Exeter, Devon, UK
Exeter. The city of my birth, and the city where I spent all my formative years. I lived there until I was eighteen when, as a new Police Cadet, I moved to Paignton for my cadetship, then to Cornwall, where I was Constable. Life as a policeman didn’t really suit me, or I didn’t really suit it. Either way, it ended after two years, and I returned to Exeter at the age of twenty. Having tasted independence, living in the family home again was not what it had been, and I moved out again after about eighteen months, to a small village on the outskirts of Torbay.
I didn’t really see Exeter again for some years. Going back there now, it has clearly changed a lot since my youth in the 1950s and 1960s. That isn’t really surprising. Apart from a handful of rural retreats, I doubt that anywhere has remained unchanged for the last fifty years. The constant march of technology, of traffic, of affluence, dictate that physical and social structures that were in place during the austere post-war days in Britain, no longer have relevance.
Exeter city centre in the 1950s was a mix of small family shops and larger national businesses, many having been around since before the Second World War. Major shops, at the time, were Woolworths, Hepworths (tailors) and Waltons (outfitters). BHS was there, too, still called British Home Stores in those days. During the 1960s the supermarket arrived in Exeter. Fearis’ was the first, later acquired by Fine Fare. There were three cinemas, Gaumont in North Street, near the bus station, Odeon, in Sidwell Street and the Savoy, later known as ABC cinema, which became Boots the Chemist premises, and the Theatre Royal, in Longbrook Street, was replaced with a purpose-build office complex for the Prudential – the site, in 1965, of my first job.
Most cinemas were dual-purpose in those days. Raising the screen left a functional stage and, whilst the Theatre Royal presented plays, the Odeon was host to the likes of Freddy and the Dreamers, Mannfred Mann, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, the Rolling Stones and, of course, the Beatles. They were also home to the “Saturday morning pictures”, a mix of cartoons and children’s adventure shorts that were extremely popular with, as I recall, 9-15 year-olds.
Most of my early years were spent in a council estate (social housing). Few of the residents owned a car in the 1950s; the only vehicles regularly seen were the milkman with his hand-drawn electric cart, the coal man, the paraffin van (Aladdin Pink), the Corona van, the baker, the mobile grocery and the mobile butcher. Playing in the street was fine. The lamp-post on the corner made a fine wicket for cricket (English or French); chalk-marks on the road for hopscotch, tracks to follow on bicycles or goalposts for football. We were sent out to play as much as possible, the only requirement was to be home in time for tea.
I know I’ve wandered off theme, but talking about the Exeter of my childhood does that to me.