Notes from Exeter

The following notes are taken, unedited, from my journal, so be forgiving:

The X53, which I took from West Bay to Exeter, threatened to go backwards while trying to go forwards up a hill outside Bridport. The flanking hills are like a confused assembly of snooker tables, meeting to discuss the depth of their pockets. In Charmouth, paint only comes in tins of blue and lemon and pink. Descending into Lyme Regis, the bus has to slalom (sp.?) skilfully to avoid disrupting hanging baskets. The shops in Lyme – Rummage, Ruby Rockcake, The Ginger, Serendip – sound like ice-cream flavours.

Seaton’s centre is colonised by a Tesco/Costa complex. I ask a passenger about it: Tesco convinced the local council that the store would revive the area; it has done the opposite. The bus stops outside the Vault Bar, which looks like it needs a cuddle and a cup of tea, and wherein a fed-up couple tackle the low-season with another pint of lager. Across the bay up on the cliff a campsite huddles against the wind, a mere sneeze away from toppling into the unassuming sea.

In Beer, the buildings are made from old stone, and suggest wisdom and serenity and kindliness, just as old people do. There are animals along this route: a field dense with sheep (perhaps a thousand cardigans nipping at the grass); lazy cows; ponies; horses; pigs with snouts in mud or lounging in corrugated-iron sheds. At the head of Sidmouth a big Waitrose gapes (doing only harm?), while red phone-boxes house plants in front gardens.

In Exeter, the university campus on Barrack Road is opposite the police station – a prudent proximity. I wonder what Exeter would have been had it not been bombed so. The buildings that survived are some of the prettiest I’ve seen, while everything else, as Bryson rightly claims, is regrettable concrete, flanked on all sides by panicky relief roads, which seem to relieve nothing. Jack Wills (ltd) has a nice home (a pale neo-classic pile), as does the Wetherspoon pub on South Street, where I am currently, writing this, postponing the Chinese meal Bill has bequeathed to me. The pub was built as a Unitarian Church in 1760; now it’s a resort for lost lonely drinkers. Folk like me.

Where North and South Streets meet there is an evening market. I hunt for tea-towels and pegs and cheap socks but find only fresh fish, bread, beetroot, game and Devonshire cheese. (Have the artisans been forced onto the street; a travelling circus of once-a-week mongers and grocers whose High Street homes are now squatted by salons and nail-bars and pound-stores?) My market shopping is soundtracked by a violinist who looks how I imagine a young Bill Bryson might have done, which is to say the sort of chap you’d throw coins at so they could smarten up a little and have a good meal.

Inside St Pancras Church, small handwritten messages to God (tweets almost) are pinned to a cork-board: a boy wishes for a 17-inch flat-screen TV; a man for a holiday in Cyprus; a girl for her mother to be cured of Lupus. In the window of what used to be the Exeter Corn Exchange, ‘Buffet City’ is advertised hopefully – my mind fills with images of all-you-can-eat lampposts and traffic offences. On Fore Street the Old Curiosity Shop goes unnoticed, and old grand buildings are put to pedestrian uses: Fried Chicken, Hairdressing, Stationery.

The EQ4 bar, commended by the night porter at the Royal Clarence, gears itself up to receive packs of undergraduates desperate to extend, at any aesthetic cost, their Wednesday binge. Up a tight side-street is a Norman monastery, formerly the home of monks, latterly of merchants, which strikes me as an instructive change of hands. Salisbury’s ancient buildings are everywhere and become ordinary; Exeter’s pop-out from amid post-war Elizabethan mistakes and are all the more impressive for it. (For it is change that enlivens us, not continuity, no matter how pleasant the constant thing.) And now I’ve half a cider before me, sat at the bar of the Bike Shed Theatre, where the barmaids are openly discussing their love-lives. (They’re not happy, you know.)

On John Street there is a Fat Pig, where it is warm and there are books and a broad demographic and ales and ciders brewed upstairs which have won medals. It is convivial here but my mood is such that if I were asked a polite question I would only be able, in response, to stare back warmly. I am not in a bad mood, mark, merely a quiet one – though to many they amount to the same thing. I found and read a book on sociology (voting patterns in Rochdale) and then bought drinks for a musician-baker called Jimmy and his pal Tom, who lives on a barge and is researching reverse engineered silk, be that what it may. Jimmy and Tom took me, by car, to The Hour Glass, where we drank gin, neat, which tasted of lemon and juniper and the novels of George Orwell. The pub was excellent but I don’t know why. (Why is anything excellent? Why is anything this or that?)

I took a pee (had a pee?) behind a tree near the quayside, whose harmless shops and eateries (typical of such regenerations) were brightly-lit but empty, then walked along the old city wall (Roman?) to the cathedral, which was brilliant in the wet dark: I felt pleased it wasn’t hit like so much of Exeter. The Royal Clarence, where I am staying, disapproved as I ignored its warmth and walked further into the night. And now I’m back at the Bike Shed Theatre, because there is a barmaid here that I want to discuss sociology with. So it goes.