'Why?’ asked my friend Phil.
‘Well, we like mini-breaks in interesting old towns and cities, and we’ve been to York, Chester, Salisbury... but we've never been to Exeter.'
‘There may be a reason for that,' said Phil. He went on to say that, for a cathedral city with a university, Exeter was surprisingly unimpressive and we’d need to think about where else to visit if we were going to base ourselves there. He suggested a little place called Topsham.
Sue and I were just pleased that we’d found a hotel right in the city centre with free car parking. We imagined visiting lots of quaint old pubs and interesting little shops. But, it turned out, Phil had a point. Poor old Exeter, heavily bombed between 1940 and 1942, seemed to have not yet fully recovered. The occasional Tudor building juxtaposed with architecture from the 50s, 60s, 70s, as if the city council had been desperately trying to fill in the gaps between buildings. And still, it seemed, Exeter had too many gaps -- too much space for the population, the streets far too wide for the shoppers and homeless people and the occasional isolated student. 70 years was evidently not long enough to recover, and the latest recession just added insult to injury. Decent pubs were few and far between -- even the Tourist Information Office (hidden at the back of a shopping precinct), struggled to recommend a pub with any atmosphere.
The historic quayside never seemed to come to life -- we kept going back to check. Was it jaunty as it came to life on a Saturday morning, or buzzing with joie de vivre on a Friday night? Well, no. The 12th century cathedral, draped in scaffolding, repelled visitors with its compulsory entrance fee.
There were two oases of friendliness and enjoyment. First, Herbies -- a welcoming vegetarian cafe/restaurant, with excellent value food that was wholesome and delicious. (Why do so few towns and cities in Britain these days have a vegetarian restaurant and, equally puzzling, why does Exeter have such a good one?) Second, the Royal Albert Museum and Art Gallery (last year named the UK's Museum of the Year.) Here we were greeted by a giraffe called Gerald who has been towering over visitors since 1920. We circled around Gerald to the accompaniment of ghostly harpsichord music, which appeared to emanate from the 18th century Florentine instrument next to the giraffe.
We did follow Phil's advice and visited the nearby village of Topsham but, although prettier than Exeter, we found nothing there to capture our imagination so we continued on for ten miles, on a spontaneous pilgrimage to Dawlish Warren -- the site of a distant memory of a caravan holiday -- and then on to Dawlish itself, where we saw the town's famous black swans and walked out to sea on the jetty. I thought of my mum, who would have been delighted to know that Sue and I had accidentally ended up in Dawlish, more than 40 years after mum and dad had taken my brother and me there. Perhaps Sue and I should have skipped the idea of a city break in Exeter and plumped straight for a caravan in Dawlish Warren, tea and cakes by the seaside and a game of crazy golf as the black swans looked on.