City Guide: Exeter, UK
With indie shops, trendy restaurants and plenty of sites to see – not to mention close proximity to beautiful Dartmoor – it’s time to visit Exeter
Berlin, Detroit, Exeter – ok, we’re kidding, the Devon city isn’t exactly famous for its nightlife, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of places where you can wet your whistle and stick your knees up. Start your evening with a tipple on the waterfront at, er, On The Waterfront – a converted 19th-century warehouse on the quayside that’s full to the gunwales with real ale and craft gin.
For something a little more curious, try The Hourglass, a dimly-lit backstreet pub up the hill at the opposite end of the quay – its walls are lined with plants, prints and experiments in taxidermy. It also stocks more than two dozen wines in a cupboard under the stairs and celebrate regional beers by selling four-pint jugs at mates’ rates. They also sell lager, reluctantly.
On the other side of town – wedged between the castle and John Lewis – you’ll find the upmarket Oddfellows, a speakeasy cocktail bar with a gastro edge. Expect carefully thought-out concoctions, not just standard coladas and caipirinhas.
Just opposite on New North Road is The Old Firehouse, a scene stalwart for music lovers.Head down late and you can soak up all that booze with a healthy slice of pizza, which they serve until 2.30am on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
If the demon drink’s not your vice (or you’re just a wee bit hungover), make the pilgrimage to the east of town to micro roastery-cum-café Exe Coffee Roasters and meet Steve and Lewis – they’ll churn out unique blends of the hot black stuff and pop it in a cup before you can say “Wake me up now!”.
Devon’s pretty famous for its cream teas, but you won’t be needing scones and jam when you see the ludicrous number of traybakes churned out by wholesale cakery the Exploding Bakery. Nibble the spare bits and enjoy brews courtesy of Monmouth coffee at this café by Exeter Central station.
Whether you’re cooking your own grub or looking for an early bird’s breakfast before hitting the town, you can find local and sustainable food at Real Food Store – a café, produce shop and bakery that’s the fruit of one of the UK’s largest community-owned food projects. You’ll find it sitting defiantly in the shadow of Princesshay shopping centre.
At lunchtime, nip round the corner to Sidwell Street for an “OMG, those burgers” moment at Hubbox, where you can grab loaded dogs, crafty beers and (yep, you guessed it) delicious beef patties – all served from a kitchen housed in an old shipping container, of course.
If you’re hungry enough to take a 25-minute drive out of the city (or a 15-minute train and half-hour walk from Cranbrook station), you should delve into west country gastronomy at The Jack in the Green – a pub-cum-foodie’s-heaven in nearby Rockbeare. You’ll find locally-sourced tasting menus and traditional pub grub.
In case you hadn’t already noticed, homespun Devon produce is a big part of Exeter’s food scene, and The Glorious Art House on arty and independent Fore Street is no different. Add eco credentials and local art on the walls and that raw food board is looking very appealing.
You know how it is, you can’t truly understand a place until you know all of its secrets, and the Exeter Underground Passages are probably the worst kept one this city has to offer. Originally designed to pump clean drinking water round the city, these narrow passages are a must-see for history buffs (but one to avoid if you get claustrophobic).
If art and culture’s more your bag, make a beeline for Exeter Phoenix, a bustling creative hub at the end of Gandy Street – a narrow road of shops that was the inspiration for Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. At the Phoenix you’ll find rotating exhibitions, gigs, theatre and comedy as well as independent flicks with Q&As.
Talking of films, The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum on the university campus houses one of the world’s largest collections of material relating to the moving image, with over 75,000 items in an archive dating back to the 17th century. What’s more, it’s open seven days a week and is absolutely free.
Once you find it (it’s hidden down a passage near the top of Fore Street), The Bike Shed Theatre is good for a full evening’s entertainment. The charmingly compact red brick theatre puts on shows from some of the best small companies in the country – and the bar’s pretty good for a knees up after the curtain call, too.
If you plan on using Exeter as a base for exploring, head out west to Dartmoor, or down the River Exe to the stunning sands of the Jurassic Coast at Budleigh or Exmouth. On your way home, try some west country tipples at Topsham’s Pebblebed Vineyard – you won’t regret it.
As far as shopping goes, Exeter’s full of hidden gems, and most of them can be found on Fore Street – a steep hill full of independent shops that links the cathedral and the river.
Take a stroll in the newly redesigned McCoy’s Arcade for vintage clothes from the aptly named Real McCoy, pick up some boutique beers at Hops and Crafts and check out Manson’s, a guitar shop stacked floor-to-ceiling with all the best things with strings.
A little further down the slope, No Guts No Glory is a quirky shop run by a pair of designers – they specialise in posters, clobber, cards and gifts as well as some seriously cool cacti.
Keep going over the road to New Bridge Street and you’ll find all sorts of curiosities at Otto’s Antiques & Interiors – a marvellous menagerie of offbeat old furnishings. With all this lot to check out, there’s probably no need to tell you about all the high-street brands you can find in Princesshay.
If you’re looking for a boutique break with a luxe lounge, you’re in luck – Exeter’s full of distinctive places to stay.
You can make yourself at home sipping champagne in a copper tub at the luxurious Southernhay House or enjoy a spa break in the recently converted Hotel Du Vin – which is situated inside the city’s old Victorian eye infirmary. Both are about ten minutes in a cab from Exeter St Davids station.
If you have a set of wheels, it’s definitely worth the short drive to Treetops Treehouse in Eggesford – the distinctive lakeside property sleeps four with a kingsize suite and two bunks for the kids.
Meanwhile, if terra firma’s more your schtick, try Bovey Castle, a five-star rural retreat that’s nestled elegant and stately on the Exeter side of Dartmoor.
South West Trains offers single fares to Exeter St Davids from London Waterloo from £14. southwesttrains.co.uk