Past Remains

A view of yesterday from today

Wynard's Almshouses, Exeter, Devon

When I last visited this area to take photos of the Jewish Cemetery I noted this building, thinking it was a church, and always had it in mind to go back and have a proper look...which I finally got around to some three years later! I was a little nonplussed at first because the building appears to be half church and half Mediaeval house. I walked along the lane at the east side, to see if I could see anything of the rear, and found a heritage board...which is how I discovered the name and original purpose of the building. And now it makes sense, as the church part is the chapel belonging to the Almshouses.

Founded in the 15th century by William Wynard, the original deed to the building was dated 1436, along with the reference 'lately created'. However, inscriptions inside the building give the founding date as 1430 and it is possible that building began then but was not endowed until some years later. Restored in the 17th century, after damage during the Civil War, the buildings were later rebuilt in the 19th century and it's mediaeval appearance was restored in 1863/4.

A Grade II* listed building, the main fabric consists of the local Heavitree Stone, which together with the sandstone dressings makes a delightful contrast.  The frontage comprises four narrow, two-storey bays; two to each side of the central doorway. The chapel is situated on the south-east corner. Heavy buttresses flank Victorian tracery windows and there is a rather fab bell tower on the western end of the chapel roof. The roofing across both buildings consists of alternating strips of plain and scalloped clay tiles, and together with the mullioned windows with lead panes, the little gables, Tudor-style chimneys and the striking colour, makes this a most distinctive and quirkily beautiful building.

Established for the relief and shelter for twelve paupers, the buildings form a square around a central, cobbled courtyard.  The narrow bays and dormers of the front are repeated in the other buildings and look just as lovely from inside the courtyard, at the centre of which is an open timbered well-house with a large tree growing by it. Restored and used by the Council in 1973, they have since been sold and are now luxury, residential homes. Having read the description, and having seen a photo of the courtyard, I would love to be able to see it for myself and take some photos. Unfortunately, although once part of the Exeter Red Coat heritage tours, access is no longer offered on the walks.

Heavitree Stone is a red sandstone indigenous to the Heavitree district on the eastern edge of the city, and can be seen in many of the older buildings. According to the light it's colour differs between a dark red or a purple-ish brown on a dull day, and a much brighter orange-red when the sun is out. I should imagine that the blocks were a lot smoother when first used, and that weathering has produced the roughness. Interestingly, some still have a smoother quality, and it's the contrast between the individual blocks, together with their non-uniform shapes, that makes the facade so attractive.

The chapel was dedicated to the Holy Trinity and Maison Dieu, and the chaplain lived alongside the other residents in the thirteenth dwelling. Often referred to as 'God's House', almshouses also offered succour to the soul as well as to the body. The paupers had strict instructions not to go 'wandering about the city', apart from visits to the cathedral church of the Friars Minor, which they had to attend daily, and the cross in Southernhay.
This might seem overly strict to us today, but many of them were elderly and/or ill and they were provided with housing, food and monetary 'dole', which was a lot more generous and humane than the workhouses of Victorian times. Put into context, they would not have felt constrained by these rules, as not only did Mediaeval people have a profound love of the mystery of their religion, which was a huge part of their lives, but also those who had the means had a god-given duty towards the poor and gave generously.

And when you think about it, if the same feeling prevailed today, then it would be the felons who die from hypothermia and lack of means and support, not pensioners, the unemployed or the disabled! Just a thought! ;)

On the same visit, and just before seeing Wynard's, I'd taken some photos of the St Mary Magdalen Almshouses further up the street. I was very excited to find that this was an almshouse too, therefore I've created a new section for almshouses on the Site Visits page...and will be looking out for more.

I didn't manage to take as many photos as I thought I had, but I will be going back to visit some other places nearby and will take some more then. Meanwhile, these and a few more can be seen in the Photo Gallery album.

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