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A Glimpse into Exeter’s Hotel History: From Past to Present

A brief overview of Exeter’s rich history

Exeter, a vibrant city in the heart of Devon, boasts a rich history that stretches back thousands of years. Nestled along the River Exe, this beautiful destination has witnessed the rise and fall of empires, the blossoming of art and culture, and the evolution of modern society.

The city’s roots can be traced back to the Roman era when it was known as Isca Dumnoniorum. The remnants of Roman walls and fortifications still stand today as a testament to the city’s ancient origins. As Exeter continued to develop, it became an important hub for trade, religious activities, and political power in medieval England. The stunning Exeter Cathedral, completed in the early 14th century, is a prime example of the city’s historical significance.

Exeter Cathedral

Exeter has been a melting pot of cultures and ideas throughout the centuries, with influences from the Normans, Vikings, and other European settlers shaping its architecture, language, and traditions. The city has also played a pivotal role in England’s maritime history, with its bustling port facilitating trade and exploration to far-flung corners of the world.

Today, Exeter is a thriving modern city that embraces its storied past while looking forward to a bright future. The seamless blend of ancient and contemporary attractions makes Exeter an alluring destination for tourists and locals alike. From its atmospheric cobbled streets and historic buildings to its bustling shopping centres and innovative dining scene, Exeter is a city that wears its rich history with pride.

As we delve into the fascinating history of hotels in Exeter, we will uncover the threads that weave together the city’s evolution and its impact on the hospitality industry. So, let us take you on a journey through time, exploring the stories and milestones that have shaped Exeter’s accommodations from past to present.

The importance of hotels in Exeter’s development

The importance of hotels in Exeter’s development cannot be overstated, as they have played a crucial role in the city’s growth and evolution. From humble inns and lodgings to the luxurious and boutique establishments of today, hotels have not only accommodated travellers but also fueled the local economy, fostered cultural exchange, and contributed to the city’s unique charm.

First and foremost, hotels have supported Exeter’s thriving tourism industry. The city’s rich history, stunning architecture, and beautiful natural surroundings have attracted visitors from near and far. Hotels have provided these travellers with a comfortable and welcoming home away from home, ensuring they have a memorable and enjoyable stay. As a result, the hospitality sector has created countless employment opportunities for locals, boosting the city’s economic growth and stability.

Furthermore, hotels have played a significant role in promoting cultural exchange and understanding within Exeter. As a crossroads for travellers and traders throughout history, the city has been a melting pot of ideas, customs, and traditions. Hotels have acted as microcosms of this diversity, bringing together people from all walks of life and fostering connections that span the globe. In this way, hotels have enriched their guests’ lives and contributed to the vibrant and inclusive spirit of Exeter as a whole.

The development of hotels in Exeter has also profoundly impacted the city’s architectural landscape. Over the centuries, hoteliers have repurposed historic buildings, constructed new establishments, and embraced innovative designs to cater to the ever-evolving needs of their guests. This has resulted in a fascinating mix of architectural styles and a truly unique cityscape that captures the essence of Exeter’s past, present, and future.

Lastly, hotels have played a crucial role in fostering a sense of community and camaraderie within Exeter. From hosting weddings and celebrations to providing meeting spaces for local businesses and community groups, hotels have served as gathering places for residents and visitors alike. By bringing people together, hotels have helped to forge lasting connections and create a strong sense of local identity and pride.

The importance of hotels in Exeter’s development is multifaceted and far-reaching. They have not only provided essential accommodations for travellers but also shaped the city’s economic, cultural, and architectural landscape. As we journey through Exeter’s hotel history, we will uncover how these establishments have left an indelible mark on the city and its people.

Early Inns and Lodgings in Exeter

In the early days of Exeter’s history, long before the emergence of modern hotels, inns and lodgings played a vital role in accommodating weary travellers, traders, and pilgrims who journeyed to the city. These establishments offered a place to rest and a welcoming atmosphere where people could socialize, share stories, and form connections. Let us stroll down memory lane and explore the enchanting world of early inns and lodgings in Exeter.

