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Exeter High Street - history and photo essay

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For two thousand years, the main street of many settlements have been called the High Street. Exeter's High Street was once part of a major iron age route along the ridge that led down to the river crossing from Stoke Hill. The Romans adopted the route as the main street in their garrison, and during Saxon and Norman times, the fledgling city sprouted streets and alleys off the High Street. Before Cathedral Yard was gated, in 1286, the route from the Exe Bridge entered Exeter through the West Gate, up Stepcote Hill and Smythen Street and joined the High Street around about Broadgate, passing to the south east of St Petroc's Church. After that date, Fore Street became a defacto extension of the High Street. Before the 19th century, the High Street was often referred to as Fore Street, making it difficult to be certain were certain buildings were actually situated. At the other end, the High Street passed through East Gate into Sidwell Street. The first sewer in Exeter was constructed in 1807 in the High Street, while after a planning meeting in 1815 in the Royal Clarence Hotel, the High Street was the first in Devon to have gas lighting installed, and between 1905 to 1932, the High Street had a regular electric tram service. The High Street was also used as a market place until the Higher and Lower Markets were opened in the 1830's. Meat and other produce were sold from stalls lining the street on market day - a hook for the scales that weighed meat can still be seen in the entrance to the Guildhall. The stocks were also set up under the frontage of the Guildhall, allowing pedestrians in the High Street to heckle and throw vegetables at the unfortunate souls clamped by the wrists and ankles. Many ancient buildings were destroyed in the bombing of 1942, leading to more than half of the length of the High Street being widened and rebuilt in the 1950's. Now it is partly pedestrianised, with only buses and deliveries allowed.

The High Street circa 1930The Guildhall's history can be traced back more than 800 years. It has served as the meeting place for the Mayor and the Chamber, a police station, a prison, a court and a market hall in its time. One nameless 20th century councillor was of the opinion that the High Street would have been enhanced if it had been demolished between Goldsmith Street and North Street, apart from the Guildhall. He would have then built a continuous, Greek column supported, collonaded range of buildings. Councillors do seem to have some strange ideas.

The Empire Electric CinemaSt Lawrence Church and the Empire Electric Cinema were situated between Castle Street and the Exeter Riddle artwork, roughly the right hand side of the photo below. Both were lost in the blitz, although the Empire Electric closed in 1937.

High Street 1942Two thirds of the High Street was destroyed on 4th May 1942. Over the next few months, the rubble was cleared away, leaving an open space stretching from St Stephens Church  to just beyond the Debenhams building in Sidwell Street. The photo was taken before the clearance and shows the remains of  the Commercial Union building on the right, and Dellers on the left. Courtesy the Express and Echo.

The 1950s High StreetA stretch of buildings that are typical of the rebuilding in the 1950's. The junction with Bedford Street is much wider than before the war, giving this expanse of paving. The right half of this photo is approximately the same area as the photo above.

Marks & Spencer 1951Marks and Spencers new store after the war was built on the corner of Castle Street. The photo, taken in 1951 shows it with the scaffolding still in place. Photo Maurice Swansborough

Newly built High Street 1951The Commercial Union building was destroyed in the bombing - this is its replacement in 1951. See above left. Photo Maurice Swansborough

The old Ross buildingThe Express and Echo and Western Times building on the left and J & G Ross on the right have long been vacated by their former occupiers. All that remains is the facade of the buildings, as the rear has been completely replaced.

High Street at ChristmasThe High Street is the centre of the city for the Christmas celebrations, and the traders contribute to the illuminated decorations. These were the decorations in 2004.

A colourful saleA temporary trader puts on a colourful display to attract trade in the summer of 2005.

A mime artist in the High StreetThe High Street is a popular place for buskers and entertainers. During the Exeter Festival it sometimes seems as though there is someone, putting on a show, at every corner and bench.

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