Working to Welcome: Exeter Cathedral Embarks on Biggest Building Project in More Than a Century





Exeter Cathedral is embarking on its most significant building project for over a hundred years in an effort to preserve the ancient building for generations to come. The ambitious development project is designed to secure a more sustainable future for the cathedral by attracting more people, providing a better visitor experience, and engaging local communities.

Funded by Exeter Cathedral’s 2020s Development Appeal, the project has already attracted a £4.3 million grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, and a further £1.9 million from other grant-giving trusts, foundations, corporate and private donors.

The first phase of the project began in November 2022 in the cathedral’s Cloister Garden, where specialist building teams, led by principal contractor Sally Strachey Historic Conservation, began a two-year project to recreate a new Cloister Gallery.

The new construction is being built on the foundations of the cathedral’s original medieval cloisters, which were demolished in the mid-17th century. The cloisters were replaced with houses (known locally as ‘miserable hovels’) which were also demolished, in the early 19th century. Exeter Cathedral’s new Cloister Gallery will be its first major construction since the late 19th century.

Archaeological investigations carried out ahead of the build have reveled new discoveries from the Roman period. The new clues to Exeter’s distant past include remains of an early Roman street and timber buildings, and the wall of a Roman town house that was later overlain by the foundations of the cathedral’s medieval cloisters.

Cathedral Archaeologist, John Allan, says the finds help to build a clearer picture of how the site would have looked in Roman times:

“The street and early timber buildings date from around AD 50–75, and formed elements of the Roman legionary fortress which underlies central Exeter. They probably represent part of a long barrack building which extended towards a stone bath-house which was exposed under the Exeter Cathedral Green in the early 1970s. A stone wall revealed by our excavations appears to be part of a previously unknown town house, dating back to the 3rd and 4th centuries.”

Building new structures in the setting of a medieval  cathedral can be challenging, requiring careful consideration of their impact both the visible heritage and the archaeology below ground. For the new Cloister Gallery project at Exeter Cathedral, architects, archaeologists and planning consultants all worked collaboratively with the Local Planning Authority, Historic England, the Cathedral Fabric Commission for England, and amenity societies, to build a case to support the construction.

When completed, the Cloister Gallery will recreate a  covered walkway to connect the cathedral with its 13th century Chapter House and Pearson Building, where a new Treasures Exhibition space will safely display ancient collections from the cathedral’s library and archives which include treasures of national importance, such as the Exeter Book, Exon Domesday and the cathedral’s foundation charter from AD 1050. The Pearson Building will also be used to house a new cathedral shop, as well as improving accessibility with lifts and new toilet facilities.

In April, the second phase of the cathedral’s project began in the Quire area of the cathedral. Led by principal contractor, RM Builders & Contractors, improvements will make the Quire a safer and more comfortable place for services, community gatherings and events, as well as improving the sustainability of the cathedral. A more efficient underfloor heating system will be installed, replacing an ineffective pipe system that runs around the outside of the Quire and presbytery and was installed in the 1960s and 1970s to replace Victorian boilers.

Once the new heating system is in place, a new Jubilee Pavement floor tile design will be installed, based on the work of 19th century architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott. Scott had originally created four tiled floor designs in Exeter Cathedral, each increasingly elaborate as they approach the cathedral’s high altar. Largely replaced with simple stone flooring during 1960s conservations work, only one of Scott’s original design remains in the Quire today. The new Jubilee Pavement will be made from locally-sourced Devon stone and will echo Scott’s work with a design that is consistent with the heritage of the cathedral.  

Work in Exeter Cathedral’s Quire is taking place inside a protective ‘bubble’ that allows the building to remain open to visitors for sightseeing, worship and events whilst also safeguarding the organ from dust. There are also specially-created viewing points to allow visitors to see the historic work in progress.

Alongside these projects, Exeter Cathedral’s stonemasons have also been carrying out crucial conservation work to the exterior of the cathedral’s medieval Chapter House. This has involved carefully cleaning and repointing existing stonework, and identifying blocks that need to be replaced, before carving new stonework using matching materials.

Further planned phases of the project will see approximately half of the Grade I listed heritage site conserved and refurbished. This includes conservation of the cathedral’s 50 medieval misericords (or ‘mercy seats’), a more sustainable heating zoning system, and new visitor interpretation to explain the history of the cathedral.

As well as supporting improvements and essential conservation work, funds raised by the 2020s Development Appeal aims to support a calendar of community activities and events, all designed make the ancient Devon landmark more inclusive, accessible and sustainable for the future. As the cathedral’s Director of Development, Jill Taylor, explains, fundraising for the  project is also a work in progress:

“We have been overwhelmed by the level of support and affection for this unique Devon landmark. But of course, we still have a way to go to reach our goal of ensuring a truly sustainable future for Exeter Cathedral, for generations to come.”

For The Very Revd Jonathan Greener, Dean of Exeter, one of the most important aspects of the development project is for Exeter Cathedral to be used by a wider range of communities across Devon. He explains:

“We want to preserve this precious piece of Devon heritage for future generations, just as previous generations did for us. But we also need to ensure that it continues to inspire and meet the needs of all the people of Devon for the 21st century.

“By supporting the Exeter 2020s Development Appeal, donors will be helping us to reach and serve a wider audience. They will be funding essential conservation and improvements to our building. But they will also be enabling us to improve the way we tell our story, and supporting an exciting new programme of events and activities designed to inspire and connect all Devonians with their local heritage.”

As part of its fundraising efforts, the cathedral has recently launched its Adopt a Stone initiative, which offers people a chance to ‘adopt’ a piece of the new Cloister Gallery building, with options ranging from a single stone block, to an entire doorway. All private donors supporting the development of our new Cloister Gallery, from 6 April until 31 December 2023, will receive a special Coronation Edition Adopt a Stone certificate printed on high quality responsibly-sourced paper bearing the Coronation Emblem and personally signed by the Dean.   


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