Exeter: West is best for an Indian summer

This sunny spot in Devon is rich with ancient history and modern marvels, says Simon Calder
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The Independent Travel

Summer lasts longer in Devon's county town. Thanks to its benignly south-western location, warm days endure through September. The August crowds melt away, revealing the fabric of England's most engaging cathedral city. Furthermore, it is easily accessible, astride the Exe river at the point where high-speed trains slow down and the motorway network ends – with the headquarters of Flybe handily down the road, at Exeter airport.

The city was a victim (along with Bath, Norwich and York) of the so-called Baedeker raids in April and May 1942, in which Nazi Germany attacked the softest and culturally richest targets in the (guide) book, in retaliation for the destruction of Lübeck. Planners of the 1950s continued the damage with a salvo of inept construction. Yet plenty of its heritage survived.

Exeter has Roman origins: they called their most westerly British outpost Isca Dumnoniorum, and the core of the city still follows the same, basic street plan. Around 1,800 years ago the Romans encircled the city with a mighty wall built from the grey, porous remnants from a mild Devonian volcanic eruption.

Much of the two-mile, rectangular wall remains, including Athelstan's Tower. This turret was the work of the Normans, yet it commemorates the Saxons who reinforced the stone curtain after the Danes breached it in the 10th century. A team of expert volunteers, the Red Coat Guides, offers free and enlightening walking tours of the wall and many other aspects of the city.

Between now and the end of October there are up to five tours a day, lasting between one and two hours; no need to book, just turn up at the starting points: the ABode Royal Clarence Hotel in Cathedral Yard (see below), or outside the Quay House Visitor Centre. The summer programme is available at www.tiny.cc/fbjdg, or you can find out more from the tourist information centre at Dix's Field (01392 665 700; exeter. gov.uk/tourism; 9am-5pm from Monday to Saturday, 10am-4pm tomorrow and Bank Holiday Monday).

The suffix "-hay" is a Saxon term meaning an enclosure of greenery; Northernhay, founded in 1611, is locally claimed to be the first public park in England. Exeter still has plenty of green space.

The Saxons held out against William the Conqueror when he arrived on the edge of Exeter in 1068, but the Normans prevailed after 18 days. In their wisdom, they set about creating the essentials for a city: Rougemont Castle (now the Crown Court, and open only for special events), and St Peter's Cathedral – the ideal place to begin a visit (01392 255 573; exeter-cathedral.org.uk). The majestic structure that stands over Cathedral Green is an exercise in ecclesiastical embellishment. Two vast, square Norman towers support a 13th-century Gothic nave that seems to stretch halfway to Cornwall. Highlights include the stone façade on the west front and the astronomical clock in the north transept.

Exeter's connections with the sea are evident along the Quayside due south of the cathedral, which is also the location for Britain's oldest canal – dating from 1566. The area was once neglected but is now thriving, with cafés, shops and some of the city's liveliest pubs and clubs.

Another first was bestowed upon the city in 1949 when the future Queen, Princess Elizabeth, opened Britain's first pedestrian precinct: Princesshay, redeveloped three years ago into the Princesshay Centre, the biggest retail complex in the South-west. More individual shops can be found on Gandy Street, High Street and Fore Street.

If you focus on food, Exeter's most celebrated restaurant is Michael Caines – part of the ABode Royal Clarence Hotel in Cathedral Yard (01392 319 955; abodehotels.co.uk/Exeter).

One final dimension of the city is the network of medieval Underground Passages (01392 665887; exeter.gov.uk/passages), originally constructed to house the pipes bringing water into the city from natural springs outside.

Tours from the reception on Paris Street operate from 9.30am to 5.30pm Mon-Sat and from 10.30am to 4pm Sun until the end of September; check for times from October onwards. Adults pay £5, and a family ticket covering up to two adults and three children costs £15. Minimum age: five years.

Three great days out

Dartmoor

Follow Sherlock Holmes's example and "send down to Stanfords for the Ordnance map"; Stanfords (020-7836 1321; stanfords.co.uk) and other map retailers sell the Ordnance Survey's Outdoor Leisure Map of Dartmoor, an essential for safely negotiating this great wilderness: "crests of jagged granite foaming up into fantastic surges", according to Holmes's creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Transmoor bus takes you from Exeter to Princetown, the location of the High Moorland Visitor Centre based in the former Duchy Hotel, where Conan Doyle conducted his research for The Hound of the Baskervilles (01822 890 414; dartmoor-npa.gov.uk). Choose a trail such as the Abbot's Way. This ancient path linked the abbeys at Tavistock and Buckfast. Pick it up south-east of Princetown, and follow it over a lunar landscape riven by infant brooks. The track skirts Fox Tor, fords the embryonic River Plym and takes you into unworldly terrain.

Totnes

Getting there is at least half the fun. Board a westbound train from Exeter St David's station and you will be treated first to a ride alongside the Exe Estuary to Dawlish Warren nature reserve. Then the line turns a corner and becomes Britain's most spectacular coastal railway. For three miles the tracks cling to the shore just feet from the English Channel. The line then runs inland along the Teign Estuary, and beneath the shadow of Dartmoor until it meets the River Dart.

Totnes straggles prettily down from the railway to the river, at its highest navigable point: from here you can take a boat trip down the Dart, past riverside villages such as Dittisham to Dartmouth. Or repair to the Royal Seven Stars Hotel, a 17th-century coaching inn (01803 862 125; royalsevenstars.co.uk).

Topsham

Wander a few miles south of Exeter, along the eastern side of the Exe Estuary, to Topsham: just 13 minutes from Exeter Central station, for a bargain day-return of £2.30. This waterside village is perfect for a pub lunch, and for a small-scale retail alternative to the city's Princesshay Centre. You can wander through the pretty lanes, admire gabled houses and round off your visit at the Georgian Tea Rooms at 35 High Street (01392 873465; broadwayhouse. com) with a cream tea.

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