Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Chevalier Inn: Nos. 78 & 79, Fore Street

These two magnificent timber-framed merchant houses were built in the early decades of the 17th century and stood for over three centuries at the top of Fore Street. The house on the left, No. 78, was the older of the two, dating to around the 1610. No. 79 dated to c1640.

Both were distinguished by the exceptionally elaborate projecting oriel windows that jettied out over the pavement of Fore Street, the frames being supported on carved oak corbels. The only similar windows that survived into the late 19th century in Exeter were at Nos. 19 and 20 in North Street, demolished c1890.

The name by which the two houses were known in the early 20th century originated from a terracotta ridge tile in the shape of a knight on horseback that stood on the gable end of No. 79, peering down into the street below (just visible in the photo below). These roof finials were once fairly common across the city in the 16th and 17th centuries but the one on the Chevalier inn was the last to survive in situ, said to mark the site of a house that lodged cavalier soldiers during the English Civil War.

In 1829 No. 78 was purchased by John Trehane, a Justice of the Peace, and the Trehane family owned it until it was sold in 1889 to Charles Ham, a wine and spirits merchant. In 1879 No. 79 was a pharmacy run by a Mr Thompson and was later a wallpaper and paint shop and a bookshop. By 1942 the two properties functioned together as the Chevalier inn.

The interiors were as impressive as the exteriors as both houses had rooms of panelling, decorative plaster work ceilings and stone fireplaces. (More information on the plaster work ceilings that once existed at No. 79 Fore Street can be found here.) An 1879 tourist guide to the city recorded that "many of the interiors are peculiarly rich in walnut wainscot and shields of arms and will well repay a visit from the antiquarian and archaeologist". An article in Trewman's 'Exeter Flying Post' dating to 1899 stated that "such a rare piece of antiquity will absorb for a while the whole attention of the onlooker", describing the two properties as "among the glories" of Fore Street. It's hard to argue with the assessment.

Until the 18th century at least, No. 79 appears to have stood on the corner of Fore Street and a now long-vanished lane which led into George Street. The lane appears on Benjamin Donn's 1765 map of Exeter in about the right place. The Fountain inn, probably named after the nearby water conduit, stood nearby. Further evidence for the existence of this lane appears on a drawing of what I believe is No. 79 Fore Street.

The drawing left appeared in an 1848 edition of the 'Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle' but had actually been executed some years previously. It was only titled 'Elizabethan House at Exeter'. In appearance it is almost identical to surviving photographs of No. 79 High Street. The major differences are the arrangement of the door and windows on the ground floor and the absence of the little terracotta figure of the knight on horseback. The great oriel windows on the first and second floors are exactly the same. If it is No. 79 High Street then it suggests that the property was originally built as a corner house. The lane visible to the right is shown on a map of 1832 but had disappeared by the 1860s.

Anyway, these superlative houses were two of Exeter's most well-known landmarks. Both properties were threatened with demolition in 1929 but a campaign by numerous organisations and individuals resulted in them being saved, purchased by the City Council with help from a £10,000 government loan. Just 13 years later in the early hours of 4 May 1942, both houses, the finest timber-framed buildings left in the city, were incinerated by German firebombs.

No trace of the buildings survive today, not even the little terracotta figure of the knight on horseback, and now the area is one of the ugliest, most visually unappealing in the whole city. In the book 'Aspects of Exeter', Jacqueline Warren recounts a legend attached to the terracotta figure. It was claimed that every March the figure would leave the top of the gable and gallop to the Cathedral where it ascended one of the towers, looking out over the city towards the fields of St Leonard's in remembrance of the time during the English Civil War when the Royalists were holed up in the city and General Fairfax's Parliamentarian army was camped to the south.

Drag the handle on the image below to see before and after pictures:


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