Exeter memories

Exeter Catacombs entrance

One of the good things about working freelance (in web design, but I won’t bore you with that) is the greater scope for taking the occasional time out if work is slack and/or the weather’s good. On Monday, my friend Felix visited Exeter, and we had lunch and a wander around the city for a chat. For whatever reason, I never kept in touch with school or university friends, but I’ve known Felix through scientific/computing circles for over 20 years, since the early days of the Internet, and in fact before; do you remember dial-up bulletin boards? We occasionally meet up for a chat.

Being a serious photographer, Felix shares my interest in the photogenic and unusual corners of cities, so I took him to one I’d never properly explored, only a few minutes’ walk from Exeter centre: Bartholomew Street Cemetery. It’s hidden from the main road – see Bing Maps bird’s-eye view – but a few steps take you over the city wall down to the steep, lightly-wooded side of the Longbrook Valley, its slope studded with tombs and topped with the Karnak-like entrances to the Exeter Catacombs.

It’s a lovely place on a quiet summer day, but it must be a prime example of the many picturesque sights of England that derive from less than happy circumstance. As explained at Exeter Memories – Catacombs and Lower Cemetery – this cemetery was opened in response to a cholera epidemic in 1832, with the Catacombs as a value-added extension for richer clients. As it happened, the high pricing made the Catacombs a commercial failure, with very few burials. They found use as a temporary morgue for victims of the Theatre Royal Fire in 1887, and as an air raid shelter in World War 2. Now, they’re a curiosity, part of the city few see, and securely padlocked for most of the time; but on Wednesdays and Fridays there’s a free Red Coat Tour inside – that’s definitely on my agenda.

At the top of the cemetery we passed a curry restaurant, Bombay Bills, whose building includes a distinctive white oast house. It stirred up a memory I’d completely forgotten: I was at this very spot around 40 years ago. On a teenage expedition to look at what’s now widely publicised as the Jurassic Coast, I stayed somewhere in the nearby Haldon Hills with some distinctly up-market relatives of family friends with Devon connections, and they took me to this restaurant. Then, as one of many previous incarnations, it was I think Italian. I recall only two things about the meal: trying Campari, and finding it pretty sickly; and being amazed and rather frightened by the flambé cooking at the table, which I’d never seen done before (I was naïve enough to think the fire was accidental). I never imagined I might be living here decades later.

Addendum: I’ve put up on my own weblog, Journal of a Southern Bookreader, a gallery of photos from Monday, as well as ones from the Friday after when Clare and I took the tour that goes inside the catacombs. See Exeter Catacomb.