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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Exeter Photo Walk 4

This post concentrates on the old Exe bridge and some of the history surrounding it and it's later replacements. Then I walk back into town up the appropriately named New Bridge Road and into Fore Street.

This is the remains of St Edmund's Church which stood on the Old Exe Bridge, along with other shops and houses. There follow some extracts from a newspaper piece of 1873, which describe this very part of the bridge. Indulge me a little if I enter a substantial account of the dangers of living on bridges. This is a gripping tale.

Exeter Flying Post - Wednesday 12 November 1873

A Chronicle of Old Exe Bridge

The Autumn of the year 1537 was remarkable for the continued deluges of rain which fell upon the fair pastures of Devon, causing great destruction of cattle, crops and homesteads, from the rapid rise of the many rivers and streams; and there were not wanting persons who looked upon these things as portentous signs of a direct judgment of God, for the sins of the king and his counsellors in the suppression of many of the lesser monasteries which had been so zealously effected in the preceding year.......

This is a reference to superstition of bad luck following Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries.

Among the eager listeners at the daily reading of the Bible, at the Church of St Edmund on Exe Bridge, were occasionally to be seen two fair-haired maidens, twin sisters of the age of about eighteen, just blossoming into womanhood; not marvels of beauty and loveliness, but comely and well proportioned; there was, moreover, a cast of sorrow on each of their countenances, which usually excited a sympathetic interest in the hearts of those who looked upon them; and withal, there was a gentleness of manner and modesty of behaviour in these two maidens, which betokened an early acquaintance with grief........

We are just setting the scene here.

Left orphans at an early age, they had been committed to the charity and care of a distant relative, in whose house at the Bridge-end they resided and performed its menial duties. Mistress Cove was one of those stern and uncompromising spirits whose word is law, and from whose dictum there is no appeal. Moreover, her heart had never warmed with maternal tenderness. Her husband, a sturdy armourer and citizen-soldier of the Marquis of Exeter's troop, was often suddenly summoned from his home at the call of arms; and in many respects Mistress Cove well matched her husband, for neither of them had much experience of those gentle emotions which animate less callous hearts......

Master Cove returned to Exeter (After a military expedition to Doncaster), In company with those of his fellow citizens who were his companions In arms, though their return was not in much haste or with good speed, as the continued rains had rendered the roads dangerous and troublesome to pass over.....

.....the armourer passed on over the old Bridge to his home, above the doorway of which swung his sign of "The hammer in hand" ; the device rudely painted, with his name above it, and the motto " Strike hard !" beneath the sign. It was easily distinguished at the city-end of the Bridge. Although the armourer possessed none of those tenderer feelings which endear man to his home, yet he experienced a feeling of satisfaction, as the well-known sign with it's appropriate emblem caught his eye. He paused to look at the turbid swollen volume of the Exe, as it made its way with seeming difficulty between the narrow arches, the projecting cut-waters at the same time throwing back the tide with an eddy of white foam and a dull gurgling sound. Deep dark and rapid was the water-way, as he gazed upon it; and amid the wrecks of destruction that floated down, he espied a poor dog vainly endeavouring to turn aside out of the current, and howling as the remorseless waters hurried him on till he was no more seen "Aye, poorbrute," said the armourer, "thine errand is soon done."

The rain had fallen with but little intermission since our traveller and his companions left their hostelrie, in which they had tarried the previous night; and just as the armourer reached his own door it again fell heavily,-the heavens were darkened with heavy clouds, surcharged with their watery burden about to fall upon the already too much saturated earth. The wind too, was beginning to howl in a most melancholy and foreboding tone; and our armourer felt but little regret when he reached the covert of his own good roof-tree....

