It wasn’t that anything had changed much. A few shops had changed hands, and a couple of new shiny buildings had popped up in the place of old dilapidated ones. But the amiable backwater of Exeter still exuded precisely the same understated, sleepy essence it did when I departed six years ago clutching a degree certificate.
What blew me away on returning was how much I walked straight past a thousand times and never once noticed!
Straightforward things, like the huge gardens surrounding the castle ruins, the ancient Roman city walls, and the network of underground passages that runs beneath the high street. Despite their being core to this little place’s uniqueness, I never noticed them in three years.
Less obviously, the abundance of opportunity for forays out of the city itself! I was practically oblivious to the looming expanse of Dartmoor, England’s largest national park, being on my doorstep. The respectably large River Exe figured only in terms of which bridge I needed to cross to get somewhere. And the little seaside town of Exmouth, a £3.70 half-hour train journey away, never in three years crossed my mind as a place worth a visit. (Only Topsham received the pleasure of my presence for the occasional ‘Topsham Ten’, a predictably-motivated tour of the village’s ten pubs.)
I’d treated my surroundings passively; the largely irrelevant setting to a lifestyle filled with far more important things: the social scene, nights out, clubs and societies, the ever-present inconvenience of an actual degree to read for; never stopping to stand and stare. This is probably a typical story. And so, during my recent three-day visit, I completely rewrote my mental map of Exeter, shrinking it considerably, rotating it ninety degrees clockwise, fleshing out great swathes of detail and moving the entire city several hundred miles west!
Why, then? Is this just an inevitability of having ‘fresh eyes’? A simple function of age and maturity? Or has a few years on the road, learning the arts of anti-preconception and of coexistence with the unknown, made a difference too?
I’m not sure I have a complete answer. The experience of long-term bicycle travel will force you to view your world differently, to see so much that you first missed.
And the strength of my changed perspective was never demonstrated so strongly until revisiting little old Exeter, a place I’d once called home.