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.