The armourer's household speedily betook themselves to their several dormitories; Cove and his wife to their chamber adjoining the common room,raised from it by a single step. The river flowed beneath, and the room projected over it in the manner of the buildings of those days, at about six feet above the water. Now the river had risen nearly level with the floor, and could be distinctly heard splashing against the protruding timber which supported it. "Mercy on us ! - by my halidame, (something held sacred) 'tis a foulsome night"exclaimed the wife: "hearken-hear ye not the splash of the tide against the floor timbers ?-and how the old beams crack ! What a fearful howl! -the saints preserve us !" Tosh, wife," said the armourer, "art afraid of a muttering storm ? Let's see how It looks abroad." Opening the casement with this intent, his own sinewy arm was suddenly dashed back again, and at the same time a rush of wind and hard rain extinguished their light and left them to group to their couch in total darkness.

The wind continued to blow in fearful gusts, dashing the rain against the casement as it descended in torrents; the river rolled on with rushing sound through the narrow arches of the bridge, and under the projecting stories of the houses on either side, rushing in and out and dashing among the old timbers and brackets which held them up; while the furious blasts of the wind howled and moaned as it found its way about the lumbering cornices and barge-boards of the upper stories. Then, sometimes the crash of a chimney, or of the loosened tiles from the roofs falling into the river, made up the dismal concert of most terror-striking sounds. Such was the fearful night passed by the good citizens of Exeter in the year of - A D. 1537

The city historian Richard Izacke takes up the story.

"There fell abundance of rain which made the waters so high and violent, as that one of the piers of Exebridge fell down. In the evening of the day precedent, one John Cove (who had been at Doncaster under the command of the Marquess of Exeter), was returned home to his house beyond the said Bridge, and the same night being in his bed, one end of his house next to the waterside fell down, his Servants in the Chamber over him in bed asleep fell into the River and were drowned but he and his Wife lying in a low Room, were carried into the river, bed and all: he commanded his Wife not to stir, and he using sometimes his hands, and then his Feet, instead of Oars, kept himself on the West side of the River, out of the violent stream, there glyding, and (through God's great mercy) got on an Hillock, where the Waters were shallow, and so both recovered the Shore in safety." On the subsidence of the water, the bodies of the two sisters were found under the ruins of the fallen house, locked in each other's arms, but sadly crushed and disfigured. The harder natures of Master Cove and his wife were subdued by the remembrance of the melancholy fate of these maidens and their own almost miraculous deliverance...

This is the approach to what remains of the Old Exe Bridge, now marooned in a small park surrounded by the traffic laden bypass. The remains were uncovered during the building of the new road system back in the 1960's.

The Old Exe Bridge survives particularly well as one of the best-preserved examples of a major medieval stone bridge of its date built in England. Constructed around the year 1200 it spanned the waters of the River Exe for almost 600 years until its partial demolition in 1778. Excavation has demonstrated that St Edmund's Church, which stood on the bridge, formed part of the original construction and that houses were built onto the bridge and surrounding banks during the medieval period. Historic England

It is thought that this area of the river was originally shallow and may have started as a ford, then replaced in Roman times with a timber construction before being replaced with stone in the late 12th century. These ruins are Grade 2 listed. The original stone bridge is believed to have had up to 18 arches and to have been up to 180 metres long. Eight arches remain fully exposed. About 25 metres of bridge also lies buried under Edmund Street. The original road surface was about four metres wide. Some of the existing paving over arch seven is the original medieval surface.

Today there are two bridges over the Exe at this point, forming a large island of circulating traffic at the southern end of the city. The remains of the Old Exe Bridge follow a line from Stepcote Hill and the site of the West Gate, which we saw in the last post. These remains survived because by the time the bridge was replaced, this area had silted up and was built with shops, houses and the church. The river by then was much narrower due to the silting and land reclamation which had partly caused the problem of damage to the bridge by forcing flood waters through a smaller section of the original structure. The replacement bridge was built in 1778 and that bridge was itself replaced in 1905 and replaced again in the 1960's by what we see today.

There follows two short articles describing the bridge of 1778 and its replacement of 1905.

