Travel: 'I flew from Norwich to Devon in an hour!'
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It was once one of the biggest and most important cities in England. It’s got a Norman cathedral founded almost 1,000 years ago, beautiful buildings reflecting the wealth of the medieval wool industry, much-loved independent shops and cafes in a network of lanes, a river port linked to a nearby seaside resort famed for its golden sands...
There are many similarities between the cities of Norwich and Exeter – plus plenty enough differences to make a city break from Norfolk to Devon an absolute delight.
And flying between the two cities reduces travel time from most of a day to around an hour.
I grew up in Devon and knew Exeter's shopping streets and cathedral from childhood trips, but this visit was on a completely different level. Literally.
The twin-towered cathedral has an exquisite saint-studded west end. Behind this is the longest and finest unbroken stretch of medieval vaulting in the world and a staircase spiralling into the roof-space. High above the Cathedral Green we gazed across the city to Dartmoor. Beneath our feet was that wonder of medieval vaulting but we were seeing its arches in inverse as a series of mounds, bisected by a walkway stretching into the distance. All around were huge wooden beams which had been bracing against the mighty forces of stone and gravity for centuries. We were in the workings of a building which looks miraculous from the ground and seems even more impressive up in the sinews and skeleton of its structure.
We climbed ever higher inside the Norman twin towers, and then out for a God’s-eye view of the city. Back on solid ground we discovered more with a free Exeter Red Coat Guided Tour - from another volunteer guide who really knew his stuff. Beginning beside the cathedral we were immediately taken back not just the 1,000 years that Norwich can claim, but almost double that to Roman times. Beneath our feet were a Roman bathhouse and basilica and the old city is still surrounded by Roman walls.
Walking down to the vibrant quayside along streets studded with ancient red-stone churches we passed one founded by the Viking mother of King Harold (of arrow-in-the-eye, defeated by William the Conqueror fame) a thousand years ago. We squeezed through the narrowest street in the UK, saw a 700-year-old house which was moved, in its entirety to make space for a new road, and crossed Britain's oldest bridge with a chapel on top. Exeter also has Britain’s oldest civic building, the oldest public park, and a network of underground passages which brought spring water into the city as long ago as the 14th century and are now another tourist attraction.
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On the quayside old warehouses have been transformed into fabulously arty shops, galleries, cafes and bars. This is the place to buy something beautiful, sit watching the river and world flow by, take a boat trip or try climbing, kayaking or paddle-boarding.
We hired bicycles to cycle alongside the river Exe to the pretty estuary town of Topsham. Co Bikes is Exeter’s easy-to-use electric-assisted bike hire scheme. The extra power is not strictly necessary for a riverside cycle path but ideal for the steep city streets or a trip into the hilly countryside.
We took a bus out to Dartmoor; and the train from Exeter to nearby Dawlish is not only an excellent way to get to the beach but also ridiculously scenic as Isambard Kingdom Brunel's line famously barely clings to the edge of the coast.
Where to eat:
The Old Firehouse – so quaint and cosy it was once believed to be the inspiration for Harry Potter’s Leaky Cauldron Pub. Atmospheric and fun, its huge square pizzas are a wonder and there are lots of West Country beers and ciders too.
Coolings in pretty Gandy Street (some say an inspiration for Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley) was magical too. We could have stayed all day as the staff were so friendly and the food so good - and served from breakfast and brunch to dinner and cocktails.
The Cosy Club is an atmospheric old hospital. Diners enter through the hospital chapel and eat in high-ceilinged institutional splendour. The décor is fascinating, the menu extensive and again (is this an Exeter thing?) the staff were completely charming.
Where to stay:
We stayed at the Jury’s Inn which is very well placed for a city break, a short walk to all the city centre and riverside attractions and the bus and railway stations. Excellent breakfasts set us up for sight-seeing days and the quiet, comfortable and stylish room was perfect for a good night’s sleep between adventures.
How to travel:
We flew with Loganair which flies between Norwich and Exeter four times a week on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. All tickets include 15kg hold luggage. loganair.co.uk
Visit visitexeter.com for full details of what to see and where to eat, shop and stay in Exeter.