Friday, August 26, 2011

Here be witches, invisible bats and gourmet burgers

So, as you know, it's been a fairly exhausting fortnight. I had five days in Cornwall rushing around visiting family, artists and galleries, then drove to Plymouth to collect my two grandkids (aged 4 and 6) who then came to stay with me for 12 days. Twelve long days. Nothing reminds you of your age more than small noisy humans seemingly powered by atomic engines. Awww ... they're lovely and I miss them already. I took them back home on Wednesday and then, because I was cadging a lift with my son-in-law, I got to spend about half a day in Exeter too. So I thought I'd share some photos and a commentary about my day.

Having said bye bye to daughter and kids, I caught the train from Plymouth to Exeter. It's a lovely route. It takes about an hour and half the journey is spent thundering through lush Devon farmland while the rest runs along the coast at Teignmouth, Dawlish, Newton Abbot and Totnes. I've posted a few photographs here - I apologise for the quality. They were taken through dirty glass while twisting my lumpen body through 90 degrees. Plus I had to deal with window glare and reflections. But you get the idea. It was so nice to just sit in the sun and look out at the sea.

It also became something of a wildlife safari as well as I spotted endless rabbits, a fox and a huge buzzard perched near the tracks on a hay bale. Oh, and emus. Seriously, I passed a field with around 10 emus therein. A field belonging to a zoo perhaps? Or were they being farmed? I've eaten ostrich which is very yummy. Maybe we're eating emus now? I will explore the issue.

A dull morning had metamorphosed into a beautiful, warm, sunny day so I decided to walk from Exeter St Davids train station into the city. I was told it was about a 20 minute walk. I hadn't been told that most of it was up a 20% hill. It was a good cardio-vascular plod and no mistake. But it afforded me an unusual photographic opportunity. As you get to the top of St David's Hill and turn into Hele Road, the pavement drops below the level of the graveyard of St David's church and the tombstones come right out to the kerb. Consequently, you get a unique freshly-emerging zombie's eye view of the environs.

From here it was a short walk into the city itself. And, as I did in Truro just a few weeks ago, I found myself wondering about this whole city status business. It's all to do with cathedrals and diocese I know but Exeter feels oddly un-city like. I once described the incongruous placing of Truro cathedral in the middle of a small market town as looking like someone had dropped a piano stool upside-down on Legoland. Things are a little better in Exeter as the cathedral is set in lovely surroundings away from the bustle of the High Street. It's also not a big building for a cathedral; I've seen larger churches and abbeys. And Exeter itself isn't a big place either. When I think 'city' I think of places like London, Birmingham, New York, Manchester, Liverpool, Washington DC, Mumbai, Paris ... not quaint little tea rooms and cobbled streets.

Anyway, putting that aside, and no matter how you label it, it's a pretty little city. There's a glorious mishmash of architecture wherever you look; black-beamed Tudor nestles against ugly utilitarian 1960s concrete, curious Scandinavian-inspired folly nuzzles against the local signature red soil daub of Norman churches. There are churches everywhere you look but very few pubs, which I guess raises the bar on Exeter's ratings as a classy place. There were two bookshops as well. Two! There were hardly any of the signs of urban decay you see in some towns and cities such as a proliferation of Pound Shops or cash-converting pawn shops. Even the buskers were classy; one was playing a harp and another chap with a voice like velvet sang old crooning classics and soloed expertly on the trumpet.

There was a Gregg's and several fast food joints but I can forgive Exeter of that because there were also some very passable little bistros and restaurants. I took tea in one, the Chandos Deli, and had what was probably the best cup of loose-leaf Earl Grey I've had all year. I also had a great view of the Roman wall that brokenly encircles the city. In fact, everywhere you look, there are reminders of Exeter's past preserved in situ such as the 15th century almshouses (part paid for by William Wynard's involvement in piracy) and the tiny church of St Pancras, nestling uncomfortably inside the Guildhall shopping precinct. The planners must have hated that place. But there was no way it was ever being knocked down as it's the oldest place of Christian worship in the city and dates from 1191. Other interesting places to visit include the 14th century guildhall - the oldest municipal building in the UK, the ancient St Catherine's almshouses, the remains of a Roman villa, and the extraordinary 'House that moved' on Stepcote Hill; a 14th century 21 ton timber building that was strapped up and slowly dragged to its current location to accommodate the building of a new road in 1961. I also had fun with Parliament Street which, at only 1220mm at it's widest pount - that's just over four feet wide for you oldies - is said to be the world's narrowest designated street. Beergut challenge! The city museum was shut for renovation, which was a shame.

