Crediton & District

Exeter Synagogue, Guildhall & Institute

Visit to Exeter, 27th July, 2016

Seventeen group members met in front of the Exeter Synagogue, which has no identifying plaque and looks more like a house than a place of worship. Security is a big issue in every synagogue nowadays.
Our guide, Richard Halsey, was waiting for us inside.

He began his talk by tracing a history of Judaism in the UK & Europe into which he weaved a personal history. Richard is a rather flamboyant character and illustrated his talk by displaying all the ritual elements of Jewish worship held by the synagogue, explaining the purpose of each one and how exactly they were used.

Exeter Synagogue is the third oldest in Britain, dating from 1764, the oldest is London’s Bevis Marks, dating from 1701 and the second oldest that of Plymouth, from 1761. Exeter is a liberal synagogue, where men & women sit together to worship (in both Anastazi & Sephardic traditions) unlike Plymouth’s, where the sexes are still segregated – women sitting in an upper gallery.

There has been a Jewish population in England since Norman times and in Exeter from the C12th. In 1290 the entire Jewish population of England was both dispossessed & expelled. They were re-admitted 375 years later, in 1665 (during the Commonwealth).

Exeter’s building has been described as a perfect Georgian synagogue, much of its silver was made for the place in the very early C19th and the five massive scrolls containing the Torah, written especially for Exeter, are of a similar date – Exeter is the only synagogue in the country to possess anything similarly original.

After Richard’s fascinating talk we moved on to Exeter’s Guildhall where we all admired the roof which dendrochronologists have dated to the mid C15th . There is a magnificent series of corbels depicting a bear with a ragged staff (the symbol of Warwickshire). Beyond the hall itself, we were shown the old jail.

We went our separate ways to have lunch, re-assembling in front of the Devon & Exeter Institution, where we were given tours of the roof (wearing hard hats and luminous jackets), the library and the Tudor Age rooms beyond (the oldest part of the building). In medieval times the building was canonical accommodation and in post-Reformation days it became the town house of the Courtenays, the Earls of Devon. The library was established in the early years of the C19th, the building initially being leased from the Courtenays and finally bought from them. It now holds 40,000 volumes and numerous loose items.

From the roof we could inspect the buildings of the Close and the Princesshay area. We also had a good view of the massive restoration work that is ongoing to the library ceiling (particularly of the two magnificent Georgian domed roof lights). It is being financed by grants from Historic England & the Heritage Lottery Fund. The library contains a unique collection of historic written material relating to Devon & Exeter.

Some of us moved on from here to number 8, the Close, the home of the fashion & accessories proprietors, Chandni Chowk. These are housed in a C15th medieval great hall with a magnificent hammerbeam roof (complete with Minstrel’s Gallery).

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