June 6, 2010
by Martin Odoni
There are ghosts. They’re not exactly what we think they are of course, but ghosts do exist, and they always have the same effect when they’re near. An uneasy, nervous sensation grips you, a sense that something that shouldn’t be there is hovering just over your shoulder. You turn to look out for it, but you can never quite fix it in your sights; whichever way you turn, however fast you move, it always seems able to match you precisely and stay off right on the very edge of your vision. Just enough to remain a frightening distraction, but not enough for you to do anything about it.
There then may follow a heart-stopping impression that something isn’t there that should be, as though the ghost has snatched away something precious. Or even worse, the ghost itself is what is missing, and it’s shouting loud, begging you to help it return to the real world, and yet you can never quite make enough sense of its words. This is the impression the ghosts of Exeter might give you.
Now Exeter is a city that has its fair share of spectral legends. For instance, the ghost that supposedly haunts the top floor of St. Katherine’s Priory near Stoke Hill, or the lost soul that apparently lurks in the early-Modern refectory on Cathedral Close. But these are not the type of ghost under discussion here.
Wander up the slope of South Street, or along Sidwell Street’s deceptive length, and you may find yourself glancing up, to the side, over your shoulder, thinking to yourself, "What am I missing? What should be here…?" But of course, you can never see it, never get any answer to the nagging question. You know something should be here, possibly you even have half an idea where the missing element should go, but you haven’t a clue where to find it or what it is.
What is missing, it could well be argued, is Exeter itself.
This is not to say that the Cathedral city is unpleasant or empty. On the contrary, it’s quite a mild, appealing mix of lively modernity and ornate tradition. But there is a certain uniqueness, a depth of character that just isn’t quite there, and yet you know – you’re not always sure how you know it, but you know it nonetheless – that it was there once.
In the 1930’s, Exeter, one of Britain’s oldest and proudest cities, really was something special. After centuries, it was still the effective capital of the West Country – easily more prominent than today’s chief urban centres of Bristol and Plymouth – a beautiful, grand little city, full of life, full of colour and with a vibrant energy that survivors of the era would hark back to for many years afterwards. It had busy, narrow, winding streets lined with timber-framed buildings, almost a Twentieth Century throwback to the Tudor age. Some of her buildings, such as the mansions of Bedford Circus, the Commercial Union Building, Eastgate Arcade, the Globe Hotel, and the Church of St. Lawrence, were among the finest architecture to be found anywhere in the British Isles; if you don’t believe me, photographs of them exist in the archives, so Google the names and see for yourself. But in the year 2010, these structural masterpieces are no longer to be found.
The changes began in the 1940’s, although few in the city had wanted to make them *. Instead they were forced upon them in the most violent manner possible. The Second World War had been raging for several years already when the British decided on landing a punch below the belts of Nazi Germany **. On the night of the 28th and morning of the 29th of March 1941, two hundred and thirty-four British bombing planes and fighters flew across the English Channel into German airspace. This flotilla then dropped one hundred and forty-four tons of incendiaries and one hundred and sixty tons of high explosive on the small, unprotected German port of Lubeck, triggering a firestorm that, directly or indirectly, caused the deaths of over three hundred people, and destroyed well over half the buildings in the city. A strategically-unimportant city was engulfed in fire, and as the planes turned for home, they left behind them a city scarred, broken and ruined.
When Germany’s Fuerher, Adolf Hitler, heard word of the attack, his considerable fury was piqued, and he ordered a series of reprisal attacks against five equally unimportant towns across England. One of his chief propagandists, Gustav Braun von Stumm, dubbed this macabre campaign of revenge ‘Baedeker’, named after a travel guide to Britain that had been written for German tourists in the 1930’s. “The Luftwaffe will target every building marked with three stars in Baedeker.”
The targets selected were Bath, Canterbury, Norwich and York. But first of all, a small Luftflotte of thirty-two jets was sent to the English West Country to bombard the regional capital of Exeter.
Exeter had in fact faced air raids on a very small scale since as early as August 1940, at the height of the Battle Of Britain, so the sight of Luftwaffe planes overhead was hardly something the people of the city were new to. But what ensued in late April and early May 1942 was something altogether different. After a ‘warm-up’ sting on the 23rd of April, the first really intense attack was on April 24th. German bombing raids destroyed Comrie Crescent entirely, and much of King Street and Wonford Street.
But all this was as nothing to the fledgling hours of the 4th of May 1942. This time, the heart of Exeter, its narrow streets and timbered houses ripe for the swift spread of fire, was reduced to smouldering rubble and ash in a quick, thorough series of bombing attacks from the sky. This was the night that became infamous in Devon’s local history as the Exeter Blitz.
