What do you see when you look up at buildings? When I was at school in Worcester we were given a short “General Studies” course on architecture; the teacher urged us to look up at buildings in the centre of the city. He explained that retailers may change the ground floor to attract customers with large windows and glass doors, but seldom change the façade of the upper storeys. So to appreciate the age and style of a building in a city street, look up! Take care when you do so! In Exeter city centre, Fore Street, North Street and the pre-war section of the High Street are interesting areas to look at the facades; have you ever noticed the dragon on Hinds, the jewellers?
There used to be a clock outside Mr Buley’s shop in Magdalen Road, but now you have to walk further to see a clock that is designed to be visible to people in the open air. There’s one on Zenith House, and another on the student block of St Luke’s site of the university. The people who live in The Lodge in Spicer Road can tell the time from a clock on the Maynard School. Down Victoria Park Road the sports pavilion of Exeter School has a small clock, and then County Hall has a clock on three sides of the central tower. The houses of Matford Road and Matford Avenue are denied sight of the time. (The town hall in Kingsbridge, in south Devon, also has a clock with three faces. This was because the town’s workhouse faced the fourth face, and the council didn’t want to spend public funds giving the occupants of the workhouse the luxury of an accurate clock.)
Perhaps the best known local feature that can be seen by looking up is the strange animal above the chemist’s in Magdalen Road. It seems to be a cross between a bird and a dog, and I have not come across a satisfactory explanation for it. This is not the only finial at the end of a gable roof in St Leonard’s, but it must be the most unusual. There are some fine finials on The Lodge. Most finials are ceramic, though there are one or two which are metal. Spheres are extremely common, supported in egg-cups or wreaths of leaves. There are a few pyramids and geometrical shapes; a few are so substantial that they could cause damage to the roof if they ever fell. You can make a short, interesting circular walk looking at finials starting at the Mount Radford and walking along Spicer Road, Barnfield Hill, Denmark Road and back through the village. Overlooking Western Way, at the end of Barnfield Road, there is a tall finial in the shape of a thistle. Exeter School has a large metal finial overlooking the sports field.
Behind the gable-end finials are the ridge tiles of our homes. Builders of earlier generations were not always content with plain ridge tiles to top the roof. The plain designs may be semi-circular, or inverted “V” shapes (saddle-back). A common simple ornament is a roll-top – a thin cylinder on top of the saddle. But there are more ornamental types around. Ridge tiles with crests like a cock’s comb, tiles with a crest with holes at intervals. One modern day supplier will provide tiles where the hole is shaped like a clover leaf – now there’s an idea for adding interest to your home.
Below the gable ends of houses, there are bargeboards (also known as vergeboards) and a house at the top of Barnfield Hill has a beautiful set of these carved wooden features. Again, previous generations were not content to leave their houses without interesting ornamentation and details. Even the rafter tails (the brackets that support the soffit boards) of many local houses are decorated.
Again, if you have looked up and seen any interesting features of buildings in St Leonard’s, please contact me via the editor.
Below is that strange animal above the chemist’s in Magdalen Road: