WI trip to Plymouth

Friday 10th November 2017

WI trip to Plymouth

Lerryn WI trip to Plymouth to visit the Synagogue, lunch at the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club and Plymouth gin distillery tour on Wednesday 20th September 2017

Thanks to the Lerryn minibus, driven wonderfully by Annie Singer, we arrived in Plymouth ahead of schedule.  Which was just as well as it took a while to work out how to undo the gate to get in to the synagogue!! However, once in Jerry Sibley, who is the Custodian of the Synagogue, warmly welcomed us.  After an explanation of the history of Catherine Street (it dates back to Catherine of Aragon) Jerry explained that the order of buildings is very important to the Jewish faith. First comes the bathhouse because cleanliness is next to Godliness, then the school room (the teaching of Hebrew is essential to be able to read the Torah) and finally a place of worship, the synagogue.  Before you can build a synagogue,  you need to have a minyan and this is a minimum of 10 males over the age of 13, as you need this number of males to be assembled together before the scrolls can be read.

The current bathhouse is in the adjacent building to the synagogue and looked incredibly uncomfortable and not somewhere any of us wanted to linger. Refreshments were provided while Jerry talked generally about his role as Custodian. He explained that he isn’t Jewish as he needs to be able to work on the Sabbath and if you’re Jewish, that’s not possible.  The snacks were all Kosher, including Kit Kats!  We also met Dexter, perhaps the largest cat I’ve ever met!! And I don’t just mean large, I mean HUGE!!!!

The synagogue still stands on the original site in Catherine Street in the heart of the city.  The building itself is very discreet, from the street there is nothing to indicate what the building is, or how incredibly beautiful it is inside.  Built in 1762, the Georgian building is Grade II* listed and is surprisingly small. Amazingly it is the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in the English-speaking world.


Of particular interest were the tiny boxes attached to all of the doorposts, called mezuzah. Each one contains a parchment inscribed with specific Hebrew texts from the Torah.  



They are angled to point inwards on the doorpost as an indication that Jewish people are inside and that the Angel of Death should pass over; it acts as a reminder that God is always with them and traditionally Jewish people kiss their fingertips and touch the mezuzah when entering a room.




In the synagogue the painting and pictures were all dated using the Jewish calendar. Jerry explained about the Jewish calendar and the dates shown were AM – anno mundi meaning the year after creation, rather than anno domini, the year of the Lord. So 2017 is 5778 in the Jewish calendar.


The main body of the synagogue has a display of old maps showing how the city of Plymouth has grown over the centuries, starting with the 3 towns of Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse. In 1914 the three towns merged to become Plymouth and in 1928 became the City of Plymouth.  Despite not having a cathedral, city status was granted by Royal Charter due to the size of the population.

The naval influence on the construction of the synagogue is very clear. The woodwork is typical of naval construction of the period and the Bimah (the central platform) resembles the naval cockpit of an old sailing ship.  It has been adorned with brass acorns, Georgian pomegranates containing bells and is the inner sanctum where the High Priest reads from the Torah.

On the eastern wall is the Holy Ark that contains the Scrolls. Its ornate white and gold decoration is in stark contrast to the plain wood of the rest of the building. Although it looks like marble it is in fact made from wood and plaster and then has been highly decorated.  The stained glass windows are magnificent, each one telling a story of a family (including the ancestors of Wallace Simpson, future wife of King Edward VIII!)

Jerry is a very knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide and imparted so much information that it’s not really possible to tell you all about it in a few minutes. However some audience participation was required to act out the roles of the important people within the synagogue. To great amusement the President’s horn was blown, and various hats were worn including the big top hat worn by the treasurer and funeral director!

Our two-hour tour was over far too quickly and we all agreed that a follow-up visit is a must.


So, a bit late we had a very quick lunch at the Royal Plymouth Corinthian Yacht Club before moving on to Plymouth Gin! By this stage the weather had turned and Annie kindly dropped us outside the distillery in monsoon conditions!

The building date back to the 1400s, and was a monastery before becoming the home of Plymouth Gin in 1793. The Black Friars distillery is the oldest working gin distillery in England.  And in 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers spent their last night in England there before sailing to America.

Navy Gin is gin that is 57% alcohol compared to standard gin that is 37.5% alcohol. The problem was that when the Royal Navy took standard gin on their battles ships if it got spilt over the gunpowder, then the gunpowder was useless and couldn’t be used. So Plymouth Gin was asked to look at the problem and Navy gin was the result because 57% alcohol is the level at which spilt gin will not ruin gunpowder!

After looking at the copper stills we explored what goes into the gin to make it special.  We looked and smelled a range of botanicals that are used to make gin including juniper berries, coriander seed, citrus peels, green cardamom, angelica root and orrisroot. We got to taste the product too (gin and sloe gin).  As a gin-lover I’ll certainly go back but next time to do the Master Distillers Tour where you get to taste lots more and make your own gin!

We had hoped to go to the Hoe to see the memorial wave of poppies but by the time we left the distillery the weather was too wet and wild (but if you haven’t seen them, then it’s worth a trip but go in the evening as they’re lit up and look magnificent).

A wonderful day all round, and many thanks to our organisers and driver.

Julie Devine

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