent of Bedford Circus – were torn down in the 1950s without a second thought and replaced by cheap, quick-to-build blocks. As a result, poor Sidwell Street today is what must surely be one of the ugliest stretches of urban architecture in the country.
Indeed, over the following decades, yet more havoc was wreaked on Exeter by the town planners, tearing down the historic shops and buildings around the South Gate to create car-obsessed inner bypasses and soulless office blocks.
So whereas once Exeter could have been described as a beautiful city, it is now fairer to say it is a city with some beautiful buildings. But even so, Exeter has so much to offer. It's the region's largest city, with 118,000 inhabitants and a further 35,000 workers who commute in from outlying villages. It is still easily walkable from end to end of the city centre, with delightful shops, vibrant social activities and some excellent places to eat and drink. Surrounded by lovely countryside, Exeter has three theatres, a pretty quayside area and some very good schools.
There are some terrific houses to be had, too. The Georgian and Victorian properties around St Leonard's on the east side of the city are particularly sought after. Another area to watch out for is Pennsylvania, with a pretty park and handsome period family homes.
The best houses in Exeter have long since passed the million-pound mark and both the property and jobs markets here have weathered the recession in confident style. Not surprisingly, developers have moved in with hi-spec contemporary houses, such as those on Topsham Road by Linden Homes and planned for Old Rydon Lane by Heritage Homes (see page 44 in today's supplement).
In fact, Exeter has long been a prosperous place. Back in the 1700s, writer Celia Fiennes was astonished by the "vast trade" in wool here. "It turns the most money in a week of any town in England," she said.
Today, there is a sense of progress and positivity in the city. Last year John Lewis opened here and business development on the edge of the city towards the airport is also creating many new jobs.
The thriving Princesshay shopping centre opened in 2007 on the site of the dreary 1950s arcade. It can surely only be a matter of time before the worst excesses of the 1950s and 60s are replaced by something altogether more glamorous.