‘Exeter is not an easy place to love’: the words of Bill Bryson in his Notes from a Small Island. It might appear this way venturing through the residential outskirts of the Devonshire capital; as with some 21st century urbanisations, the Victorian town houses seem somewhat overlooked, though they make for excellent student houses.
Exeter is, however, a quaint and charming city, balancing independent businesses with shopping and restaurant arcades. Perfect for both leisurely strolling in summer, taking afternoon tea and traversing the Christmas market armed with delicious churros, Exeter is an easy place to fall in love with.
The first stop: brunch, and for this meal, it has to be the Boston Tea Party café (BTP) serving an array of breakfast foods and juices. This Exeter branch is just one in a small chain of cafés in south west England serving fresh, local produce. Whilst the high street feels busy for a relatively quiet city, once you step into BTP, you can find respite in the tranquility: it’s perfect for catching up with friends, letting off stress or enjoying a good ol’ study date.
When it comes to local cuisine, the jewel in Exeter’s culinary crown – for students at least – is the Old Fire House. Don’t be put off by the daunting wrought-iron front gate on the main road; by my second visit I found it sort of elegant. Upon entering, you might have to either fight or linger for a table, which isn’t so tough during the summer when the front courtyard is decked out with patio furniture and fairy lights. For what, might you ask? A tray baked pizza unlike any pizza you’ve had before. It’s a social experience, a rite of passage for any student. It’s what Bryson was missing twenty years ago: pizza and wine for two, for less than a tenner each. Just don’t try to eat one to yourself, no matter how good they taste.
Whilst there’s almost every chain imaginable, try not to forget the unique local businesses, like Sobeys on Gandy Street for your vintage clothing bargains. Equally, No Guts No Glory, a calm and collected coffee shop selling beautifully crafted prints, stationary, homewares, plants and much besides, should not be missed out for the slower pace of this side of town. There’s also the colourful and quirky Hyde + Seek providing constant gift inspiration and the best of greetings cards.
The Cathedral Green is an essential stop anytime of the year, for reminding you why you came to Exeter in the first place and escaping the high street just the other side of the serene historic buildings. This unfailingly pleasant view can be enjoyed inside or outside of the lovely Tea on the Green tearoom. In December, the Christmas market winds over the green. It’s a flashy affair of bright lights and candy, it’s filled with home-made crafts and delicacies: there’s always more to discover on each visit.
The view in Exeter has changed drastically in the past few months, however. October 2016 saw the Royal Clarence Hotel, one of the oldest in the UK, catch fire and suffer severe damage, and subsequent destruction. Its loss has been greatly felt; some of the architecture dated back to medieval times and some early Abolitionist meetings took place inside. A fundraising appeal has been launched by the Devon Community Foundation to go towards a hopeful restoration project.
For comfort with individual charm to each room and a plentiful breakfast, try Town House Bed and Breakfast. Despite the off-thebeaten-track location, you are never far from the centre of town; much like York, pretty much everything in Exeter is within an easy walking distance, including the principal train station, Exeter St. David’s.
Before Exeter, never in the UK have I simultaneously felt a city buzz whilst enveloped in the rolling countryside of the not-so-distant hills. There’s so much to explore in this city – and county – and I can’t wait for my next trip down there.