Buzzing Exeter street with look and feel of 'Soho or Amsterdam'

It may have been a dreary week but if there's one place in Exeter that's vibrant no matter the weather, it's Gandy Street. Packed full of shops, cafes, restaurants, bars and even a nightclub, it feels like the street that never sleeps so we took a trip there to speak to the people who keep it so lively.

Rain had just lashed down on Exeter but Gandy Street was still as colourful as ever and there was a steady stream of shoppers. Fans once believed it to have inspired Diagon Alley in Harry Potter and, while JK Rowling said this was nothing more than a rumour, it's not hard to see why.

"Businesses come and go but the feeling of it is still the same," says Philippa Rutherford, the owner of Mantis jewellery shop. "It's mostly independent, with some big names as well, and it's a really lovely little oasis in the city centre. It's quieter than the High Street but it's still right in the centre of town."


Mantis is one of the street's long-established businesses, having first opened way back in 2000. Phillipa and her husband, originally from London, stumbled across Gandy Street by chance while looking for somewhere to set up a business in Devon.

She said: "We were living in London but we wanted to move to Devon and we were on holiday and came to Exeter to look for a shop.

"We were walking up and down the High Street and there were big units and only one or two independent shops. We saw the entrance to Gandy Street which is very narrow and it was beautiful with the hanging baskets. There was a 'for let' sign in the shop which is how we found it - purely by chance.

"Although it's small, you can do everything you could possibly need to do apart from a grocery shop. The ratio has changed slightly but there's always bistros, jewellery shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, hairdressers, beauty salons, solicitors, health spots for things like masseuses and acupuncture. It's always been like that and it works really well."

Philippa Rutherford owns Mantis jewellery shop on Gandy Street -Credit:Mary Stenson/DevonLive
Philippa Rutherford owns Mantis jewellery shop on Gandy Street -Credit:Mary Stenson/DevonLive

Despite anti-social behaviour impacting businesses in other parts of the city centre, she says Gandy Street has been able to mostly escape this. Philippa says this is helped by a close-knit relationship between the various business owners and managers.

She said: "The thing about Gandy Street is the businesses, whether you're big or small, all know each other and we all look after each other.

"There are social issues in the city that are very difficult to address like homelessness, begging and street-attached people but they don't tend to come down Gandy Street. I haven't noticed any shoplifting down here at all."

Laura Neill runs MakerMart, one of the businesses that is supports the Phoenix arts and events venue. She says she was drawn to work on Gandy Street due to its buzzing atmosphere and how, instead of competing with one another, businesses work together to keep it looking good.

She said: "I've been in Exeter for 20 years and it's always been one of those streets where everyone knows it's really really popular with locals. There's always a buzz about it.

"All the shops make an effort to have their displays really nicely presented. Everyone really cares about the street as well. Between all the shops and bars, there isn't direct competition."

Gandy Street, Exeter -Credit:Mary Stenson/DevonLive
Gandy Street, Exeter -Credit:Mary Stenson/DevonLive

In addition to maintaining its appearance, staff along the street also work together to support each other during difficult times. Just a few weeks ago, security and bar staff could be seen on CCTV footage rushing to warn each other and keep customers safe during a shocking incident when a car was driven down the pedestrianised street in the early hours of a Saturday morning.

Laura said: "Everyone looks out for each other. If one of us has issues then we can borrow till roll or with the bars, if there's security issues, people let each other know. It's genuinely a really nice community vibe."

She went on to explain that the atmosphere and offering on Gandy Street is unlike anything else in the city, simultaneously brimming with history while also constantly offering something new. She said: "There's new shops opening so it's constantly changing. It's a beautiful place, it's steeped in history. You get such a variety that you just won't find in other parts of Exeter."

Another person who has a long history with Gandy Street is Adam Rank, who currently oversees the running of venues which support the Phoenix, including new bar Pixys, and The Mermaid. Adam has grown up with Gandy Street, getting his first job there 28 years ago and returning to work there after having travelled overseas.

He said: "My first job on Gandy Street was at Coolings 28 year ago. I've moved to different places, I worked at Pitcher & Piano which is now Revs, I've done a shift here and at the Mermaid, I've worked for the Phoenix, I've worked at Vaults. I moved away to London and Australia and came back to Gandy Street."

Across the nearly three decades he has worked there, he says it has been consistent in its reputation for being a haven for independent businesses and variety. This is something that he aims to promote with the venues he manages.

He said: "Each has its own specific thing to it. The Phoenix is very events-based so people don't necessarily come for a pint everyday because one day there's a metal gig happening, the next night there's 800 people. We worked with The Mermaid, a cocktail bar and late-night venue and MakerMart, which is our shop.

"Everything at Pixys is Devon, Cornwall and Dorset so all the beers, wines and spirits are coming from within that area, wherever possible. It gives us the opportunity to be a shop window for a lot of these suppliers. We're opening up another floor within the next four weeks and a daytime food offering.

"[Since lockdown] I think people are keener to support independents than they were before. The businesses we have [Pixys, The Mermaid and MakerMart] exist to support the Phoenix. The Phoenix is a charity so everything goes into generating more art and activity there.

"I think people are still going to spend money but they're being more careful about where they spend money. It's the run of the independents along here."

Coolings on Gandy Street, Exeter -Credit:Mary Stenson/DevonLive
Coolings on Gandy Street, Exeter -Credit:Mary Stenson/DevonLive

For more than 150 years, the very centre of Gandy Street has been a popular drinking spot, most recently known as Coolings. For some time, the bar was Hatt's but, after being taken over by a new face around six years ago, it was soon restored to Coolings to honour the memories of many of its long-term clientele.

Like many others, the man at the helm says he was drawn in by the street's quirky and unique atmosphere. He said: "I think it was the quirkiness and the uniqueness of it. There's a mix of the different businesses and I think that's a real selling point.

"From a night-time economy perspective, it's much busier than it used to be. I think it's always been one of the central evening economy places but coronavirus>Covid changed the way people socialise and when they shop. It's more spread across the week."

Despite bars and quirky shops being appealing to the city's massive student population, the boss says locals have remained loyal over the years, resulting in a real mix of customers. He says it's been helped by a café and bar culture that's comparable to the bustling streets of London or Amsterdam.

He said: "We do a lot of student socials so this week is welcome week at the university and I think we've got nine socials this week downstairs in the cocktail bar. Whereas, if you came in on a Friday evening, you'd see a much older group of customers that were enjoying live music or comedy nights. We definitely get a real split.

"One of the things I absolutely love about Gandy Street - and everyone says the same thing - is it's like when you're in Soho and there's seating outside or like Amsterdam. I'd love to see more of that, not just with the bars and restaurants but the shops as well. We see little glimpses of that and the atmosphere just changes. It makes you feel like you're somewhere else."