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The River Exe in England rises near the village of Simonsbath, on Exmoor in Somerset, near the Bristol Channel coast, but flows more or less directly due south, so that most of its length lies in Devon. It reaches the sea at a substantial ria, the Exe Estuary, on the south (English Channel) coast of Devon. Historically, its lowest bridging point was at Exeter, though there is now a viaduct for the M5 motorway about 3 km south of the city centre.
The river's name derives from the Celtic word Isca meaning, simply, water. The river gives its name to the city of Exeter and many other settlements along its course, including Exford, Up Exe, Nether Exe, Exwick, Exton, Exminster, and Exebridge, where it is joined by the River Barle. The seaside town of Exmouth is at the east side of the estuary mouth, and Dawlish Warren is at the west, with its long sand spit extending across the mouth.
The river fuelled Exeter's growth and relative importance in medieval times, and the city's first industrial area was developed at Exe Island, and was an area of marshland between the city walls and the river Exe, reclaimed by the construction of a series of leats, or water courses, possibly from as early as the 10th century. Of these, the Higher Leat still exists. It created Exe Island, which was a separate manor belonging to the Courtenays, Earls of Devon. The island was home to numerous watermills producing paper and textiles; it also created valuable land through drainage of the marshlands.
The leats were used to drive fulling mills and corn mills. Sometime between 1180 and 1190 Robert Courtenay granted to Nicholas Gervaise all his water which Thomas the fuller holds of him outside the west gate of Exeter, which is between his corn mills and Crickenpette, so that the said Nicholas and his heirs may build a mill on the said water towards Crickenpette as shall appear best and most commodious to them.
Evidence for other medieval industries tanning and the working of horn, bone, and bronze has come to light in archaeological excavations. Cloth-finishing was the most important industry in the 16th century. In the late 18th century, the cloth industry declined and in the 19th century the area was occupied by iron foundries, corn mills, and breweries.
Tides on the river are limited at Countess Wear, the site of a weir commissioned by the Countess of Devon in the 13th century. The Exeter Canal bypasses this weir to enable ships to reach Exeter Quay. At high tide, the estuary forms a large body of water that is heavily used for water sports especially sailing, windsurfing and water skiing.
Railways run along both sides of the estuary. The Avocet Line from Exeter to Exmouth on the eastern side, and the South Devon main line on the western. The latter is on a causeway, the South Devon Railway sea wall from Powderham to Dawlish Warren. The Exmouth to Starcross Ferry carries passengers across the mouth of the estuary during the summer months, linking the harbour at Exmouth with a pier adjacent to Starcross railway station on the South Devon main line.
At low tide, extensive mud flats are exposed, and these are an important feeding source for wading birds. Along with other rias in South West England, the Exe estuary is an important site for wintering waders. Dawlish Warren is a favoured site for birdwatching. The river is acidic and populated with wild brown trout and some grayling, the average size being 8-10 oz. Unlike many West Country rivers there are no seatrout, but there is a run of Atlantic salmon. Just 150 metres below the union of the River Barle is one of the best, and highest salmon pools on the river: Black Pool.
In 2008 the Environment Agency embarked on a project to clean the river from vegetation forming. In order to do so the water level decreased to its lowest level - less water remained than the droughts the city has suffered.
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