During the medieval period, Exeter’s inns were more than just places to rest one’s head. They were bustling hubs of activity, serving as centres for trade, entertainment, and socialization. Travellers would gather around roaring fires in the common rooms, savouring hearty meals and local ales while forging bonds with fellow guests. Many of these inns also provided stabling for horses, ensuring that both travellers and their steeds were well cared for during their stay.

One of the most notable historic inns in Exeter is the Ship Inn, which dates back to the 15th century. Situated a short way from the bustling quayside, this inn was a popular haunt for sailors, merchants, and travellers seeking respite from their long journeys. The Ship Inn still stands today as a Greene King pub, proudly preserving its rich history and offering guests a glimpse into Exeter’s storied past.

ship inn interior
Ship Inn, Exeter. Image credit: Exeter Memories

Another fine example of an early Exeter inn is the Royal Clarence Hotel, which traces its origins to the 18th century. Known initially as Mr Berlon’s new Assembly Room, this establishment later gained fame as the first lodging in England to be called a “hotel.” Over the years, the Royal Clarence has played host to numerous dignitaries, including the Duchess of Clarence, who lent her name to the hotel during a visit in 1827. Although the hotel was sadly devastated by a fire in 2016, plans are underway to restore this historic gem to its former glory.

Royal Clarence Hotel. Image credit: Exeter Civic Society

Mol’s Coffee House, established in the 16th century, is another fascinating piece of Exeter’s hospitality history. While not an inn, this establishment was a favourite meeting place for the city’s intellectuals, artists, and merchants, who would gather to discuss the pressing issues of the day over steaming cups of coffee. The beautiful half-timbered building still stands as a testament to the city’s vibrant social scene in centuries past.

These early inns and lodgings were instrumental in shaping Exeter’s identity as a welcoming and hospitable city. They provided travelers with a safe haven, nourishment, and a sense of community, while also laying the groundwork for the evolution of the modern hotels we know and love today. As we continue our journey through Exeter’s hotel history, we will see how these humble beginnings have paved the way for the diverse and dynamic accommodations that now grace the city’s streets.

The role of inns in medieval Exeter

The role of inns in medieval Exeter was crucial to the city’s growth and development. As a bustling hub of trade, religion, and culture, Exeter attracted diverse visitors, from weary pilgrims and merchants to noble travellers and their entourages. With their inviting atmosphere and essential services, Inns provided a vital lifeline for these travellers, fostering a sense of community, supporting local trade, and promoting the city’s reputation for warmth and hospitality.

One of the primary functions of inns during medieval times was to offer shelter and sustenance to travellers. Exeter’s strategic location along major trade routes and pilgrimage paths meant that the city was frequently visited by those journeying to and from various parts of the country. Inns provided a safe haven for these travellers, who could rest and recuperate within their welcoming walls, enjoying a warm bed, hearty meals, and fellow guests’ company.

In addition to meeting the basic needs of travellers, inns also played a significant role in supporting Exeter’s local economy. Innkeepers would source food, ale, and other supplies from local merchants and farmers, thus fostering a vibrant trade network that benefitted the entire community. Moreover, inns were often important venues for conducting business, with merchants and traders using their common rooms to negotiate deals, exchange news, and discuss opportunities for collaboration.

Inns were also crucial in promoting social and cultural exchange within medieval Exeter. They served as gathering places where locals and visitors could share stories, news, and ideas. In this way, inns played a vital role in fostering a sense of community and camaraderie among Exeter’s diverse population. From lively debates over politics and religion to impromptu performances by wandering minstrels, the lively atmosphere within these establishments contributed to the city’s vibrant and inclusive spirit.

Furthermore, inns helped to shape the architectural landscape of medieval Exeter. Many of these establishments were housed in beautiful timber-framed buildings, which added charm and character to the city’s streets. Some of these historic structures still stand today, offering visitors a captivating glimpse into Exeter’s past and the enduring legacy of its medieval inns.

