Saturday, 6 November 2010

A Brief History of North Street

North Street is yet another of Exeter's four principal medieval thoroughfares in which very little architecture of historic interest can be seen today. The fragments that do remain lie hidden behind the mean late-19th century brick facades, and the destruction here has absolutely nothing to do with World War Two as almost the entire street survived the Blitz of 1942 unscathed. The route of North Street itself dates to the late 9th century and was laid out as part of Alfred the Great's refounding of the city in the 890s (a number of other streets in Exeter were created at this time, including Catherine Street and Gandy Street).

The map above dates to 1587. Highlighted in red are the buildings that fronted onto North Street, the North Gate visible where the street was bounded by the city wall, the tower of the medieval chuch of St Kerrian in the middle and, at the street's southern end, the great medieval water conduit that stood at the Carfoix, the crossroads where the High Street, North Street, South Street and Fore Street met. North street, also known as Northgate Street, was once much steeper than at present.

The Longbrook stream ran through a deep valley on this side of the city, beyond the line of the city wall. Both the steep-sided valley and the stream acted as a natural defensive barrier to the northern approach into Exeter. Anyone entering the city from the north would've had to climb up the side of the valley, passing under the medieval North Gate, before tackling the long haul up North Street to reach the plateau upon which the historic city centre was situated. The image below left © Devon County Council shows the west side of North Street c1840 looking down towards the newly completed Iron Bridge. The two tall townhouses on the left were Nos. 19 and 20.

In the mid-1830s a fine iron bridge was built to cross the Longbrook valley, making access into the city much less arduous, although the ancient North Gate was removed in 1769. Changes to the street level over the last 150 years have served to remove the steepness of the road, but the severity of the gradient into Exeter can still be gauged in Lower North Street, beyond the city walls, which lies below the level of the Iron Bridge. For heavily-laden carts in bad weather the road up into the city must've been almost impassable.

Several notable buildings were once situated on North Street, including the ancient church dedicated to the Celtic St Kerrian (demolished in 1878), the George Inn, first mentioned in 1578, the Black Dog Inn, and the 17th century Elephant Inn (demolished in the 1970s), but North Street in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries was primarily the home of a number of Exeter's exceptionally wealthy woollen cloth merchants, and the testament to their wealth were the extraordinary houses in which they lived. During the 16th century the serge cloth market was held in North Street before being relocated to South Street in 1591 and in the 1670s the parish of St Kerrian, which encompassed much of North Street, was one of the most affluent in the entire city.

The image right © Devon County Council shows North Street c1880, just prior to the destruction of the surviving timber-frame facades visible on the left. The medieval narrowness of the street combined with the increased usage of horse-drawn carriages at the end of the 18th century proved to be an issue for the city authorities, and as early as 1818 part of the street was demolished in order to widen the road.

But little else was altered and when the photograph at the top of this post was taken, c1880, the street still retained much of its 16th and 17th century character. The image shows the entrance into North Street from the High Street, North Street itself lined with a number of jettied, timber-framed houses. The house to the left on the corner, No. 186 Fore Street, dated to c1500 and had some notable wooden traceried windows. The oak statue of St Peter, inset into a niche within the facade of the house on the right, dated from the 15th century. Of the buildings shown all but one has since been demolished, and even that is now hidden beneath a late-19th century brick frontage.

The width of the street was still regarded as being too narrow in the 1890s and so the city authorities decided to embark on a lengthy road-widening operation. Up until this time the west side of the street had retained a significant number of townhouses dating from at least the 17th century. Two especially, Nos. 19 and 20, were both towering, multi-jettied houses bristling with carved oriel windows and were among the finest timber-framed facades ever built in the city. The drawing shown left © Devon County Council dates to c1830 and shows the top of the street near its junction with South Street and the High Street.

Neither their age, their history or their spectacular facades would save them and they were both completely demolished c1895 (fragments of the projecting oriel windows were later reset into a building on the High Street). The two adjacent houses, Nos. 17 & 18, were of a similar period, slightly plainer in style, but this time the city authorities didn't opt for total demolition. Instead a long saw was used to remove the timber-framed facades to a depth of 8ft and the early-17th century frontages were replaced with brick. This process of demolition continued all the way up the side of the street to the junction with Fore Street (most of the timber-framed buildings here had already been destroyed by fire in 1882).

