Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Walk Around Exeter (UK trip Day 4)

Today has been a day spent wandering around Exeter. After a gloomy morning that didn't look promising, the sky cleared up and it ended up being a lovely day. Rather than give you a blow-by-blow account of where I went, I'll sum up my impressions of the town thus far.

The University of Exeter is not very old, but the town surrounding it is very old. Exeter has been in existence since Roman times, and many of the buildings in town are built on Roman ruins of some kind or another. It's an odd mixture of new and old; you'll find a modern Italian restaurant in a 14th century building, old ruins standing next to department stores, a Marks and Spencer's built on a Roman graveyard. The old city wall runs around an incredibly modern shopping district.

In the residential part of town, otherwise ordinary houses have some kind of characteristic that makes them stand out--an unusual paint job, stained glass windows or doors, or other decorations that catch your eye. Combined with the autumn leaves, it makes a striking visual effect when you walk down almost any street.

During breakfast I had a chat with a woman from Scotland, who was newly hired in the university's engineering department. I told her about my doctoral interests, and the obstacles I faced at home with debt, owning a home and such. She said, "I'm sure you'll find a way to get it all sorted." I think she's probably right.

I visited the university this morning, which was beautifully laid out. Like the town, there is a mixture of the expected and the unexpected. Mostly there are little ecological havens in the midst of the stark buildings. A young woman approached me in a very friendly manner on campus, and I instantly knew she must be recruiting for a church. I was right. I was polite, but tossed her card in the trash after she went away. Pip told me that Exeter was on a hill, and she is not kidding. I found myself walking along the road look down some rather steep inclines.

My next big stop was St. David's churchyard, as I was fascinated by the headstones I saw on the way in. I've noticed that church people don't like you looking at their yard, as if they expect you to desecrate the stones for some Satanic ritual or something equally idiotic. No one said anything to me, but the few people I passed got the looks they gave me returned to them. The stones were not as old as they looked--about 1860s and up. Still, it was a marvelously overgrown churchyard, with tombstone decorations I'd never seen before. In the U.S. I'm used to seeing the old "memento mori", or perhaps a finger pointing upwards, or a willow tree. These headstones had scrolls on them, window panes, and other snake-like patterns and designs that I've never seen before. One grave had a holly tree growing on it, giving it a very pagan feel.

Breakfast was huge this morning, so at lunchtime I stopped in the Ship Inn for just a pint and a snack. I learned from a book I'd purchased on the area that Sir Francis Drake used to frequent this pub, during the time of the Spanish Armada. Supposedly it is haunted by 5 different ghosts. I didn't notice any, but it was a lovely old building. Besides the 3 bookstores, I've noticed no less than 5 Italian restaurants (2 reputed to be haunted). Seriously, nothing more to be said there--2 of my favorite things, Italian food and hauntings. I don't have to be at the Publick House near my home in the U.S. to find it.

I think the juxtaposition of new and old was something quite unexpected for me. I didn't realize how old the town really was--there were even Viking invasions of Exeter, according to the book I've purchased. I also did not expect to feel as "at home" here as I do. Normally when I am in a town where I don't know anyone, I'm in a hurry to do my business and leave. Not so with Exeter--there's a casualness about my feelings towards the place, the same kind of casualness I would have towards my own home in the States.

After having an afternoon nap (I'd walked about 10 miles over the day, after all), it was still sunny and blue skies, so I went out to Bury Meadow, which is across the street from where I'm staying. Bury Meadow is a park, and from what I'm told, it's named after a Mr. Berry who had owned the land at the time. But in 1832 it was used as a graveyard for cholera victims, when there was a severe outbreak. Now there are slides and swings and other such amusements for children. I curled up on a bench with my book until sunset. As I'm writing this, it is dark out, and I'm tempted to go down and take some pictures there, as it is reputed to be extra-creepy at night.

We've had a spate of lovely weather in Exeter, as apparently is the case all over the UK. I see from forecasts that this is about to change, and some places may even see snow. It makes me glad that I brought my 45 pound suitcase (heavy mostly with clothes) so that I am not freezing to death during the middle of the week. I have not yet made my way to the River Exe; I intend to go down to the Quay tomorrow after my meeting at the university.

For now, I will enjoy the rest of the evening doing something I don't get to do very often--relaxing.

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