Western Times - Monday 25 July 1904

EXE BRIDGE. At the time Exeter City Council decided to fulfil its statute obligation and throw a new bridge across the Exe primarily for the benefit of St. Thomas, there was an attempt to raise a sentimental scare over the vandalism of destroying the camel-backed structure that had done duty for one hundred and thirty years. Beyond a certain picturesqueness when seen at the proper angle, there was nothing to recommend the bridge, however. Its gradients were sheer cruelty to horses, and its great pillars were an obstruction to the river that contributed to the flooding of St. Thomas when the Exe was in flood. There were no historical associations to warrant tender treatment. It witnessed no stirring national demonstrations, and was concerned in no act of signal citizen valour. Doubtless the bridge, despite its hump, was part of a great public improvement, which obviated the terrible old ascent into Forestreel, but the City had outgrown that improvement, and the growth of Exeter across the Exe made less laborious crossing imperative. It is a thousand pities that the thirteenth century bridge of Walter Gervaise was swept away. That had history and antique beauty to recommend it, although open, of course, to many utilitarian objections.

Tewkesbury Register - Saturday 08 April 1905

EXETER NEW BRIDGE. The fine new bridge over the Exe at Exeter has been formally inaugurated by a picturesque civic ceremony, at which General Buller, who is so proud of his Devonshire nativity, assisted. The work of building the new bridge has occupied over two years. The bridge was designed by Sir John Wolfe Barry and Mr. C. A. Brereton, C.E., and has cost £25,000. It is built of steel, and is probably the flattest arched bridge in the country, the rise being only one in thirteen. The bridge is 150 ft. long and 50ft. wide, and gives a commanding approach to the western end of the city. General Buller, at the public luncheon given in connection with the inauguration, advocated the preservation of historical monuments, and deplored the destruction in the eighteenth century of Exeter Castle and the old city gates. Nothing helped more to educate the masses than historical monuments. At the same time, the new bridge was an example of actual natural progress.

In this old map you can see Edmund Street as it was then, with the chapel marked and the site of the old bridge still marked where it crossed the river. Edmund Street is the old bridge ruins we see today. The 1700's replacement bridge is next to the site of the old bridge leading up to New Bridge Road.

This map of 1888 still shows the businesses either side of the old bridge and no longer shows the site of the old bridge crossing the river.

Today the two bridges acting as a traffic island surround the remnants of the old bridge in the top right corner. This road layout was redrawn from the original plan to accommodate the rediscovered ruins. The modern roadway between the bridge remains and the river covers another buried section of the old bridge.

St Edmund's Church, first recorded in 1214, formed an integral part of the bridge construction with its tower contiguous with the bridge. The floors of both the nave and chancel were supported above the river by the second and third bridge arches. The church was about 20m in length by 5.5m in width and it was entered from the bridge carriageway although archaeological evidence survives to suggest access could also be obtained from the river. It was rebuilt and extended on a number of occasions, principally in 1448-9 when a bell tower was added and around 1500 when a side aisle 12.6m long and 3m wide was built out from the north west wall. A final and extensive rebuild took place in 1833-4 although all ancient foundations were retained. In 1975 the church was partly demolished with much of the 19th century masonry removed, although all ancient walling was retained and the church stands with its tower surviving to its full original height.

This is the original medieval route out of the city headed south to cross the river, and it still has part of the same road surface that carried the horse drawn traffic for hundreds of years. When William Prince of Orange entered the city to claim the throne of England after arriving with his army at Brixham this was where he and his entourage walked.

Although dry today, this was where a much wider river ran, and on the right is the original cutwater that would have protected the arch supports. Ahead is the modern ground level well above the river. The majority of the old bridge featured buildings along its length. As the only crossing point, this was where the passing trade was, if you were running a business and on the bridge you were the first and last stop for people wanting products or services when they arrived after a long journey or as they were about to start a long journey.

Next to the bridge is this arched wall, below, marked in the maps above as a tannery. This area would have been a later development after the area had silted up.

An accumulation of river-deposited sands against the riverbank on the north east side of the abutment and first arch of the bridge was used, by the 13th century, to provide reclaimed land for two medieval tenements. Excavation in 1975-9 revealed foundation walls of the rear parts of two houses which would have fronted onto Frog Street although it was not known by that name until the early 17th century. Both houses shared a rear river wall which would have provided some protection against flooding and both were shown to have a complex sequence of development from around 1240.