The role of inns in medieval Exeter was multifaceted and indispensable. They provided essential services to travellers, supported the local economy, fostered social and cultural exchange, and contributed to the city’s unique architectural heritage. As we reflect on the enduring importance of these establishments, it is clear that the spirit of warmth and hospitality that defined medieval inns continues to shape Exeter’s hotel industry to this day.

Notable historic inns and hotels and their significance

Exeter is home to several notable historic hotels and inns that have played a significant role in shaping the city’s hospitality landscape. These establishments, steeped in history and brimming with character, offer a fascinating glimpse into Exeter’s storied past. Let’s explore some of the most renowned historic inns in the city and delve into their unique significance.

The Ship Inn

ship inn drawing

Located not far from the bustling quayside, the Ship Inn has been welcoming weary travellers since the 14th century. Its prime location made it a popular choice for sailors, merchants, and other visitors drawn to Exeter’s thriving port. The Ship Inn’s rich history and charming ambience continue to captivate guests, making it a beloved fixture of Exeter’s hospitality scene.

Image credit: Exeter Memories

Royal Clarence Hotel

The Royal Clarence Hotel holds a special place in Exeter’s history and hospitality scene. Established in the 18th century, this prestigious hotel has welcomed a variety of dignitaries and notable guests throughout its storied past. Among them was the Duchess of Clarence, who visited in 1827 and subsequently lent her name to the hotel, adding an air of elegance and prestige to the establishment.

The Royal Clarence Hotel restored frontage

Located near Exeter’s magnificent cathedral, the Royal Clarence Hotel has long been a popular choice for travellers seeking comfortable and luxurious accommodations in a prime location. Its rich history and grand architectural style have made it an iconic landmark in the city, appreciated by locals and visitors alike.

Unfortunately, the hotel suffered a devastating fire in 2016, causing significant damage to the historic building. Despite this setback, plans are underway to restore the Royal Clarence Hotel to its former grandeur, ensuring that its legacy and place in Exeter’s history are preserved for future generations.

The White Hart Hotel

Situated within Exeter’s historic city centre, the White Hart Hotel has been a fixture of the hospitality scene since the 16th century. Its proximity to the magnificent Exeter Cathedral and other notable landmarks made it a popular choice for travellers seeking comfortable lodgings in a convenient location. The White Hart Hotel still operates today, proudly preserving its rich heritage while offering modern comforts to its guests.

The Nobody Inn

The Nobody Inn, located in the picturesque village of Doddiscombsleigh just outside Exeter, is a charming 17th-century inn with a fascinating history. Legend has it that the inn was once the site of a gruesome murder, and its curious name is said to be derived from the mysterious circumstances surrounding the crime. Today, the Nobody Inn is renowned for its cosy atmosphere, delicious cuisine, and extensive selection of fine wines and spirits.

The Old Firehouse

The Old Firehouse, situated in the heart of Exeter, is an iconic pub with a rich history dating back to the 16th century. Originally serving as stables for the city’s fire brigade, it was later transformed into a pub and inn that has captured the imaginations of both locals and visitors alike. With its rustic charm, cosy atmosphere, and exceptional food, the Old Firehouse remains a beloved gathering place for the Exeter community.

The Turks Head

The Turks Head, located in the bustling heart of Exeter, is a historic pub and inn with a storied past that spans over 800 years. Once a popular haunt for pilgrims and travellers, the inn has evolved over the centuries to become a cherished destination for those seeking a taste of Exeter’s rich heritage. With its warm and inviting atmosphere, the Turks Head remains popular for visitors looking to experience the city’s timeless charm and hospitality.

The City Gate Hotel

The City Gate Hotel, situated near Exeter’s historic city walls, is an elegant Georgian-style inn with a rich and fascinating history. Established in the 18th century, the hotel has seen a variety of uses over the years, including serving as a coaching inn and a popular meeting place for the city’s literary and artistic communities. Today, the City Gate Hotel retains its historic charm while offering guests a luxurious and comfortable stay in the heart of Exeter.

