University of Exeter: Join interactive ramble across Exeter to explore the city’s fascinating literary history

The guided walk will show how an Exeter station provided the inspiration for Penguin paperback books, and how Gandy Street may have inspired former University of Exeter student J. K. Rowling to create Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter series.

Walkers will also visit the plaque at the corner of Gandy Street and the High Street in tribute to Thomas Bodley, born in Exeter, founder of the world-famous Bodleian Library in Oxford. They will also take in the site of the former London Inn Square, where the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery, addressed people in the city.

The event also includes stops at Exeter Cathedral and Cathedral Green, home to the Exeter Book and mentioned in Dracula, and Cathedral Close, the site of Devon and Exeter Institution which employed the first known professional woman librarian in 1849.

Also on the tour is the Turks Head pub, a favourite of Charles Dickens.

The walk is organised by the University of Exeter’s Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health and the University of Wolverhampton’s Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded Big Book Review project. It is led by University of Wolverhampton’s Dr Elizabeth Dearnley.

After the tour attendees can attend a discussion at Exeter Central Library about literary identity, wellbeing and the importance of regional writing with writers Virginia Baily and Zakiya McKenzie and Professor Laura Salisbury from the University of Exeter.

The South West’s literary heritage can be traced back to the Exeter Book, a 10th-century anthology of Old English poetry and riddles and the largest known collection of Old English literature still in existence, which is now housed in Exeter Cathedral. These rich literary connections were acknowledged in 2019 when Exeter became a UNESCO City of Literature, a status which it shares with only 38 other cities.

The walk is part of the Big Book Review research project led by Professor Sebastian Groes at the Wolverhampton, to examine public perceptions of fiction for the BBC’s engagement project The Novels That Shaped Our World. Using surveys, the team has been exploring how the public rates the quality of 100 novels that have had a major impact on British society. Their analyses have also investigated possible regional differences in reading habits.

In the Novel Memories survey, readers selected fiction from a list of almost 40 options and provided their memories of both the story and about their life at the time of reading. Readers from South West England were more likely to choose Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice than any other novel on the list, mapping a trend seen across much of the UK. Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 Gothic novel Rebecca was a close runner up, tied with Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm.

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