In October 2016, Todd Gray received a call from the BBC asking if he could go to Exeter’s Cathedral Green to contribute a few words about The Royal Clarence Hotel, where a fire had broken out. At that time, it seemed like a relatively small fire but it rapidly developed into a catastrophe that destroyed the Hotel. As a historian with expert knowledge of Exeter, Todd knew details of the construction of The Clarence and adjoining buildings that were vital for the fire service. Over the next few days, Todd’s knowledge was in great demand not only in fighting the fire but also in giving numerous interviews for local and national media.
This experience provided the impetus for Todd to complete research on “St Martin’s Island”, a group of 42 ancient buildings in the area bounded by Exeter’s High Street, Broadgate, Martin’s Lane and Cathedral Green. Most of these buildings are of great antiquity and were spared from bomb damage in the Second World War. Their histories and treasures needed to be recorded before a similar catastrophe befell them.
Fortunately, Cathedral records, dating back to medieval times, list details of leases, deeds and often construction plans for many of the buildings. Using these, a wealth of information has been put together. Some examples Todd gave include the existence of a well dating back to the 14th century; that the building now occupied by Laura Ashley was an apothecary for over 400 years; that within many of the buildings are paneling and other wall coverings of great age; and that the (empty) upper stories of one High Street premises are jealously guarded by a ferocious tom cat!
There was hardly an empty seat to be had for Todd’s lively talk which fascinated us all with the wealth of history contained in one small block of Exeter’s buildings. Sadly, three years after the fire, Todd remains as much in the dark about the prospects of restoring The Royal Clarence as anyone.