It is not always appreciated today, even among many of the city’s own inhabitants, the real degree of the destruction that night. The main span of the Blitz was only about an hour and a quarter, but during that time, the central hub of the city, High Street, Sidwell Street, South Street and Fore Street, and dozens of narrower streets around and in between, were all devastated by explosives and fires, with many more buildings damaged or destroyed than left intact. Two-thirds of the High Street and Sidwell Street were burned down. The top quarter of Fore Street was left in ruins, as were the top two-thirds of South Street. Catherine Street, running parallel to the High Street, more or less ceased to exist ***. Bampfylde Street was flattened ***. Paris Street lost its famous Palladium Cinema and over a dozen shops. Summerland Street was almost wiped off the map ***. Of the twenty-three great buildings on Bedford Circus, only eight were still standing by sunrise. In the Newtown district just beyond Sidwell Street, many houses in Portland Street and Prospect Park (a street I was to live on in the late 1980’s) were reduced to bombed-out shells. St. Sidwell’s Church was literally sliced in half by a bizarre bomb impact that sent a quarter-ton slab of granite flying about a quarter of a mile, landing with lethal force through the roof of a distant house.
One hour and fifteen minutes of madness later, over a hundred and fifty people lay dead, over five hundred and sixty more were injured, over one thousand five hundred buildings had been destroyed, and thousands more were damaged – many so severely that they were unsafe and required demolition anyway. In the space of less than eighty minutes, the heart of Exeter, one of England’s oldest, most historic and beautiful cities, had been smashed and gutted out. Some of its finest long-standing buildings and most popular landmarks were among those lost. Even the great Cathedral had been struck by a high explosive bomb, destroying St. James Chapel and the Choristers School in their entirety, and causing severe damage to the southern aisle of the Cathedral-proper; two of its supporting buttresses were destroyed, and damage to any of the others might have caused much of the Cathedral’s structure to collapse.
Exeter’s blitz of course had parallels with the Battle Of Britain and the horrors inflicted on London, but there was a difference for the inhabitants. Londoners could mass in huge numbers below ground in the Underground Stations. Exeter was too small a city to have its own underground rail network, and so the inhabitants had few places to hide except in their own homes ****, which of course offered little protection.
Hitler himself gloated when he received reports of the destruction. "Exeter was the jewel of Western England… we have destroyed that jewel," proclaimed Nazi propaganda. On both counts, correct. Exeter was the soul of the West Country at the time, and the destruction was so extreme that when many of the dazed and bewildered inhabitants finally emerged, blinking and shaking, into the morning daylight of May 4th, they surveyed a (still-ablaze) city so broken that they could hardly identify anything they looked at. To see the photographs of the aftermath is to realise that saying, "Exeter was destroyed in 1942" is not much of an exaggeration.
Put an Exonian in suspended animation in 1938, and then revive him in, say, 1970, and he would have trouble recognising the city he is waking to as his own. This was chiefly because of the horrors of the Blitz, but partly also because of what followed.
The general exhaustion and economic destitution caused by the war meant that large stretches of Britain were littered with wrecked wastelands for many years afterwards, with sufficient resources for rebuilding much of what was lost only becoming available piecemeal.
This led on to the additional difficulty that much that was lost was almost impossible to replace; some of the greatest, most intricately-crafted buildings of the United Kingdom were destroyed, and some of them were old enough that the original blueprints for their construction were long lost.
This was especially true in the mutilated city of Exeter, which had lost most of its finest and most loved landmarks, many dating back centuries. The difficulty therefore lay not just in finding the resources and the will to go back and rebuild, but also in judging exactly what shape the revived city should take, tasks that weren’t really addressed on a concerted scale until ten years after the end of the war.
Of course, it’s easy to sneer when you aren’t in the difficult position of having to make such decisions, but it has to be conceded that the path that was eventually chosen was something of a cop-out. Although some of the rebuilt housing was of good quality and passably easy on the eye, much of the rebuilding of the city centre through the 1960’s very much erred on the side of caution.
To compare, in particular, modern Sidwell Street with pictures of its pre-war manifestation would be like comparing ice to steam. Your brain tells you that you’re looking at the same thing, you know with your head that geographically this is the same place, and you can even see the odd surviving remnant of the old city here and there. But every instinct in your being tells you that it can’t possibly be true. Your heart says you’re looking at some place entirely different.