This is the view travellers would have seen on arriving at Exeter. Modern development blocks the view of the cathedral tower today which would have been awe inspiring for the first time visitor. The medieval churches and cathedrals of England were the tallest structures in the world when they were built, it having taken millenia to surpass the height of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Approaching a city like Exeter in the 14th century would have been akin to looking at the skyscrapers of Manhattan. Lincoln cathedral at 160 metres tall was the highest structure in the world while Exeter's is 117 metres high.

Documentary evidence for the bridge, church, and tenements, is extensive. The first known bridge chaplain is recorded in 1196 suggesting that the bridge had been erected by that date. St Edmund's Church on the east side of the bridge was certainly complete by around 1214 when it was mentioned in a list of Exeter Churches along with its companion Church of St Thomas Becket which stood at the western end of the bridge. The account rolls of the Bridge Wardens detailing the annual cost of repairs for the period 1343 to 1711 survive and they also include references to houses on the bridge which appear to have been of timber-frame construction.

The old bridge originally led to the narrow Lanes of Devon just like the modern road behind still does today.

Headed up New Bridge Road you can soon see how near to the countryside the edge of the city is just here.

Under New Bridge Road, runs this old mill leat. The route of the leat follows the outside edge of the old city wall, no longer visible.

Western Times - Tuesday 02 August 1887



At the Guildhall Friday before R C.Wilkinson, Esq,- (in the chair), John Willis, an elderly labourer, of Frog street, and Frederick Mapledoram, labourer, Preston-street, were charged on remand with assaulting John Gallon with intent to cause him grievous bodily harm. John Gallon, a young man of weak intellect, residing in Trinity street, stated that he saw the two prisoners on the Thursday in the previous week in Bonhay-road. They crossed over to where witness was and Jas. Willis (a brother to the prisoner Willis) asked him if he would like to be thrown into the water. The two prisoners then took him by the legs, and lifting him over the wall, dropped him into the leat below. Witness fell into the water his back, and injured himself so that he was in great pain and had to be lifted out of the leat. He was subsequently removed to the Hospital in a cab, at which institution he was still an inpatient.—Cross-examined : Both the prisoners caught hold of him at the same time.

John Wilson, labourer, employed at Mr. Norrington's Bonhay Stores, deposed that on the afternoon in question he saw the prosecutor standing by the wall of the bridge. Witness saw the two prisoners, who came up, take Gallon by the legs and throw him over the wall. The prosecutor dropped a depth of twelve feet into water about two feet deep. Witness afterwards saw Gallon walking out of the water evidently in great pain.

Mr. A. G. Blomfield, house surgeon at the Devon and Exeter Hospital, proved the admission of Gallon into the Institution on the 21st instant. He was wet and suffering from fright and shock. Witness subsequently examined him and he complained of great pain in the lower part of the back. The muscles here were swollen and bruised but there were no bones broken. Gallon got out of bed for the first time since his admission on the previous day. He was still registered as an in-patient. In answer to the Bench, witness said Gallon was weak both in mind and body.

P.C. Vicary on the 21st instant saw the prosecutor sitting on a heap of stones in the Town Council yard Exe Island. He was very wet and complained of great pains in his back. As Gallon was about to look for his assailants in the crowd the two prisoners " moved off ". Later the same night the prisoners were arrested at their houses. In answer to the charge Willis said, " We were skylarking ; we didn't mean to do him any harm ".

This route is architecturally varied and interesting with many different styles. There is also a wide range of businesses here. I won't narrate too much here on in and will let the photos speak for themselves.

This is 130 Fore Street the original site of Joshua Daw's Store, replaced with this Art Deco building in the early 20th century.

If you have genderless hair, this is the place for you. Until recently, the only options were Dry, Greasy or Flyaway.

147 Fore Street, another nice Art Deco example.

Finally this remnant of a former butcher's shop, which I really like.

In Part 5 I'll be looking at St. Olaves church which I stumbled upon as I wandered up Fore Street on my way to the cathedral. It is a little gem of architecture and history, unusually dedicated to St Olaf an 11th century King of Norway.

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