Exploring the Past in Exeter

Exeter now stands on the site of what was a Roman legionary fortress, established in 55 AD by the second Augustan Legion. The fort, known as Isca, then overlooked the lowest crossing point of the Exe River. By the middle of the second century Isca Dumnoniorum, the town that grew up in and around the fortress after the departure of the legion, became an important regional centre. A substantial wall with four gates was constructed; the path of which can still be followed in the city today.

With the collapse of the Roman administration in Britain, the town was all but deserted and returned to farmland. It was not until the late Saxon period that town-life was re-established, and Exeter became very prosperous. The quay on the Exe River, also established by the Romans, enabled the city to develop trading links making this one of the wealthiest ports in the south of England.

During the Second World War, Exeter was extensively bombed by the German Luftwaffe. In all, between 1940 and 1942 a total of 18 raids destroyed much of the city and 156 people lost their lives. And more recently a fire that broke out on 28 October 2016 largely destroyed the Royal Clarence Hotel, thought to be the first venue in England to call itself a hotel.

Despite the ravages of the 20th and 21st centuries, Exeter has much to offer those who enjoying exploring the past: from the oldest standing castle building in Britain, a unique system of underground passages, and one of the oldest cathedrals in England, which has the longest stretch of Gothic vaulting in the world. And a world class museum that offers an engaging introduction to the city and Devon.

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Exeter’s historic quayside, one of many interesting and beautiful places in the city to stop for a bite to eat or an ice cream on a sunny afternoon.

The early 19th century, Egyptian revivalist catacombs in Bartholomew Cemetery, Exeter.


Located in the Bartholomew Cemetery, the catacombs were built between 1835 and 1837 up against the city walls. The cemetery was the first in Britain to be constructed using public funds. Also, the use of Egyptian style architecture for the entrances is the first instance of Egyptian revivalism in a British cemetery. As a venture, the catacombs were a failure as it was too costly for most. When the cemetery closed in 1946 only 11 people had been interred.

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Cricklepit Mill

Watermills have stood on this spot since 1220 AD. Over the years there have been nine mills in all, including a grist mill for milling grain and a fulling mill for cleaning and strengthening woollen cloth. The surviving mill house was restored in the 1990s by the Devon Historic Buildings Trust, with a hydro-turbine installed in 2010. Electricity produced by the mill powers the visitor centre, which is at the centre of a wildlife garden run by Devon Wildlife Trust.

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Custom House

With its sweeping staircase and ornate plaster ceilings, Exeter’s Custom House was built in 1680 at the height of the city’s woollen cloth industry. By the 18th century Exeter was one of the busiest ports on the south coast of England. Not surprisingly, the building occupies a prominent position on the historic quayside and now houses a visitors centre that allows visitors to explore over 2,000 years of history at the quay from Roman times to the present. [Website]

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Exeter City Wall

Throughout Exeter there are numerous remnants and signs of a city wall. The first stone wall was built by the Romans, sometime during the 2nd century AD, using as its foundations an earth and timber rampart and ditch that surrounded a legionary fortress. With the collapse of the Roman Empire the town was abandoned. It was not until the 10th century that the walls were rebuilt, and again in the 17th century during the English Civil War. Take a Self Guided Tour of Exeter’s City Wall

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Exeter Cathedral

The Cathedral in the city centre of Exeter is one of the oldest in England. A Norman Cathedral was replaced with a Gothic Cathedral between 1270 and 1340. The ceiling has the longest unbroken stretch of stone vaulting in the world. There are many fascinating features inside: a clock said to be that of the children’s song Hickory Dickory Dock, the oldest representation of an elephant in England, an unique minstrels’ gallery. Guided tours available … Visit Exeter Cathedral >>

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Tuckers Hall

Now a grade II listed building, Tuckers Hall was built in 1471 and has been owned and used by the Guild of Weavers, Tuckers and Shearmen ever since. The Guild regulated the woollen cloth trade at the hall – an industry which contributed highly to the wealth and reputation of Exeter as a city of international commerce. The interior consists of an upper and lower hall, 17th century wooden panelling, an ornate barrel vaulted ceiling, an interactive exhibition for visitors … Read More >>

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Underground Passages

Beneath the streets of the city centre are the remains of a network of medieval tunnels built to supply fresh water. After a few hundred years later, they had fallen in to disrepair and became all but forgotten – until opening again as a tourist attraction in the 20th century. No other city in the United Kingdom has a tunnel system of this kind. Find out more about the fascinating story behind this rare historical attraction … Visit Exeter’s Underground Passages >>

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Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Founded as a memorial to Prince Albert, this award-winning museum is one of the finest regional museums in the United Kingdom. Exhibits trace all aspects of Exeter’s and Devon’s history, from more recent times all the way back to the early geological past. Through a series of ingeniously created self-guided tours, from birds to gardens, art to architecture, and of course World War 2, visitors are able to extend their exploration of the wide ranging collections into the city. [Website]

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The House that Moved

This 16th century house has a fascinating story to tell. The timber framed early Tudor building was relocated in 1961 from the corner of Edmund Street to allow space for a new inner bypass. Using a network of iron rails, the entire structure was transported on wheels 70 metres to West Street, where it now stands. Today, the house is a bridal shop, showcasing Late Medieval features such as cantilever brackets and a jettied facade. [Website]