To get things in perspective, I must make clear that the architecture in modern Exeter is far from bad – genuinely ugly buildings in the city remain mercifully rare – but as you walk along Sidwell Street towards the (amusingly-named) Pennsylvania district, you quickly get the impression of what a city must look like when it’s fallen asleep. So many samey brick structures. So much concrete. So much blandness. So little colour. So few daring shapes. With the obvious exception of the hopelessly-sited (and now deserted) old Debenhams monolith on the corner with Longbrook Street, there are no buildings that actually offend your sensibilities or make you think, "Holy cow, what an eyesore!" but in truth, there’s little in this corner of town that will inspire any aesthetic feeling in you at all. It’s just tame. The town planners simply decided to play it safe and throw up a new, uniform town centre made of featureless concrete and blockishly-arrayed red bricks, and leave the question of character to another day.
If you go back and look at the pictures of the pre-war Sidwell Street, in all its shapely variety and grandness, the word "character" is precisely what leaps to mind. This was a city that was unique and had an according sense of itself. And there is truly no resemblance to the Sidwell Street of today, which looks generic enough that it could be part of almost any large English town. It thus has no sense of uniqueness or of itself at all. (Its eastern half has even been re-sited somewhat, to fit it with the new street plan.)
The rebuilding program saw a number of the streets that had been destroyed in the war simply swallowed up into the new concrete monoliths that were thrown up in an almost indecent haste around the High Street and Paris Street. Some older buildings that had survived the Blitz intact were mercilessly pulled down to make way for the new street plan – including surviving remnants of Bedford Circus. To people who had memories of Old Exeter, the horror of what was emerging was almost as great as the horror of the Blitz itself.
We should not be too quick to condemn the town planners for this, as they were in a difficult position. For one thing, none of this would have had to happen were it not for the Blitz. (And by the way, before we digress into nationalistic rants about the evil of the Nazis and those "demonic Huns", we should also not forget that the attack, however unjustified, was provoked by an equally brutal British attack on Lubeck **, a city that was just as peaceful, innocent and strategically-unimportant.) For another, given the perilous financial situation of the country after the war, there was no way a rebuilding program could be attempted without private investment. And one of the sad realities of private investment is that the terms of the investors must be met, first and foremost; otherwise they will simply withdraw the funding. So if the investors do not consider aesthetics a priority, then nor will any of the others involved.
In any event, although the architects were not brave, enough of the old city remains in some areas to keep Exeter true to itself, after a fashion. The gleaming white Cathedral was fully restored and remains one of the finest and most stunning architectural sights to behold anywhere in Europe. The revived Cathedral green that surrounds it is also beautiful and picturesque. While some new bits of the High Street continue that characterless pattern from Sidwell Street, other parts, such as the millennium-old St. Stephens Church and the Medieval Guildhall are testament to the continuity of an ancient city. Same could be said of the White Hart Inn on South Street, or St. Olave’s Church on Fore Street.
The problem is, what remain most striking and appealing about modern Exeter are the remnants of the old city that survived the Blitz, far more than the modern edifices that were put up in the aftermath. (Too often, the word ‘modernisation’ is used by its proponents as a euphemism for ‘vandalism’.) The surviving beauty is largely in spite of the reconstruction work, and not because of it. As I say, the new buildings of Exeter rarely offend (although Renslade House on the riverfront is another unfortunate exception, a truly grotesque, oversized heap of multi-storey, miscoloured concrete that has no place in a city like Exeter at all), and their featurelessness in some ways allows them to ‘blend in’ with the remnants of the older city quite comfortably. This contrasts sharply with Chester, where the construction of new buildings has been forced next to the old in a way that sometimes clashes jarringly. But the sense of loss in Exeter is still real, as the new buildings don’t come anywhere near to replacing what was there before them.
Through the last five years or so, the pre-war grounds of Catherine Street and around the remains of the old Roman Wall were built over a second time and fully pedestrianised into a new, innovatively-styled shopping arcade called Princesshay, named after an unpopular shopping area built on the same site in the 1950’s. The new Princesshay certainly has a lot more character than the architecture of the 1960’s to the 1980’s, and is very pleasant to look at. I was rather startled to see it when I visited Exeter in 2008, as it had simply not been there on my previous trip home way back in 1992. It’s definitely a plus, but even there it doesn’t fully compensate. This is because the design has an unmistakeable whiff of the urban renewal projects that have been taking place up and down the country. It ends the sterile concrete feel that has spread through parts of the city centre since the war, which is undoubtedly for the better, but it does little to bring back Old Exeter’s uniqueness.
