For me, Southernhay easily vies with the Cathedral Close as the most beautiful and visually satisfying part of Exeter still in existence. Despite the fact that much of it was damaged by fire in 1942 and then subsequently demolished, the setting, with its mature trees surrounded by the most lovely red-brick Georgian housing exudes an atmosphere of easy contentment that is unrivalled anywhere else in the city or anywhere else in Devon or Cornwall.
One can only imagine the impression it made before the war, when all the terraces were intact. But even now, in the summer, the red-brick townhouses, with their white window frames and fanlights look stunning when seen against a deep blue sky, framed by towering evergreen English oaks. Walking through Southernhay on a quiet Sunday afternoon really is like stepping back into another world. However the area has a very long and not always so idyllic history.
An archaeological excavation in 2002 discovered the remains of an Iron Age farmstead in the area consisting of a roundhouse enclosed by a circular ditch, with pottery shards dating from c250 BC. The settlement appears to have been abandoned by the time the Second Augustan Roman Legion arrived at Exeter cAD53. Since the construction of the mighty defensive walls of the Roman city c180 AD Southernhay has lain directly outside the city limits, spread out between the East Gate and the South Gate.
The area of modern-day Southernhay is highlighted in red on the 1587 map of Exeter by Braun and Hogenberg right, bounded on the east side by the road known as Great Southernhay. (The name itself just means 'the southern field', from the Anglo-Saxon word 'haia' meaning a hedge or enclosure.)
During the Middle Ages the area was known simply as Crulditch. Exeter historian W. G. Hoskins has surmised that the name derives from the medieval word 'crull' meaning 'curly' refering to the curved line of the old defensive ditch as its curved around this side of the city between the two great gates. The flat countryside beyond the South Gate made the city particularly vulnerable to attack and the ditch was constructed to aid the protection of this side of Exeter.
It was upon this piece of land that the annual Lammas Fair was held from at least 1278 until it was moved inside the city to the High Street at the end of the 18th century. And it was here during the reign of Mary I, on 15 November 1557, that the Protestant martyr Agnes Prest was burnt at the stake for denying the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. According to John Hooker, "her own husband and children were her greatest persecutors, from whom she fled, for that they would force her to be present at Mass". Hooker also relates that, in 1571, Agnes Jones was "burnt to death in Southernhay" for poisoning her husband. John Cole's map of 1709 still refers to the western side of Southernhay as the "Burning Place".
The pleasure gardens which had evolved in Southernhay by the middle of the 17th century were all swept aside following the outbreak of the English Civil War. In 1642 huge defensive ditches and ramparts were laid out across the entire area. Much was destroyed during the two Civil War sieges of Exeter and this side of the city was severely damaged, either deliberately or through military offensives.
In 1664 the increase in Exeter's population lead to the creation of the Trinity Green burial ground at the southern end of Southernhay above, now the site of a hotel carpark. The burial ground was excavated in 2008 and amongst the finds uncovered were fragments of Roman, medieval and post-medieval pottery, bits of Roman roof tile and medieval floor tile, 38 skeletons, 17th century clay pipes and a single piece of prehistoric flint.
The next significant development was the establishment in Southernhay East of the Devon and Exeter Hospital in 1741, the brain-child of the Dean of Exeter Cathedral Alured Clarke (the original, highly impressive Georgian building still survives right and today is known as Dean Clarke House).
By the mid-18th century Southernhay was starting to become incorporated into the city centre with only the city wall acting as a great impediment to its expansion. By the end of the 18th century Exeter's reliance on an economy founded on the export of wool was starting to wane. Exeter's wool trade was struck dead by the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and it never recovered but the city was attracting a number of wealthy professionals, members of the gentry and retired Army colonels who came primarily for the city's mild climate and rural location. And they all needed somewhere to live.
The great Georgian housing scheme known first as Bedford Crescent and later as Bedford Circus had already been started in 1773 but it had remained within the boundary of the old city walls. The desire for prestigious, spacious housing near to the city centre applied its own inevitable pressure. According to Hugh Mellor, the land was owned by the Dukes of Bedford, the same family who had once owned Bedford House, and the fifth duke employed a local architect/builder called Matthew Nosworthy in 1789 to build a sequence of townhouses at Southernhay West. (Nosworthy seems to have used the townhouses of Bedford Square in London as his template.) The construction of further properties followed, mostly the work of Nosworthy and William Hooper.
The medieval city wall was breached in two places, forming entrances
from the Cathedral Close and from Bedford Circus. From the 1790s until
the 1830s, Southernhay was transformed into an exclusive residential
area, the beauty of which is still obvious today. (The entrance into the
Cathedral Close known as New Cut was originally the site of an a
defensive tower and later a postern gate. It was widened in 1750 and
received the delicate wrought-iron bridge which spans the route today in
Bedford Circus, Dix's Field and two of Nosworthy's magnificent terraces were gutted during World War Two, the remains shamefully demolished by the city council, but when complete Southernhay ranked with any other Georgian townscape in England. The image above shows the extent of Georgian Southernhay as it existed prior to 1942: Bedford Circus (1), Southernhay West (2), Southernhay East (3), Barnfield Crescent (4), Dix's Field (5). The city wall is outlined in yellow. Bedford Circus is easily visible within the boundary first laid down by the Romans in c180AD. From Bedford Circus flowed the later developments of Southernhay West and East, Barnfield Crescent and Dix's Field. All the townhouses coloured in red were damaged as a consequence of
World War Two and demolished during the post-war reconstruction. Only the townhouses highlighted in purple survive today and are still one of the glories of the city.
One particular aspect of Southernhay which it is difficult to grasp from the ground today is the pre-war layout of its roads. The central and western sections of the area remained largely unchanged but prior to the post-war reconstruction Southernhay was accessed in the east directly from the High Street. During the post-war rebuilding it was decided to move the entrance from the High Street into Paris Street. Paris Street itself was completely realigned and widened. Where Paris Street now joins Sidwell Street and the High Street was once the entrance into Southernhay. It's probably more easily explained using the image right which combines a map of 1905 with an aerial view of the same area today. The pre-war roads of Southernhay are highlighted in red. The High Street is at the top running left to right. The post-war alignment of Paris Street is highlighted in purple. Paris Street originally converged with Sidwell Street on the other side of the building labelled on the map as 'Hotel' (this was the Old London Inn until it was demolished in the 1930s). The property highlighted in yellow was No. 1 Dix's Field, a particularly lovely Regency house which stood on one side of the entrance into what was probably Nosworthy's most beautiful housing scheme.
It's difficult not to be condemnatory of the many alterations which were made to Exeter's historic street plan after World War Two, let alone the decision not to restore some of the city's most significant buildings. Fortunately, in Southernhay at least, much survives. The eastern end, apart from the two remaining townhouses in Dix's Field, is worthless and what Mellor called 'a neo-Georgian monster' at the opposite end is fairly grotesque. But in between the two are a wide variety of strikingly charming late-Georgian houses (now mostly offices) of particular beauty.