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Of cats and creeds: an Exeter essay

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: St Anne's Church is now home to Exeter's thriving Orthodox community (photo © hidden europe).


In Exeter, the great Gothic cathedral certainly helps define the Devon city. But Exeter is also characterised by the threads of faith that criss-cross the city. We follow the call to prayer and make a pilgrimage through Exeter, along the way meeting the city's Imam, visiting the mosque, and also discovering Exeter’s Orthodox Christian community.

It is a steep climb up from the bank of the river though back streets to all that remains of the castle. The streets sing with colour, wisteria tussling with bright bin bags, a gaggle of smokers clustered around the entrance of a café doing brisk morning trade. An elderly woman in a bright headscarf ushers a clutch of children up towards the castle.

Rougemont is hardly a mountain, but fragments of the old castle wall that remain are certainly red. Red is the theme colour of this part of Devon. Even the sheep that graze the hills and valleys north of Exeter pick up rust-red hues in their fleeces. A sign by the castle ruin recalls the trial of four Devon women in the late seventeenth century. They were the last people in England to be executed for witchcraft. Temperance Lloyd was one of the four. “Ah, that’s a piece of Exeter history,” says a passer-by who observes us studying the sign.

“Temperance made the big mistake of actually admitting that she sometimes turned into a cat,” the gentleman explains. At this moment, a honey-coloured cat darts out from a bush by the castle wall. “I am not sure that mattered. Her real undoing was that she stumbled over both the Creed and Lord’s Prayer. That was sure evidence that Temperance was a witch. Of course, by that token, the great majority of the population of Exeter are witches nowadays.”

The cat has found the perfect spot in the sun, and we walk south towards the cathedral. In many cities, cathedrals soar above their surroundings. In Exeter the cathedral squats, its twin towers seemingly more intent on keeping the cathedral attached to the ground than on reminding the faithful to look towards Heaven.

Inside the cathedral, the gentle ebb and flow of tourists is interrupted by John, the duty chaplain for the day. Philip, one-time boy chorister at the cathedral and now a guide, is interrupted in full flow as he extols the beauties of what he describes as “the longest uninterrupted Gothic vault in western ecclesiastical architecture.”

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