Thought holidays to Devon were mostly about seafood and beaches? Think again… it’s time to leave behind the beach towels and flip flops and prepare for a cultural city-break like no other. Exeter might be small, but it is perfectly formed, with world-class museums, excellent food, beautiful new hotels, historic streets, and picturesque waterways
It’s a great feeling to visit one of the UK’s most up-and-coming cities as though you are just slightly ahead of the curve, discovering valuable insights as if somehow sneaking in there just before everyone else. That’s exactly how I felt touring and speaking to the locals on my recent weekend city break to Exeter. You’ve most probably travelled past this beautiful historic city (pre-dating the arrival of the Romans in AD 50!) or passed through it while en-route to Devon and Cornwall, but perhaps dismissed it as your final destination?
Hopefully, my description of time spent in this eco-conscious re-imagined city will encourage you to reconsider this as a wonderful city break with great food, culture and varied attractions for an ideal autumn/winter mini-break. And it would seem I am not alone in my enthusiasm for the city – stylish brands, including glamorous restaurant chain The Ivy and luxury hotel chain IHG, moving into the city too.
Opposite the Cathedral overlooking the green, The Ivy has just opened following a refurbishment to Exeter’s iconic City Bank as the newest and first of its kind in Devon and Cornwall. Nearby, luxury hotel brand IHG has announced plans to open Hotel Indigo Exeter, complete with an urban spa and rooftop bar and lounge, housed in the former House of Fraser department store on the city’s High Street (opposite The White Company store).
It is also home to Royal Clarence Hotel, described as England’s oldest hotel. Located in Cathedral Yard, sadly this Grade-II listed, 53-bedroom hotel was severely damaged in a fire just over five years ago – the property has since been under the ownership of Andrew Brownsword Hotels and now James Brent of South West Lifestyle Brands, who are said to be undertaking restoration work to open a 74 bedroom hotel with reconstructed façades.
Exeter is where Chris Martin from Coldplay was born, attending the city’s oldest school, Exeter Cathedral School while finding his passion for music, and where Harry Potter author JK Rowling went to University – one of the UK’s elite Russell Group universities. Rugby fans will of course know all about the famous Exeter Chiefs, and might want to arrange a trip around the 25 September this year, to watch them take on Northampton Saints in an English Premiership fixture. Foodies will love the annual Exeter Festival of South West Food & Drink, a real highlight in the year, although sadly postponed in 2021 due to the pandemic plans to be back on next spring.
Whether visiting for the festive season (Exeter Cathedral Christmas Market will be running 18 November – Saturday 18 December) or as a city break avoiding the crowded coastlines during the summer, Exeter is certain not to disappoint – here are some of the highlights.
Exeter is compact, with the Cathedral and green in the heart of the city, shops from the popular big names in the neighbouring High Street and Princesshay, the remains of the Medieval city walls, originally built by the Romans, and pretty cobbled streets, leading to the independent boutiques and trendy coffee shops in and around Gandy Street and the West Quarter.
Our visit coincided with the Cathedral restarting their rooftop guided tours, and Graham our steward couldn’t have been a better tour host. The views over the city are incredible, but equally the behind-the-scenes architecture – from the flying buttress bridging to the wooden infrastructure inside the longest uninterrupted vaulted medieval ceiling in Europe – was fascinating.
We wandered across to the Cathedral Yard, where we enjoyed an alfresco lunch with views of the Cathedral at Eat on the Green. Previously this independently owned restaurant (by local Ben Mangan) was called Tea on the Green, but as there is much more to his impressive, locally sourced menu than the previous name suggests (though don’t worry, Devon Cream Teas are still available!) the name change was a good move.
It was a pleasure to meet Ben, a proud father of twins who also attended Exeter Cathedral School. He told us how his meat comes from the local Hele Farm (so close you can see it from the upstairs window), his beers and ciders from Devon and Cornwall brewers – and how pleased he was that we were highlighting Exeter. “It really doesn’t get enough recognition, and is such a brilliant city. There’s a great atmosphere and sense of community here in Exeter”, something he put down to the many successful independent businesses, and the acceptance and togetherness of students and locals living and thriving together.
Following a delicious Waldorf salad and Passion Fruit smoothie, it was time to say a warm farewell and continue with our sightseeing adventures. Just a short walk away to the Civic Centre and we hired ‘on-demand’ e-bikes (co-bikes.co.uk) – a game-changer for cities like Exeter to attract tourists. For curious travellers with a desire for self-guided exploration, electric bike hire is just brilliant – especially in Exeter where there are quite a few hills!
The app is super easy to use, you unlock your bike with a code sent to your phone, pay by the hour and you don’t even have to return the bike to the station you collect it from – there are stops across the city to include at the two central train stations (Exeter St David’s and Exeter Central), Topsham and across the road from Exeter Works in Dix’s Field. It has also been made as safe as possible with many cycle lanes, signage and traffic lights for cyclists throughout the city – which is not too big and daunting to navigate.