Hotel du Vin

Hotel du Vin, formerly The Magdalen Chapter Hotel, situated in a beautifully restored 19th-century building that was once home to the West of England Eye Hospital, is a chic and contemporary hotel with a nod to its historic roots. With its unique blend of historic architecture and modern design, Hotel du Vin offers guests a distinctive and unforgettable experience in the heart of Exeter. This stylish hotel’s commitment to celebrating its fascinating past while embracing contemporary luxury sets it apart as a truly special destination.

St. Olave’s Hotel

Nestled within a lovingly restored 16th-century merchant’s house, St. Olave’s Hotel offers guests a unique and charming stay in the heart of Exeter. This historic hotel is named after the medieval church of St. Olave, which once stood nearby, and its rich history can be felt throughout the property. With its warm atmosphere, beautifully appointed rooms, and welcoming staff, St. Olave’s Hotel is the perfect destination for those seeking to immerse themselves in Exeter’s historic charm.

The Rougemont Hotel

The Rougemont Hotel, located near the picturesque Rougemont Gardens, is an elegant Victorian-era hotel with a storied past. Established in the late 19th century, this historic hotel has played host to a diverse array of illustrious guests, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Today, the Rougemont Hotel retains its classic charm. It offers guests a comfortable and stylish stay in the heart of Exeter, making it an enduring favourite among both leisure and business travellers.

These historic hotels, each with their own unique stories and characteristics, offer visitors a chance to experience the rich heritage and warm hospitality that define Exeter. As we continue to explore and appreciate these remarkable establishments, we are reminded of the enduring appeal of Exeter’s historic hotels and their important role in shaping the city’s identity and character.

The Emergence of Hotels in the 18th and 19th Centuries

The 18th and 19th centuries marked a transformative period in the history of Exeter’s hospitality landscape, as traditional inns began giving way to the more sophisticated and luxurious hotels we are familiar with today. This shift was driven by a variety of factors, including advances in transportation, changing social attitudes, and the growth of the leisure industry. As we explore the emergence of hotels during this period, we gain a deeper understanding of their lasting impact on Exeter’s hospitality scene.

One of the most significant factors that contributed to the rise of hotels in the 18th and 19th centuries was the improvement in transportation infrastructure. As roads, railways, and canals developed throughout England, travel became more accessible and efficient. With its strategic location and growing reputation as a vibrant cultural and commercial centre, Exeter began to attract an increasing number of visitors. While charming and welcoming, the city’s traditional inns were often ill-equipped to cater to the diverse needs of these new travellers, creating a demand for more sophisticated and comfortable accommodations.

In response to this growing demand, hotels began to emerge across Exeter, offering a more luxurious and refined alternative to the city’s traditional inns. These establishments focused on providing guests with an enhanced level of comfort and convenience, offering private rooms, modern amenities, and a higher standard of service. Many hotels also began to cater to specific market segments, such as business travellers, tourists, and affluent individuals, tailoring their offerings to their clientele’s unique needs and preferences.

Another important factor that fueled the growth of hotels during this period was the emergence of the leisure industry. As the middle and upper classes began to enjoy more leisure time and disposable income, they increasingly sought out opportunities for recreation and relaxation. With its rich history, beautiful architecture, and vibrant cultural scene, Exeter became a popular destination for tourists and vacationers. With their luxurious accommodations and attentive service, hotels were perfectly positioned to capitalize on this growing market.

The 18th and 19th centuries also witnessed a shift in social attitudes towards travel and hospitality. Whereas inns had traditionally been seen as communal spaces where guests would eat, drink, and socialize, hotels began emphasising privacy and individuality. This shift was in part a reflection of the changing values of the time, as the rise of the bourgeoisie led to an increased emphasis on personal comfort, status, and refinement.

The Influence of the Industrial Revolution on Exeter’s Hospitality Industry

The Industrial Revolution, spanning from the mid-18th to mid-19th century, brought about significant changes in Britain’s social, economic, and technological fabric. This transformative era profoundly impacted Exeter’s hospitality industry, shaping the city’s growth, development, and evolving identity. By examining how the Industrial Revolution influenced Exeter’s hospitality scene, we gain a deeper appreciation for the enduring legacy of this important period in history.