A report in Trewman's 'Exeter Flying Post' dated 15 December 1900 gives an account of the on-going demolition: "The front portions of the premises Nos. 14 and 15...have been pulled down this week, and the ancient but irregular thoroughfare will by and bye be accorded a further extension of the widening process which has been in operation from time to time for a good many years now." The report continues, "the property which has been razed this week possessed no such architectural or antiquarian value as attached to some other shops formerly standing in the street." By 1910 all the houses on the west side (shown above as they appear today) had either been demolished or totally disfigured by the addition of brick facades to their timber-framed carcasses. The east side of North Street remained relatively unscathed, although the historic properties here were fewer in number and several were demolished and replaced over the course of the 19th century.

A large area at the rear of the houses on the west side of North Street, once the site of the George Inn, was bulldozed in the 1930s to build a cinema called the Gaumont, now the 'Mecca Bingo' hall. But the final act in the destruction of North Street only began in the early 1970s when the city council decided to build the Guildhall Shopping Centre as part of the 'Golden Heart' project. The Council's own conservation report for the area now calls the action "regrettable" as the project involved the complete destruction of nearly all of the remaining historic properties on the east side of North Street.

Among the buildings demolished for the shopping centre were the 17th century 'Elephant Inn', two mid-16th century properties and two important medieval merchant houses dating from the late-1400s, complete with their intact arch-braced hall roofs. One of these was No. 36 North Street. The other, No. 38 North Street, had the finest early-17th century decorative plasterwork ceiling left in the city and was fronted by an important timber-framed facade from the mid-1600s. No. 44 North Street was another Grade II listed building. Dating to c1800 it had unusual iron balconies. It too was destroyed. No. 33 North Street was recorded in 1931 as having plasterwork ceilings behind a rebuilt facade. It was also destroyed. It is no exaggeration to suggest that by the 1970s, thanks to slum clearances, the Blitz, post-war reconstruction and further demolition there was relatively little of historic Exeter left to destroy, the majority of the city centre comprising of buildings that were less than 50 years-old.

The fact that the local authority so casually destroyed some of the oldest domestic houses in the city is nothing short of staggering. Local historian Hugh Meller rightly said that the 1970s rebuilding, above left, was "catastrophic". Bridget Cherry called it "disastrous". The late-19th century brick facades are grim enough but the monolithic 1970s brick slab that now forms the east side of North Street is an appalling blemish on the face of the city. Peter Thomas calls it "grim and forbidding" with "prison-like walls". The council's conservation report manages to come up with the words "unwelcoming" and "alien". I can think of a dozen others, none of which would adequately describe the appearance of North Street today. It is dirty, unattractive, often choked with cars, reeking of exhaust fumes and dominated by the brick cliff of the shopping centre. It represents the very worst of post-war town-planning combined with the most revolting examples of Modernist architecture.

As if the Guildhall Shopping Centre wasn't intrusive enough the redevelopment was capped off with the construction of the accompanying Brutalist car park that squats over the corner of North Street with Bartholomew Street East above and which is almost the first thing you see when approaching the city centre from the north.

It all beggars belief that any of this was an acceptable addition to a historic cathedral city which had already been so badly mauled. North Street today is one of the least appealing parts of a city that is unfortunately hardly short of visually unappealing townscapes. If any of the people shown in the photograph at the top of this post could see North Street they would literally not recognise a single building. The image below shows how the entrance into North Street from the High Street c1880 would look today if it had survived intact.

The following photographs show various views of North Street today:



Anonymous said...

A very well done and highly informative article, thanks for this!

Anonymous said...

This destruction is HORRIBLE. My Passmore Ancestors lived in Exeter before 1600> I looked to find churches where they were baptised> All destroyed! Michael Plante Montreal Canada

Angela said...

My grandmother and her husband and first child lived at 26 North Street in the 1911 census. Her husband was not my grandfather!! They divorced in 1912 just prior to my mother`s birth - I`m going to be visiting Exeter in Sept. looking at the various addresses I have for my ancestors - Okehampton Street and Cowick Street in particular - not sure if there will be much to see though.

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