The big idea

Conviviality, quality of life, appreciating what you’ve got and making the most of it – this is what makes Exeter what it is: a very special place to be. And it’s no surprise when you look at its location: perched on the head of the River Exe with dramatic coastlines and outstanding National Parks just a stone’s throw away. The abundance of great quality produce – both from the sea and the fields – has also cemented Exeter’s reputation as a foodie’s paradise.
 
So if you want to give your mind, body and soul some nourishment, this is the place for you.
 

Location, location, location

What a place. You want drama? Head to the coasts: go north for rugged cliffs, long sandy beaches and the boisterous Atlantic Ocean; go south for the Jurassic coast, England’s first natural World Heritage Site, with its 185-million-year-old rocks that take you back in time to the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.
 
You want breathtaking views? Exmoor National Park (just north of Exeter), offers mile upon mile of beautiful landscapes and is home to Exmoor ponies and wild red deer.
 
You want wild nature and unparalleled history? Dartmoor National Park features some of the wildest countryside in England – with weather that can change at the drop of a hat – and the highest concentration of prehistoric monuments in the country.
 

Of produce and provenance

 
Exeter was built on a ridge of dry ground which formed a small plateau about 100ft above the river, a location rich with dry soils for building and an unlimited supply of fresh water just below the surface. In fact, in mediaeval times a network of underground passages and deep wells was built to bring fresh drinking water to the city. Its location also gave direct access to the River Exe, a river known throughout history to be ‘abounding with fish’. It’s no surprise then, that given their importance, fishermen in the city have always enjoyed a certain higher status.
 
But a great foodie reputation is not built on fish alone: Exeter is right next to the West Country with its marvellous meats from the moors, and has the corn and grains from the fertile fields to the east. And boy do they know what to do with them! Exeter is regularly rated as one of the best cities in the UK to eat out, with a plethora of top restaurants, gastro-pubs and cream-tea cafes. And it doesn’t stop there: if you want to make use of all that lovely produce yourself, there’s an abundance of farmers’ markets, farm shops, delis and of course an annual food festival.
 
It’s no wonder the locals have made such an art of producing, preparing and enjoying what’s on their doorstep.
 

Quality of life

 
With the stunning location and excellent eating, it’s hard to imagine anything but a good quality of life down here, but it’s not just these things that make it so good. It’s the attitude, the approach to life, a lack of anything to prove. It’s not about making loads of money; it’s not about being the biggest, the best the most; it’s about appreciating what you’ve got and living life to the full.
 
Shopping is important here; food is important here; and getting out and experiencing nature is important here – and it’s not just a recent phenomenon. Throughout History, Exonians have placed great importance on enjoying the company of others, eating well, worrying less about time, and focussing on the important, and simpler, things in life.
 
And that’s the reason it’s becoming such a magnet for so many enlightened employers seeking to move away from some of the bigger cities and relocate to where quality of life is so highly prized.

Essence

This city seems to have the work/life balance spot-on. So the essence of Exeter is Nature’s food in harmony.
 

How Exeter can make you feel/who it’s for

Well it’s clearly ideal for foodies, but also for people who want to remember what’s important in life.
 
As such, a break here can make you feel relaxed, companionable, at ease. 

History

The history of Exeter dates back at least a couple of thousand years to when a Celtic tribe known as the Dumnonii lived in the area. Its location would have been a perfect spot to set up camp: close to water and food, with plenty of timber from the north for building; and about ten miles inland from any nasty coastal attackers.
 
A fact the Romans took advantage of when they arrived on the scene and established Exeter as their centre of the south-west. And although it was a bit smaller than the average tribal capital, all the roads in the region converged on it. In AD 55, they built the most beautiful legionary bath house – now the oldest cut-and-mortared stone house in the country.
 
After the Romans left Britain, it took the Saxons quite a while to get this far west and conquer the locals. Indeed, it was only in AD 658 that they arrived, and even then the city was effectively split into two: the local British in one half, with their own set of laws and customs; and the Saxons in the other. It stayed like this for 300 years, until King Athelstan ejected the Brits and finally made it a unified English city. Sadly, that ‘peace’ wasn’t to last, as the Danes came along not long after and literally razed the city, burning and plundering huge areas.
 
Over time, the city picked itself up and again started to attract country dwellers and to re-establish most of its previous trades, such as tanning and weaving. So much so, in fact, that by the time of the Norman invasion of England in 1066, Exeter was buzzing with foreign merchants: it had a thriving wine importing trade (further evidence if needed of the love of all things convivial), a guildhall and wealthy merchants of its own.
 