None of this, I must repeat, should be taken to mean the modern city is actually unpleasant. On the contrary, it is still a snug, mild, safe and intermittently-lovely environment to visit or live in, inhabited by polite, good-humoured, eccentric people. But there’s still something not there that should be. Although it’s still special to me, and always will be – that’s only natural, it’s my hometown after all – to the wider world it is not as special anymore, and it is precisely because it is not quite as unique anymore. The potential still shines through in every brick, every stone, a potential that had been realised long ago, and was then lost.
The bombing itself was not quite a catastrophe. Compared with the near-annihilation a couple of years later of the major cities of the Third Reich, such as Berlin, Wurzburg and Dresden, what happened to Exeter in 1942 looks like a boxer sustaining a couple of cracked ribs while his opponent succumbs to severe neurological trauma. And indeed, just within the sphere of Baedeker, Bath and Canterbury suffered wider destruction and loss of life. Nor is the half-heartedness of Exeter’s reconstruction a catastrophe, for it is still a beautiful place, at least sporadically *****.
But still, there is something sad about it all. For the ghosts I spoke of earlier are not the souls of dead people, but more the echoes of an idea realised and then lost. And the sadness is not that the rebuilding of Exeter was a missed opportunity, but that it was an opportunity that the city would have been far, far better not to have been presented with in the first place.
So when I walk the streets of the city I love, and I hear the ghosts in my ear, I realise now that they are not trying to scare me or to make me jump. They are screaming, begging, pleading with me to remember what they were, and not to allow the memory of the city that once existed to be forgotten. The ghosts are the past of the city itself.
And where the catastrophe for Exeter really lies is that while we may be able to hear the ghosts as they plead with us, still we cannot see them. And our eyes are truly the poorer for that.
* There is some debate about whether there were those in Exeter City Council who were secretly delighted by the Blitz, as it saved them a job of getting approval to demolish half the city centre. Documents released in the late 1960’s under the Thirty-Year Rule show that plans were already in place as far back as 1937 – not just before the Blitz but actually before the war – to demolish every building on Paris Street in order to widen the road. This is a strong indicator as to how unsentimental the Council was about the city’s legacy, and how ruthless it was prepared to be about making the flow of traffic easier. But it does not prove that the Council was always going to sweep away the city centre in its entirety, nor that it would end up looking the way it does now regardless of the war.
** It is possible that the attack on Lubeck was an accident caused by pilots mistaking it for the correct target, which has been the official British position on the subject for many years. However, this is not altogether borne out by the statements made on the subject by the officers and pilots involved in the decision themselves. For example, Air Marshall Arthur "Bomber" Harris cheerfully admitted that he gave the order to destroy it just ‘to be on the safe side’, so to speak. His exact words were, "It seemed to me better to destroy an industrial town of moderate importance than to fail to destroy a large industrial city." Given the repercussions for not only Lubeck but also cities like Exeter, Bath and Norwich, Harris’ definition of ‘better’ perhaps requires re-analysis.
*** Summerland Street, Bampfylde Street and Catherine Street do exist in modern Exeter, but they bear little resemblance to their counterparts of the 1930s. Summerland Street is on roughly the same site as its predecessor, but is entirely built up with brick industrial outlet buildings. Once again, none of them are actually ugly, but all of them are generic and uninspired. Bampfylde Street’s current incarnation is a narrow back road running parallel to Sidwell Street behind the Bus Station on Paris Street. The site of the original Bampfylde Street is now a wide footpath leading from the High Street, through the new Princesshay shopping arcade, down to Southernhay. It is called Bampfylde Lane. Meanwhile, modern Catherine Street is not even a road anymore – it’s just a narrow back alley running behind St. Stephen’s Church on the High Street.
**** It is worth mentioning that, in this context, Exeter did have its version of the Underground Stations, a series of Medieval underground passages built for the movement of clean water supplies around the city, and people did hide out in these during the Exeter Blitz. However, there was only room in them for around three hundred people, and the conditions were infinitely more cramped; I’ve been in them, and I can tell you that in most places you can’t sit, crouch or stand up straight, but only poise yourself in a very stressful stooping position. Staying down there for hours with the bombs thundering and fires raging overhead, and without clean air, must have seemed like purgatory.
***** Given the old city’s terrible slum areas, whose clearance was long overdue and only completed after the war as part of the rebuilding program, it could well be argued that the beauty of Exeter was just as sporadic in the old days as in the new. Certainly, those who claim that pre-war Exeter was uniformly a better place than the post-war city are guilty of nostalgic cherry-picking.