We spent a lovely afternoon in Topsham, a beautiful estuary town on the River Exe, with a rich maritime history. Visit Topsham Museum, housed in an elegant 17th-century Dutch-style merchant house, to find out more about the history of the town, or enjoy a glass of wine at one of the pubs overlooking the boats and paddleboarders before dinner, or watch the sunset from the famous Goat Walk.
For dinner, we visited Harry’s Restaurant in Longbrook Street. This was a special highlight of our trip – as well as serving delicious food, Harry’s has a really great back story! The architecture and interiors are beautiful – the property was formerly ‘Harry Hems’, a 19th-century architectural sculptors’ workshop (framed black and white photos of the historic building and workshop are displayed on the old red brick gothic style interior walls) that dates back to 1883.
Following a renovation a couple of years ago the interiors are sublime. Luxurious and modern, it’s more trendy Mayfair than bustling Exeter – think dark green and burnt oranges, regal leather sofas, tongue and groove panelling, parquet flooring, soft grey blankets, Cowshed toiletries, an abundance of hanging plants and elegantly dressed tables.
Simon and Annette Pounds opened the restaurant in 1993. Daughter, Samantha Pounds, took over the running of the business and is now at the helm. All four of her daughters (Phoebe, Zoe, Tigerlily and India) work alongside her, while also juggling successful careers including in law and the Army. We were served by Amy, an Australian and close family friend with the Pounds. She was fantastic and clearly passionate about the restaurant. She told us the team were “inseparable” and once included British singer-songwriter Will Young (before he won Pop Idol).
Menu highlights include a mouthwatering selection of dry-aged steaks sourced from local suppliers, Darts Farm Butchers, locally caught fish of the day and Devon crab linguine. I opted for their Toasted Brioche Lobster Roll and it was absolutely delightful! Elderflower sorbet completed the experience and it was time to get some rest, ready for the next day.
We were delighted with a Deluxe room at Hotel du Vin Exeter, a city oasis within walking distance of both the Cathedral and Quay. The grand 19th-century building formerly housed the West of England Eye Hospital and has beautifully landscaped historic walled gardens with a circular lawn, an outdoor swimming pool, spa and contemporary bedroom decor – an ideal base for exploring the city.
Feeling more at home with the city centre we decided to head down to Exeter’s waterfront quay for a day by the river. We made our way down Stepcote Hill, Exeter’s oldest surviving street, passing the pretty half-timbered houses. At the bottom on West Street you’ll be greeted by the curiosity that is The House that Moved – a fascinating three storey timber-framed merchant’s house which quite literally was moved from its original home at the corner of Edmund Street and Frog Street. Also in this area is St Mary Steps Church, of 12th century origin with an amazing early 17th century Matthew the Miller clock with figures that strike the hour.
At the quayside there are many places to grab a coffee or quirky independent shops for a gift to take home. Feeling ready for an adventure, we hired some stand-up paddleboards from AS Watersports (the place to go for kayaks, canoes, paddleboards and more). In addition to the hire, they offer tuition and have a huge showroom filled with kayaks and equipment for sale – everything you need to get on the water and experience watersports.
For lunch, we headed to On the Waterfront – famous for their dust-bin lid pizzas, they also serve great tapas and offer a really good selection of locally-sourced beers, wines and spirits.
Having been so impressed with our e-bikes from the day before we decided to go for a bike ride along the river, passing the Climbing Centre on Exeter Quay – the South West’s largest, dedicated indoor climbing wall. Had there been time and energy left in our legs we definitely would have stopped for a quick bouldering session! We soon reached the Double Locks traditional country pub located on the banks of the 16th century Ship Canal. You can’t beat the location! They have a huge beer garden with areas covered and heated, so perfect for keeping socially distanced.
That evening we stopped for food at Pieminister – set up almost 20 years ago by friends Tristan Hogg and Jon Simon after travelling around Australia in their early twenties, where they found themselves eating pies every day, they came home full of determination to reinvigorate the humble British pie! In 2003 they set up shop in Stokes Croft, Bristol. Soon they had a stall at London’s famous Borough Market, then a pitch at Glastonbury. They have grown over the years, and now employ around 300 people, but they still make all their pies in their Bristol kitchens – and are themselves still eating pies every day! Don’t miss their Bottomless Lunches where you have an hour and a half to enjoy brunch pies with unlimited prosecco or cocktails.
However you choose to spend your time in Exeter, the city is ready to welcome you with open arms, and there are plenty of green and open outdoor spaces making it is easy to explore safely. From the city’s rich history to the many beautiful cycle trails and miles of meandering waterways, whether on bike, foot, kayak or ferry there’s a surprise waiting at every turn.
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