Exeter Branch report: Sep to Nov 2016

Our autumn programme began with a visit in September to Exeter Custom House which was built in 1680-1 and stands as an impressive testament to the city’s former importance as one of England’s premier sea-going ports. A Red Coat guide expertly summarised the architectural features of the building and its subsequent modifications, and explained the finer points of collecting dues from occasionally belligerent sailors. Of particular interest are the plasterwork ceilings on the first floor by John Abbott of Frithelstock (north Devon), depicting wreaths of foliage, fruit, eels, masks and cherubs — all in stunning deep relief. Despite its age and cleaning, the plasterwork remains in pristine condition. Members then walked down Commercial Road for a tour of nearby Cricklepit Mill. The first mill was built in about 1220, shortly after the first stone bridge appeared across the River Exe, and by 1757 the complex contained five wheels which powered several mechanisms, including two grist mills and two fulling mills. Water was supplied by the medieval Long Leat which still flows from the Mill on the Exe public house on Bonhay Road to the Exeter Quay.

Our excellent annual lunch in October at the Exeter Golf & Country Club was preceded by President Dr Todd Gray MBE talking about ‘Devon’s Medieval Wood Carvers and Renaissance, Gothic and Bestial Design’. Some of his material was based on a major, six-volume gazetteer that he is producing on the subject – one for each West Country county (Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire). The Cornwall volume is about to be published and the Devon volume will soon follow. This massive undertaking, carried out for The Pilgrim Trust and administered through Exeter University, follows on from his Devon’s Ancient Bench Ends book with English Heritage, published in 2013. Besides cataloguing the carvings prior to further destruction, his work is substantiating the view that the South West is the national centre for Renaissance carving. Light is also being shed on our understanding of the cultural and social history of medieval England with regard to obligatory seating hierarchies in churches. The variety of motifs is astounding with some of them overtly vulgar and even verging on the pornographic.

During the AGM, held in November, Chairman Geoffrey Harding presented farewell gifts to two long-standing committee members: Mrs Hilda Michelmore, now in her nineties, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of contemporary Exeter is astounding, and Dr Margaret Fuest, who has faithfully served as an excellent Honorary Treasurer for several years. Their places have been taken by Miss Katharine Harris (as Treasurer) and Dr Bob Hodgson. Then, in the absence of the programmed speaker, Tony Buller gave a forty minute impromptu summary of the Executive’s business plan, including the forthcoming Devon–Newfoundland Celebration. This was so well received that a similar format will be adopted in 2017.

Finally, an important message from the Chairman: despite the welcome addition of Katharine and Bob, several committee members wish to stand down in the very near future. We therefore urgently require additional recruits from our 300 or so members to join us, ideally those who are relatively new to the DA or have taken early retirement. Please get in touch if you would like to participate: you will be made very welcome. We hold about three meetings per year in convivial surroundings.

– Antony T Buller

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