Growth of Transportation Infrastructure

The Industrial Revolution spurred the development of new transportation infrastructure, such as railways, roads, and canals, which connected Exeter more efficiently with the rest of the country. The arrival of the railway in Exeter in 1844, in particular, increased the number of visitors to the city. This surge in travellers created a demand for accommodations, expanding existing hotels and establishing new ones to cater to the needs of a growing and diverse clientele.

Rise of Tourism and Leisure

As a result of the Industrial Revolution, many people in Britain experienced an increase in disposable income and leisure time. This newfound wealth and free time led to a rise in tourism and leisure activities. With its picturesque countryside, rich history, and vibrant cultural scene, Exeter became a popular destination for tourists seeking a pleasant retreat from the industrial cities. Hotels and inns in the city adapted to cater to this new breed of tourists, offering a variety of amenities and services designed to enhance their guests’ comfort and enjoyment.

Introduction of New Technologies

The technological innovations of the Industrial Revolution also directly impacted Exeter’s hospitality industry. Hotels began to incorporate modern conveniences such as gas lighting, indoor plumbing, and central heating, providing guests with a more comfortable and luxurious experience. Additionally, new methods of communication, such as the telegraph, enabled hotels to stay connected with their guests and the wider world, enhancing the efficiency of their operations and the overall guest experience.

Shifts in Social Attitudes and Values

The Industrial Revolution brought about significant changes in social attitudes and values, particularly with respect to travel and hospitality. The rise of the middle class and an increasing emphasis on personal comfort, status, and refinement led to a growing preference for private, individual accommodations over the communal spaces traditionally found in inns. This shift in consumer preferences contributed to the evolution of Exeter’s hospitality landscape, as hotels began to focus on providing guests with a more personalized and private experience.

Impact on the Local Economy

The growth of Exeter’s hospitality industry during the Industrial Revolution positively impacted the local economy. The influx of visitors to the city stimulated demand for goods and services, creating jobs and encouraging investment in the city’s infrastructure. This economic growth, in turn, further bolstered the city’s hospitality scene as new hotels and inns were established to accommodate the growing number of travellers and tourists.

The Golden Age of Exeter Hotels: 20th Century Developments

The 20th century marked a golden age for Exeter’s hospitality industry, as a host of new hotels and developments emerged to cater to the evolving needs and tastes of an increasingly diverse and discerning clientele. By exploring this period’s key milestones and innovations, we can gain a deeper understanding of the factors that have shaped Exeter’s thriving hotel scene and the lasting impact of this remarkable era.

The Expansion of Luxury Accommodations

The early decades of the 20th century saw a significant expansion of luxury accommodations in Exeter, as a new generation of sophisticated establishments joined the city’s historic hotels. These hotels, such as the iconic Southgate Hotel, offered guests unparalleled comfort and opulence, setting a new standard for quality and refinement in the local hospitality industry.

The Emergence of Boutique Hotels

The latter part of the 20th century witnessed the rise of boutique hotels in Exeter, as many discerning travellers sought unique, intimate, and characterful accommodations. These smaller, independently owned establishments, such as the Magdalen Chapter Hotel and the Hotel Du Vin, offered guests a personalized and authentic experience that stood in contrast to the larger, more impersonal chain hotels. The popularity of boutique hotels contributed to the diversification of Exeter’s hospitality landscape, enriching the city’s reputation as a destination that catered to a wide range of tastes and preferences.

The Growth of Business Travel and Conferencing Facilities

The 20th century also saw a significant increase in business travel to Exeter, as the city emerged as an important commercial and administrative hub. In response to this growing demand, many of Exeter’s hotels began to invest in state-of-the-art conferencing and meeting facilities, offering corporate guests a comprehensive range of services and amenities tailored to their specific needs. This focus on business travel helped to further fuel the city’s growth and development, attracting investment and fostering a thriving local economy.

