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Exeter Cathedral comes as something of a surprise. While most cathedrals soar upwards to the heavens, Exeter squats — firmly anchored to the ground by its twin towers. The cathedral is curiously invisible from many parts of the city centre. And when you do eventually see the cathedral, its colour is something of a surprise.
The Exe Valley in east Devon comes with its own colour theme: red. Even the sheep that graze on riverside meadows north of Exeter take on the rust shades of the underlying soils in their fleeces. The White Park cattle at Bickleigh are that little bit less white than other White Parks.
So Exeter Cathedral should surely be red, just like the old Georgian terraces, the city walls and the fractured remains of the old castle (often called Rougemont in deference to the local geology). But the cathedral is not red. It is elephant-grey.
These are just two of the surprises packed by Exeter Cathedral. Another is its remarkable aesthetic unity. Many English cathedrals reveal a patchwork quilt of architectural styles. Exeter was built within a relatively brief period, and while the discerning eye will pick out incorporated elements from earlier churches on the same site, notably the two great Norman towers, this is a cathedral that mainstreams on decorated Gothic. It is often compared with Salisbury, but where the latter is frugal, even austere, Exeter is opulent.
In short, Exeter Cathedral is more than merely worth a detour. The only ancient cathedral in south-west England is a star of Western ecclesiastical architecture. The Cathedral Green in Exeter is a sublimely beautiful urban space and a lovely spot to relax on a warm summer day. The Green is very much part of the city. That lovely patch of open space and the cathedral are the very heart of Exeter.
The carved screen on the West Front of the cathedral, best viewed in soft early evening sunshine, is an exquisitely intricate tutorial in biblical history. And that’s the place to start any exploration of the cathedral.
Visiting the cathedral
Admission to the cathedral is free for those attending services of course, but at other times there is an admission charge of £6 (reduced to £4 for students and seniors).
But why not take in a service? Cathedrals are not galleries or museums. And the only real way to take the pulse of a cathedral is by joining the local community at a service. You can check service times on the Exeter Cathedral website. Choral evensong or evening prayer is usually at 17.30 (or at 16.00 on Saturdays and Sundays).
Serlo’s for Devon cream tea
Though the focus of cathedral life is on providing nourishment for the soul, the adjoining café is not to be missed. It is called Serlo’s, taking its name from the very first Dean of Exeter Cathedral.
At some English cathedrals, the eateries are grotesquely overpriced. (Traditional afternoon tea for two at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London will set you back £31.90). Exeter approaches these things much more sensibly, and the full works (finger sandwiches, cake, scones with jam and clotted cream and your choice of tea) costs just £12.50 for two. Café manager Julie Hernandez does a fine job managing a venue that melds real style and a sense of history with great value.
Good value lunches
Serlo’s is also a good place for lunch. Main courses never top the £7 mark and a hearty helping of home-made soup won’t cost more than £4. On selected dates in Advent, in the run-up to Christmas, Serlo’s offers traditional turkey lunches with all the trimmings for just £6.95.
That’s the thing about Exeter Cathedral. Those two solid Norman towers keep it tied to the ground, more linked into reality than many other English cathedrals. No flights of fancy here. And that feeds right through to the cathedral café. This is a place strongly rooted in its local community.
Exeter is just two hours from London by fast train from Paddington. Services are operated by First Great Western. There is a slower option, often much cheaper, with South West Trains from London Waterloo. But Exeter (and indeed the entire county of Devon) deserve far more than a day.
Find out more about Devon’s wider appeal in our blog post last week here on EuroCheapo.
The authors willingly admit that cream tea at Serlo’s was hosted by Exeter Cathedral. But Susanne’s and Nicky’s fearless commitment to objective reporting is never subverted by a mountain of scones and lavish helpings of delicious clotted cream.