History: Exeter’s medieval Exe Bridge (By Jamie Ransom)
Years ago I discovered something amazing in my hometown of Exeter. Something intriguing. Something historical. Something with an amazing story! OK, so I didn’t actually discover this relic of our city myself, but seeing it for the first time and finding out all I could about it was certainly a discovery for me.
The strange thing is you have probably passed it hundreds, if not thousands of times. You have almost certainly driven or cycled around it and you may have even walked right across it, but do you know the full story that it has to tell? I am talking about the fantastic medieval Exe Bridge that once crossed the River Exe and is actually one of the oldest surviving bridges of its kind in England.
Well, that sounds great! Another amazing historic monument in Exeter! Another feather in Exeter’s heritage hat, but that is simply the beginning. The history of why the bridge was needed, the construction and its completion in the 13th century is very interesting. Information is readily available online, but what completely captured me was how it was mostly forgotten until being rediscovered in the 1960’s.
At the time the medieval Exe Bridge was completed in around 1239 it had constructed upon it houses, chapels and churches. One church, located on the city side was known as the church of St Edmunds. St Edmunds Church was situated close to Frog Street and the city’s West Gate which was the most likely access to Stepcote Hill. As the centuries went by the medieval bridge sustained battles and floods which required repairs to be carried out several times. Some of the materials used in one repair are recorded to have been supplied from the partially deconstructed St Nicholas Priory.
After an astonishing 600 years, the medieval Exe Bridge was no longer considered appropriate and plans were sought and put into action for a new replacement. In the meantime, it would be partly demolished leaving just 9 of the original stone arches. These would be continued for use solely for the properties that sat on top of them and this would become known as Edmund Street. In the mid-1800’s the remaining part of the bridge – now known as Edmund Street – was widened and a number of the houses were demolished, leaving buildings only on the north side. A road was laid on top and brick structures were built mostly covering the medieval Exe Bridge and for a time it was forgotten.
20 to 30 years later, the properties on the north side were also demolished losing some of the few timber houses left in the city and one of the only remaining buildings of importance still on top of the bridge was St Edmunds Church. Years later in the 1960’s plans were fully underway for the construction of a new bypass and during the clearance work, the bridge’s arches were revealed once again. The church of St Edmunds was partially deconstructed leaving the “ruin” we see atop of the bridge today.
The monument is now surrounded by Western Way which provides access to the modern Exe Bridges as we now know it. The building of Western Way led to the demolition of Frog Street which became important to me, as I later found out my ancestors lived in Frog Street and may have seen some the great history of the medieval bridge.
It is true to say that although this beautiful gem of history is open for all to explore that it is very often overlooked. Hopefully, with a bit of knowledge, you can now view the medieval Exe Bridge through fresh eyes and experience this wonderful structure of a bygone time for yourself.
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About the author
Jamie Ransom is Exeter born and bred, with a Devon family that spans generations. He loves all things property, history and heritage, especially in his hometown Exeter; “I love Exeter for its amazing growth, but also how it has remained so relaxed with great access to the coast and rugged moors. I am an avid lifetime Titanic enthusiast and researcher” … He also runs his own Exeter based Devon property management company; Ransoms Residential. Jamie is our very own history buff and will be uncovering the fascinating history of places around the city for Exploring Exeter.
Tags: Exe Bridges, Exeter, history, medieval exe bridge, ransoms residential