A short walk up yet another hill above the town took me to the remains of Rougemont Castle, a Norman fortress and the site of the last ever witch execution in the UK. I had a wander around the perimeter of the castle walls which afforded a splendid view over the city, Rougemont Gardens and Northernhay Gardens.

If I have any disappointment with Exeter it is the lack of really interesting public art. There are statues to various important historical people like Redvers Buller, Richard Hooker and Queen Victoria. There are monuments to things like the Boer War and the Livery Dole Martyrs. But there is a conspicuous lack of anything modern, save an uninspired pointy mirrored thing on the High Street called the Exeter Riddle Sculpture by Michael Fairfax. Many people may love it. It did nothing for me and didn't seem in any way to be sympathetic to its surroundings.

Much more interesting was the mechanical bird that sits above the entrance to the Phoenix Arts Centre at the end of Gandy Street. It was the first place in the city where I felt that there was some hint of Bohemia. The bird, by Paul Spooner, looks quite like the Iron Chicken in the 1970s Oliver Postgate series Clangers and, on the hour, stands up and spreads its stainless steel wings. I didn't catch the moment when it did but it's a fun piece. Just around the corner is a unicorn made from scrap materials by Simon Ruscoe. Then, a short walk takes you to Andrew Alleway's city mural in Musgrave Row depicting various events in the city's long history.

I had a nice lunch in the Phoenix. It was one of those tower-high gourmet burgers so despised by David Mitchell (see here) but it was very tasty once I'd figured out how to attack it without scaffolding. It came with 'chips' that were also very tasty but the four of them were essentially a quarter of a good sized potato each and very filling. I could hear my Weightwatchers counsellor screaming.

The Phoenix has a good programme of live music, drama and dance and various studios and out-buildings where music can be made and art classes taught. It's a very pleasant place to visit and a splendid resource for the city. It also hosts art exhibitions and the current show is called 'A collection of gaps' by local boy Darren Harvey-Regan. The exhibition notes state that Harvey-Regan aims to 'explore the interplay between image, object and meaning' and that his works 'investigate the representation and scientific classification of animals and their ability to expose human narratives'. I could kind of see what he was up to, using puns and visual gags to play on the labelling systems used to denote individual species classification. Therefore a red squirrel was really red - bright vermilion red - and Heidegger's Lizard became a photo of a small reptile crushed by a large rock; presumably a nod to the philosopher's theories about existentialism. There were also empty spot-lit spaces where non-existent bats roosted above their taxonmic labels; it reminded me of that old Zen joke that goes 'What's red and invisible? No tomatoes'. Arf. An interesting exhibition but it didn't float my boat I'm afraid. It all seemed a little too contrived and none of the pieces was especially pleasing. Judge for yourself:

All too soon, it was time to leave. I crammed a lot into four hours but still had so much more to see, such as the historic quay. I've been offered another trip down there soon. I like Exeter. I'd like to make it back there soon if I can.

Oh, and emu is now being farmed as a gourmet food item apparently. Who knew? Maybe the Phoenix will have it on the menu next time I visit?


Scotty said...

Great post, and great photos too, Stevyn - I do have to wonder though if I'm going to be the first (and maybe the only) person to comment on that second photo, lol.


Stevyn Colgan said...

Some of the other photos were decidedly more pornographic. Or as pornographic as nob-shaped rocks can get anyway!

Andrew Kerr said...

Your blogs really give the flavour of the places you have visited.

Whether it be a visit to a museum with your Grandchildren or a walk around Exeter.

I would suggest you write a guide book but I bet your creative diary is full!