Enter William the Conqueror in 1068, who identified Exeter as strategically important for the south west, and who personally led the attack on the city. Exeter held firm for nearly three weeks in an impressive act of defiance (those big Roman walls and the fighting spirit of Exonians were doing a great job), before an honourable surrender where William was forced to swear on oath in the cathedral that no harm would come to the city. Soon after this, the Normans identified the strategic importance of the huge hill overlooking the city and built Exeter Castle; a great new Norman cathedral was built as well.
 
The following century saw huge growth: Exeter was the fourth-biggest city in England behind London, York and Winchester in terms of wealth and reputation (Exeter was also the third town in the country to get a Mayor). Foreign merchants sailed up the Exe to the harbour, it was a leading English cloth town and those French wines were booming. And it was about this time that those underground passages were built, along with the bridge over the river Exe. (Have a look round the city today; large parts of the middle ages are still easy to spot such as the small red sandstone churches and many of the buildings in the main streets.)
 
Roll through to the 16thcentury and Exeter was still growing, getting wealthier and was a major player on the national stage (it had a population of 8,000). It was even the fifth-wealthiest town in the country.
 
In the 17thcentury Exeter had a booming woollen export industry, mainly concerned with dyeing and finishing; indeed, when Daniel Defoe visited on his travels he described it as ‘full of gentry and good company, and yet full of manufactures and trade also. The Serge (wool)market is the greatest in England next to Leeds’.
 
Throughout the 18thcentury, the pace of change quickened even more: a new Exe bridge was opened, new Assembly Rooms appeared (now called the Royal Clarence Hotel, the first hostelry in England to be called a hotel) and new roads and crescents were being built. This continued throughout Georgian times and Exeter today stands out for some fine late-Georgian buildings and terraces.
 
In Victorian times, the railways arrived in Exeter and continued to attract well-to-do families because of the amenities and climate: this led to a cycle of more shops and more building, as services gradually replaced industry in the city.

How to experience

Exeter’s quite compact, has some great shopping areas, and is pretty easy to work your way around. Why not start near the top of the High Street, and visit the underground passages (the entrance is on Paris Street). This is a rather unique experience – nowhere else in England can you explore a similar set of passages – and is a great early insight into the importance of water to the city.
 
Back up on street level, work your way from here over the High Street and up Castle Street. There’s three treats in store for you here: the castle itself, known locally as Rougemont Castle, and the scene of the last witches to be tried and hanged in England; in Rougemont Gardens, in front of the castle, you’ll find the Roman city wall and bank, as well as the bank and ditches of William the Conqeuror’s castle; and, behind both of these, accessible round the corner off Northernhay Place, you’ll find Northernhay Gardens: again, with remnants of the Roman city wall, but also the only length of Saxon town wall to be seen in England.
 
Get back to the High Street and you’re near the main shopping areas of the city. To the left is the Princesshay shopping area, modern and stylishly designed with a mix of bigger names and smaller independents in Roman Walk. Then down the High Street on the right you’ve got the attractive cobbled Gandy Street, with its bijou gift shops and independent stores.
 
Head down a bit further to the cathedral and close, where you’ll find lots more eateries and smart bars around here. At the cathedral, stop to admire the magnificent Norman towers and the longest unbroken stretch of Gothic stone vaulting in the world (look out also for the bishop’s throne, one of the finest pieces of woodwork of the late 14thcentury).
 
Out of the cathedral head south and you’ll find yourself in the West Quarter. This area is strongly linked with the city’s wool trade and you’ll find a plethora of arcades, specialist shops and little nooks and crannies. You’ll also find St Nicholas Priory, a 900-year-old guest wing of a former Benedictine Priory and now presented as a restored Tudor house; Tuckers Hall, the 500-year-old former guildhall for the cloth workers of Exeter; and the modern Spacex Gallery, one of the UK’s leading international contemporary art spaces.
 
From here head over to the Quayside, a really picturesque part of the city. Check out the Custom House, built in 1860; there’s also an eclectic little mix of shops and foodie places down here, and the Quay House visitor centre gives you an overview of the development of this fine city. This is simply a lovely part of the world in which to sit, early evening, enjoying a glass of something and take it all in. Or why not take a boat trip or cruise along probably the most beautiful ship-canal in England?
 
Finally, just a few miles outside the city, is the beautiful Exe estuary – an internationally important site for migrant winter birds – and not much further on along the lovely village of Topsham, great for historic pubs, and a start point for RSPB avocet cruises up the Exe. Check out close-hand some of the graceful avocets, the red-breasted mergansers and black-tailed godwits.
 
Now that is quality of life.

When to visit

City pics

Portsmouth
Carlisle
Leicester
Ely
Wolverhampton
Norwich
Stoke
Coventry