Not much beats arriving in a town you don’t know, with an evening to explore it, £15 in your pocket and a bed for the night paid for.
I parked up in Exeter‘s White Hart just as fans of the Grecians were returning from their massive FA Cup giant-killing in the next round. Carlisle away in the next round for them (update: or Liverpool home, not bad). I’d been to St James Park a few times, getting drenched twice, but the city itself had made little impression.
Cathedral and quayside apart, I could only remember a couple of decent pubs, the Brook Green and Well House, which had long fallen from Beer Guide favour. So I had a good half-dozen pubs to get a feel for the place and the state of their pub scene on a Sunday night in December.
I didn’t take to Exeter quickly. The Cathedral Yard is full of gorgeous buildings, but a very dull Christmas Market let down the overall effect. It had obviously sustained more bomb damage, certainly Salisbury levels, than I thought, based on the volume of relics among the post-war buildings.
The centre itself, like Cambridge, is under-pubbed, with many of the most attractive old inns converted to shops and restaurants. Both cities also have a brand new central shopping centre with a flashy John Lewis store.
Attempts to find some sort of “alternative” Exeter directed me to Fore and Gandy Streets, which were slightly less interesting than Bridgwater and contained such alternative gems as Zizzi and Bang & Olufsen. Not altogether surprising; I saw some very posh students in the pubs. The lack of creative dynamism among it’s coffee shops and bars meant it felt stuck in year 2000 compared to, say, Falmouth or Hastings.
The highlights for me were a number of steep steps down from the centre to the River Exe, which at least give a sense of perspective you don’t get in Cambridge.
The pubs were good enough, but perhaps I was expecting a bit more from a city of 120,000 and a big University.
It started well. The Fat Pig (above) was very cosy and unflashy, full of mature students, mirroring the Live & Let Live or Elm Tree in Cambridge, with a decent home-brewed IPA (NBSS 3).
Oddfellows was similarly studenty, but very smart, and I felt as scruffy as I actually am. An odd beer range (Proper Job NBSS 2.5) mixed St Austell with Old Mill, but this was all about expensive Sunday lunches.
The best beer, as often the case, came in Spoons, a former chapel where afore-mentioned posh students competed with children let loose by posh parents to create the most noise. The Hook Norton/Italian collaboration beer I was led to by a professional if toothless drinker was a solid NBSS 4.
Down by the Exe, the Mill provided pricey and average St Austell (NBSS 2.5) to a carvery crowd to an accompaniment of Fleetwood Mac covers. Actually, it was pleasant and I’m just giving it grief to due a hatred of polite society and soft rock.
Pub of the night was the Royal Oak in Heavitree, traditional, gorgeous and with a superb Otter (NBSS 4). I’d like this as my local, partly because the Singapore rice from the Chinese across the road was great too.
I also like the Hour Glass, set away in quaint streets like the pubs in Hastings Old Town, with a very upmarket atmosphere I’d recommend experiencing. Shame the Black Ven was so dull (NBSS 2.5).
No sign of craft, not many free houses, and no cheap central hotels (my old Marstons Inn was an expensive treat). It did look lovely in the morning sun today though.
Exeter felt on a par with Gloucester, with a similarly average pub scene, but better countryside on the doorstep.