Looking at the flower head of a bee orchid, it’s more than apparent how it gets its name, as the plant resembles a bee feeding on three pink petals. This is one of nature’s clever tricks, as the insects visit the plant in the hope of mating with this “pretend bee” and, consequently, the plant gets pollinated.
The presence of orchids is one of the revelations of the North Somerset coastline, where I have come to explore some of the county’s less well-known pathways.
An early surprise was just how easy the journey is on a Great Western train from Paddington – it takes less than two hours to reach Taunton, although my starting point is 35 minutes’ away by car, at St Audries Bay.
The cove itself is at the foot of the Quantock Hills and two scenic waterfalls flow down the sides of the cliffs. Access is via a path leading from a local holiday park. It’s a bit of a hike to get down the steps, but a beautiful vista immediately opens up, including exceptional Jurassic and Triassic rock formations.
Our knowledgeable guide, Chris Sidaway, explained the history and some of the literary associations, making it easy to imagine both Coleridge and Wordsworth, who had houses in the area, walking along the rocky shore together.
Move further east and a rather more modern attraction can be found. Rising sea levels are putting a squeeze on the coastline, so the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and the Environment Agency have created Steart Marshes – one of the UK’s largest and newest wetland reserves.
The hundreds of hectares of saltmarsh and freshwater marshlands buffer homes and businesses from rising sea levels, and provide habitat for a mix of wetland wildlife – including otters, egrets, owls, waders and wildfowl.
The medieval village of Dunster within the Exmoor National Park is a great place to stay while exploring the area and so pretty that I was not surprised to hear the song, All Things Bright and Beautiful, was composed here.
The village grew up around the castle, which was built shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and has an array of medieval buildings.
I was lucky to stay the night in the centre of the village at the Luttrell Arms, formerly used as a guest house by the abbots of Cleeve, where parts of the building date from 1443.
Cleeve Abbey, situated in an attractive valley surrounded by unspoilt countryside, is looked after by English Heritage and gives a real clue to monastic existence 800 years ago. The church may have been destroyed by Henry VIII during the dissolution in 1536, but the gatehouse and its 15th century refectory, have survived remarkably intact, while the large dormitory provides an insight into the monk’s gruelling daily life.
In another building is the complete 13th century refectory floor, with its heraldic tiles, all still in such excellent condition.
We moved on to the awe-inspiring Brean Down, a sort of natural cliff pier, now owned by the National Trust, and stretching right out into the surging tidal waters of the Severn Estuary.
The stunning views of this Site of Special Scientific Interest stretch 42 miles. I could see the islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm with the coast of Wales beyond. There is a treasure trove of archaeological remains on the Down from Bronze Age settlements, burial mounds and even a demolished Roman temple.
My last stop was to the neighbouring county of Devon. Plymouth’s synagogue, which dates from 1762, is the oldest surviving Askenanazi shul in the English speaking world and miraculously survived the extensive Second World War bombing of the city.
Most of the early Jewish arrivals to Plymouth were migrants from Amsterdam, who used the town as a stepping stone to America. However, the thriving naval docks and need for goldsmiths, tailors and other skills was so plentiful that many decided to stay.
The community that built the synagogue was not the first example of a Jewish presence here, as when Sir Francis Drake, a local boy from nearby Tavistock, sailed around the world, he wrote in his log that his quartermaster and navigator was “Moses the Jew, from Plymouth”.
Custodian Jerry Sibley, who is intent on keeping alive the community, showed me around. He realised, by browsing through papers, that there was a 300-year-old Jewish cemetery somewhere on the famous Hoe. Using Google Maps and considerable detective work, he last year unearthed a much neglected, locked, wooden entrance door. The synagogue treasurer handed him a box of old keys, one of which worked and suddenly the door swung open.
Jerry later approached the Ripple Theatre Company and through extensive research, there is now an audio-visual for visitors, dramatising the lives of some of those buried here.
Within the shul there is a feeling of peace, as well as a wonderful Baroque Ark made in Holland and reassembled in situ. The bimah was made by local boat builders and looks remarkably like a ship. Although there is a dwindling and quite elderly community, the shul is immaculately kept. Donations from visitors are helping to keep the building in good repair, along with private tours.
Finally, Jerry recounted the story of Leon Solomon, who generously gave money for building improvements in 1864. Little could he know that many years later, his grandson, Ernest, who changed his surname, would marry a woman who would one day fraternise with Hitler. Her name? Mrs Wallis Simpson!
Where to Stay:
Lucy travelled from London Paddington to Taunton with Great Western Trains, which offers fares from £18.50, trainline.com. She was a guest at the Luttrell Arms, Exmoor, luttrellarms.co.uk. For more about Plymouth Synagogue, visit plymouthsynagogue.com