A literary day trip to Exeter

Days are getting shorter, restrictions are getting (slightly) lighter, a vaccine might be in sight. Whether you want to start taking some (socially distanced, COVID-conscious) trips at the weekend, or you’d like to daydream about a future where we’ll be able to roam the Earth free once again (yes, well, Brexit-permitting – Godwhyisitallsodepressing?) here is a little something for you.

We’ve all been to Bath way too many times, so if you want to have a taste of the proper West Country, I invite you on a literature-themed day trip to Exeter, the capital city of Devon! Also known as: where I live.

Exeter is a small city (yes, city, we do have a cathedral!), about 30 mins away from the coast and 40 minutes from Dartmoor. Not many people know about it (I didn’t even know it existed before I moved here for the first time in 2018!) but it’s a nice little gem at the heart of the South West with lots of green spaces, very friendly locals and cute shops.

If you’re travelling by train (which I wholeheartedly recommend), make sure you get the non-stop Reading to Taunton GWR train which will wizz you over from London in about 2 hours. Local services from Bristol are also excellent, but do try to avoid any CrossCountry services from Scotland (Glasgow most likely) as they are inevitably late.

You’ll be arriving at St. David’s station (Exeter Central is, deceivingly enough, not Exeter’s main train station). St David’s was designed by Brunel (yes, the guy who designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol and the SS Great Britain) and is still, if I may say so myself, quite pretty.

A little trivia that not many know about is that a certain Sir Allen Lane had a rather brilliant idea while waiting on a platform at Exeter St. Davids. While searching for something to read on his journey back to London, he was appalled by the meagre choice: popular magazines or expensive reprints of Victorian novels.

And so he had an idea: what if you could buy good quality paperbacks of contemporary fiction at a cheap price out of vending machines, in railway stations and at newsagents? From this idea, Penguin Books was born. Yes, Penguin, the world’s largest publisher, was conceived on a platform at Exeter St. David’s by a man who just really really wanted something to read!

We believed in the existence in this country of a vast reading public for intelligent books at a low price, and staked everything on it. – Sir Allen Lane

Make your way to the city’s High Street via the river-side Bonhay Road and then take a left on Fore Street, where you’ll be able to take in the remains of the Roman walls and pop into a few cute vitage shops – you can even stop for a coffee at the Glorious Art House and check out what exhibition they have on!

Most importantly, don’t forget to pop into McCoy’s Arcade and visit Bookbag, Exeter’s new independent book shop! According to a recent article on Exeter Living, they sell “a range of fiction and non-fiction writing, books and stories with a local-global feel“. They’ve opened a few days before Christmas 2020 and have been doing click and collect during lockdown, but the Exeter bookish community is already buzzing about this! Check out their Facebook page for more up-to-date info.

Photo © Bookbag Exeter Facebook Page

As you walk along Highstreet, look out for an old-looking building with a black façade situated – charmingly enough – next to a Shoezone. There has been a pub on these premises since 1200! Most notably, The Turk’s Head, which was a favourite of Charles Dickens’. He used to always sit in the same corner, later known as the Dickens Corner. The Turk’s Head sadly closed in 2005 so it’s not open to visit, but you can make up for it by going into one of the two (!) Waterstones shops on the High street.

Continue on and after a few shops you’ll notice a Costa Coffee on the corner of a narrow alley – take a left into Gandy Street and take a look at the street that (allegedly) inspired Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley! Okay, yes, ignore the bins outside Bill’s. I mean beyond that.

J. K. Rowling is an Exeter University alumna, and it is believed she was inspired to include quite a few places around Exeter and the University campus into her books – whether you agree or not, it’s quite exciting to spot them around town!

On your left you’ll see The Vaults, which is said to have inspired the Gringotts Wizarding Bank and in reality is… well, Exeter’s LGBT club. Gandy Street is peppered with cute vintage shops. I personally adore Sobeys, where each item of clothing is redesigned to make it unique.

For the last part of the trip, make your way to the Cathedral Green, where we meet out last literary reference: Jonathan Harker, the main character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula is from Exeter and the Cathedral Green is featured in the book’s first chapters!

Exeter Cathedral is absolutely stunning and (in normal times) open for visitors. I highly recommend a guided visit if possible as they’ll be able to point out to you all the hidden secrets lurking around the cathedral. And for all the language history and English literature nerds out there, you might be able to take a look at the Exeter Book. Also known as the Codex Exoniensis, the Exeter Book is a tenth-century anthology of Anglo-Saxon Poetry and one of the four major Anglo-Saxon literature codices!

By know you’ve probably had enough of culture and vintage shops, so let’s get to what really matters: food! Exeter’s food scene is not as good as London’s or Oxford’s in my opinion, but it can fend for itself.

If you want to stop for a coffee and cake, the city has plenty to offer (my personal favourites are Artigiano and the café on top of Waterstones Roman Gate). If you’d like the full South West experience, I’d truly recommend going for cream tea at Tea on the Green, right on Cathedral Green. If the day is nice you can sit outside and have a fantastic view of the Cathedral. Oh and Devonians are very strict about the way you eat cream tea: clotted cream first, jam second!

If you want to stop for drinks I’d recommend both the Old Firehouse (next to the Highstreet) or the Hourglass. The latter is about 10-15 minutes away from the city centre, but right on the river quay, which is perfect for an evening stroll. I also wholeheartedly recommend their food menu, it’s probably the best food I’ve eaten in Exeter!

The Old Firehouse, on the other hand, is highly recommended for Harry Potter fans as it’s said to have (again, allegedly) inspired the Leaky Cauldron. With a perfect cosy atmosphere, fruity cider, fairy lights and sometimes even light music, it’s the perfect place to end your trip. If you fancy something to eat, go for their famous square pizzas: cheap, large and very tasty! (You can trust me, I’m a doctor Italian.)

Photo © The Old Firehouse.

Finally, if you’re visiting on a Sunday, don’t miss the Sunday Roast at the Oddfellows pub (right in front of Old Firehouse), which is a favourite among locals.

If you have the chance, I would recommend staying the weekend and exploring the area. If you’d like the seaside, you can visit Torquay, the hometown of Agatha Christie. If you like walking, why not go for a hike in Dartmoor and see if you can spot the Hound of Baskerville? Or if you like nature, I recommend looking for beavers in the nearby town of Ottery St Mary.

Exeter and the South West have a lot to offer, and I hope this guide will help you exploring the area and enjoying one of UNESCO Cities of Literature!

This is M signing out for now!

[EDIT: This article was updated on 26/03/2021 to include information about Bookbag Exeter]

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