And yet, like Paul Street and much of the West Quarter, just over 100 years ago it was lined with a number of timber-framed houses from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries left as well as having a complex of 15th century almshouses and significant fragments of a 13th century canonry. It is a perfect example of how a historic street can be totally ruined by demolition, war and insipid reconstruction. Catherine Street was one of a number of Exeter's streets that was first laid out under Alfred the Great at the end of the 9th century. The city had been besieged by the Danes in 876AD and 893AD, sieges that the Anglo-Saxon king had successfully managed to break. In response, the important Saxon stronghold of Exeter was refortified, its Roman city wall repaired and strengthened, and some of the city was divided into small tenements, or burgage plots i.e thin strips of land with narrow street frontages upon which a house could be built, with a long garden or yard at the back. Catherine Street was probably created as a lane off the High Street to give access to these tenements.
right shows the facade of a half-timbered house on Catherine Street c1850. Combined with the photograph at the top of this post, taken c1900, it shows how much of the street's medieval character survived intact into the 19th and 20th centuries.
Like many other ancient streets in Exeter, Catherine Street has undergone several changes of name. According to the 19th century historian, George Oliver, a small section leading from the corner of St Martin's Lane to the almshouses was sometimes called Paternoster Lane. A deed of 1280 refers to the street as Doddehaye-strete and describes it as lane as leading from St Martin's church to the Domincan Friary. It was known as Doddehay Street until the mid-15th century when it gradually took on the name of the almshouses dedicated to St Catherine which stood in the street from 1458 until they were gutted by fire in 1942. Hoskins suggested that 'Doddehay' was perhaps derived from an Anglo-Saxon landowner named Dodda. (The suffix 'Hay' is commonly found in Exeter e.g. Trichay Street, Southernhay, Northernhay, Kalendarhay, Friernhay, etc. and itself derives from the Saxon word 'hege' meaning an 'enclosure' and from which we get the modern word 'hedge').
Catherine Street (shown left c1886 in a drawing by James Crocker) was also once the site of one of the gates set into a security wall which encircled the cathedral precinct following the murder of the precentor Walter Lechlade in 1283. The gate later became known as St Catherine's Gate because of its close proximity to the above-mentioned almshouses. The gate predated the almshouses by over 130 years. Prior to the construction of the almshouses it was known as Bickly Gate or Ercenesk Gate, named after Reginald de Erceneske, a canon who probably lived in the canonry on Catherine Street, part of which would eventually become the Country House inn (also destroyed in 1942).
St Catherine's Gate was approximately 8ft wide, big enough to accept a pack horse laden with panniers. A lease for the Country House inn in 1814 contains a covenant to "give up the chamber over the gate" so at some point it had accommodation above it. St Catherine's Gate projected out from the front of the inn near a large stone arch, formerly a doorway, but altered into a window of the inn. Hedgeland's wooden model of Exeter in 1769 shows both Catherine Street and St Catherine's Gate. The gate was demolished c1814. Until 1942 the location of the gate was marked by an iron ring set into the wall of a house opposite the Country House inn. The metal ring was reset into a low wall during the post-war reconstruction but the recent redevelopment of the area has seen the ring disappear. Now there is no visible reminder that the gate ever existed.
The image right shows Catherine Street in 1905 overlaid onto an aerial view of the same area today. All of the buildings highlighted in red have been demolished since 1900, either through pre-war clearances or during the Blitz of 1942. Only those highlighted in purple still remain today. Much of the old street at its north-eastern end now lies under great swathes of post-war redevelopment.
Starting at St Martin's Lane, a walk through Catherine Street in 1900 would've taken in many timber-framed houses, with the ancient Swan Inn on the left, the medieval remains of the Canonry and the 15th century Almshouses on the right. There was a small crossroads where you could either go into Stephen Street, under the old bow of St Stephen's church and into the High Street or into Egypt Lane, along the backs of the townhouses in Bedford Circus and out into Southernhay. A little further on Catherine Street crossed Bedford Street, passing to the rear of the late-17th century Half Moon Inn, crossing the entrance into the Georgian housing scheme of Bedford Circus before reaching the corner of Bampfylde Street, upon which was the magnificent late-Tudor mansion known as Bampfylde House. In terms of varied historical architecture and sheer picturesque interest, streets in English cathedral cities simply did not get much better than this. It is difficult to imagine now how narrow all these old streets and lanes were at the end of the 19th century, how they twisted and turned and led you into unexpected corners of the city, many of them still possessing remarkable old buildings which had changed little for centuries.
And then, as has happened so often in Exeter, it all went hideously wrong. In the first decade of the 20th century, and long before the destructive bombing of 1942, most of the timber-framed buildings which existed on the street in 1900 were demolished. Of the ancient houses shown in the photograph at the top of this page, only the one to the far left of the image, dating to c1450 and with the sign "London and Bristol" over the entrance, survives today as No. 2 Catherine Street. (No. 1 Catherine Street still survives and is of a similar age). By 1928 much of the street had already been rebuilt.
On 4 May 1942, the area surrounding Catherine Street was heavily damaged during the Exeter Blitz left © Express & Echo. It's difficult to know exactly what was lost, but the 15th century almshouses were gutted as was the site of the 13th century canonry, then known as the Country House inn. Even if the timber-framed houses had survived then they probably would've burned to the ground anyway. The ruins of the almshouses and the canonry suffered further demolition in the post-war clear-up but at least they were retained as a reminder of the devastating air-raid. Despite the fact that the line of the street dated back to the 9th century, during the post-war reconstruction of the 1950s half of the street was turned into a no-through service road to supply the new shops which fronted onto the High Street and Princesshay.
And it happened across the city: Bampfylde Street, Chapel Street, Musgrave Row, George Street and Sun Street, to name just a few, were all wiped off the map in the post-war reconstruction. The alignments of Southernhay and Paris Street were totally altered and South Street and the upper High Street were drastically widened. And this is before the other depredations inflicted on the city in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are taken into account.
Today almost nothing remains of the street as it appeared in 1900, except for the aforementioned ruins, the two 15th century timber-framed houses and a brick building called Oddfellows Hall built c1900. In his book "Aspects of Exeter", Peter Thomas refers to post-war Catherine Street as "pleasingly narrow" but for me there is very little that is either pleasing or narrow about the street now, especially in comparison with what it once was. Its one redeeming feature is the fact that it is pedestrianised, saving the street from the bus fumes which pollute the nearby High Street.
Drag the slider on the image below to switch between images of Catherine Street in 1900 and Catherine Street in 2012 or click on 'Show only then' or 'Show only now'.