The Rise of Themed and Specialty Hotels

Another notable trend in the 20th-century Exeter hotel scene was the emergence of themed and speciality hotels, catering to niche markets and unique interests. From historic hotels that celebrated the city’s rich heritage, such as the Mercure Exeter Rougemont Hotel, to eco-friendly establishments that championed sustainability, like the Deer Park Country House Hotel, these innovative hotels added a new dimension to Exeter’s hospitality landscape and expanded the city’s appeal to an ever-wider range of visitors.

The Influence of Modern Design and Technology

The 20th century also saw a significant shift in hotel design and architecture, as many of Exeter’s new hotels embraced modern styles and cutting-edge technology. From sleek, contemporary buildings to innovative, adaptive reuse projects that transformed historic structures into stylish and sustainable accommodations, these developments demonstrated Exeter’s commitment to remaining at the forefront of hospitality trends and innovation.

Modern Exeter Hotels: Adapting to Changing Times

As we enter the 21st century, Exeter’s hospitality industry continues to evolve and adapt to today’s travellers’ ever-changing needs and preferences. By exploring the ways in which modern Exeter hotels are embracing new trends, technologies, and challenges, we gain a deeper understanding of the city’s enduring commitment to innovation and excellence in hospitality.

Embracing Sustainability and Eco-Friendliness

One of the most significant trends in the modern hospitality industry is the growing emphasis on sustainability and eco-friendliness. In response to this trend, many Exeter hotels are implementing environmentally-conscious practices and policies, such as reducing waste, conserving energy, and sourcing locally-produced food and materials. These efforts not only help to minimize the environmental impact of the city’s hospitality industry but also cater to the growing number of travelers who prioritize sustainability when choosing accommodations.

Catering to the Digital Age

With the rapid advancements in technology and the widespread use of smartphones and other mobile devices, modern Exeter hotels are finding new ways to cater to the digital needs of their guests. From offering high-speed Wi-Fi and smart room controls to embracing online booking platforms and mobile apps, these establishments are leveraging the power of technology to enhance the guest experience and streamline their operations.

Personalization and Customization

As travellers increasingly seek out unique and personalized experiences, modern Exeter hotels are finding new ways to tailor their offerings to their guests’ individual preferences and needs. This can include offering bespoke packages, customized in-room amenities, and personalized recommendations for local attractions and activities. By focusing on personalization and customization, these hotels are able to create memorable and distinctive experiences that set them apart in a competitive market.

Expanding the Guest Experience Beyond Accommodations

Modern Exeter hotels also recognize the importance of expanding the guest experience beyond mere accommodations, offering additional services and amenities designed to enrich their guests’ stay. This can include on-site dining options, wellness and fitness facilities, curated cultural and recreational activities, and partnerships with local businesses and attractions. By broadening the scope of their offerings, these hotels can create more immersive and engaging experiences that resonate with today’s experience-driven travellers.

Adapting to New Challenges

Finally, modern Exeter hotels are demonstrating their resilience and adaptability in the face of new challenges and uncertainties, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. By implementing enhanced safety and hygiene protocols, offering flexible booking policies, and finding creative ways to maintain guest satisfaction and engagement during periods of disruption, these establishments are proving their commitment to navigating the changing landscape of the hospitality industry.


Exeter’s rich history of hotels and inns, dating back to medieval times, has been an integral part of the city’s growth and development. From the early inns and lodgings that served as vital hubs for commerce and social interaction to the grand establishments of the 18th and 19th centuries that elevated Exeter’s status as a destination, and finally, to the innovative and adaptable modern hotels of the 21st century, the city’s hospitality industry has continually evolved to cater to the changing needs and preferences of its visitors.

Throughout the centuries, Exeter’s hotels have played a crucial role in shaping the city’s identity and fostering a sense of community while simultaneously responding to the challenges and trends of their respective eras. As we celebrate the enduring legacy of these historic establishments and embrace the future of Exeter’s hospitality industry, we are reminded of the vital importance of preserving and sharing these unique stories for the benefit of both residents and visitors alike.

With a strong foundation built on a rich and diverse history, Exeter’s hotels will continue to thrive and innovate, ensuring that the city remains a vibrant, dynamic, and welcoming destination for future generations.

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