The small village of Combe Florey lies hidden off the main A358, just over six miles north west of the Somerset County town of Taunton about a mile from Bishops Lydeard.
The village is very quiet and has a population of about 250, the local village inn, The Farmers Arms’ being about ½ mile from the main village street. There is a small Village Hall and Church which are the places where the main social events of the village take place. On one of my visits the church was hosting a bring and buy plant sale.
One of the meanings of the name is thought to be “the valley of flowers”. In spring time when the primroses and bluebells are out it is possible to see why it was so named as the village lies in a beautiful wooded valley. Another is that the name derived from that of Hugh de Fleuri and Baldwin de Cume (or Combe), who were the Norman landowners of the valley (although It is also possible that these Norman knights took their names from the village).
The village has, like many of the small Quantock villages, quite a literary connection. In the 19th century the reverend of the parish was the writer and famous wit Reverend Sidney Smith, who was also cannon of St Pauls Cathedral.
In the 20th century the Waugh family made the village their country home, buying Combe Florey House behind the church in 1956. It is here that the grave of Evelyn Waugh and his wife Laura can be found in a private plot. One of his sons, Auberon Waugh (the newspaper journalist), is buried in the small grave yard across the road from the Elizabethan gate house.
The village has some beautiful and unusual houses, there are actually 24 listed buildings in the village. One of the most impressive is the Elizabethen Gate House which lies next to the church, it is supposed to have had another two floors which were removed in the 18th century and the building re-roofed.
The house was built by John Francis whose’ family were the lords of the manor of Combe Florey for over 12 generations. It was built in the local red sandstone which time has scarcely weathered, over the arch way and inside the archway room the Francis coat of arms an “argent, a chevron between three mullets pierced, gules” It is difficult to make out the full details on the stone shield which is not surprising since the building bears the date 1593, on the dripstone over the arch, which is thought to be the date the building was completed. The building has the most amazing arch way which used to be the main entrance to Combe Florey House, built by Thomas Francis in 1665.
The Gate House is now a private dwelling but it has served many uses during its life time. In the 18th century it was the home of Phillippa Francis spinster daughter of the House, and in her will she requested that her burial was to take place
“...between the hours of eleven and two at night”
and also left £40 for a white marble monument to be fixed over her tomb in the church. This was done but there was no inscription!
On the opposite side of the road lies a steep bank with a gate way and old moss covered steps, this mound is known locally as “the monks’ garden” when the 18th century historian Collinson wrote about the village he mentioned an old building which was being used as a summer house by the then owners of the gatehouse, existing on the top of the mount. It is very possible that this was the site of the medieval Chantry of The Blessed Virgin, and the building that Collison referred to may have been the monks dovecote or other store building.
On the same side of the road the small stream runs and just before the gate to the Monks garden you can see a small well head – which is late 18th century made of
“Ashlar sandstone, four centred arch with moulded jambs and imposts, one and a half metres high framing pool below”
Combe Florey House
Combe Florey House was built by Thomas Francis in 1665, in the park behind the Elizabethan gatehouse. It can just be seen from the back of the church yard, lying in a small hollow above the gate house and situated in gardens of mature beech and oak.
The building took a number of years to complete for according to the records, a Milverton tiler worked on the house for 20 years. Some of the materials used in the building of the house may have come from an older manor house that Thomas demolished, for the stone mullions of the windows suggest an older age. The Francis family sold the house in 1799, but are remembered in the village church where a number of memorials to the family can be found in the north aisle of the church.
The house was bought by the Waugh family in the 1950’s which brought another great literary family into the Quantocks. Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh (1903 -1966) is buried in a private plot with his wife and one of his daughters behind the church and his son Aurberon Waugh the journalist is buried in the small church yard across the road from the church. Evelyn Waugh is remembered most for his book “Brideshead Revisited” which was adapted very successfully for television in 1981.
The village smithy
The old village smithy has also under gone a few changes, during the early part of the last century it was the Conservative Club, it is now a private house with a lovely Blue/greenish 18th century door above which there is a remarkable face in metal, the cottage is beautifully thatched and whitewashed, the part of the house that is tiled may well have been the part that housed the old forge.
The old manor House
The village no longer has a post office or shop and the school has also been converted into a private dwelling but the beautiful old manor house can still be admired. The Old Manor house is partly weathered sandstone and tiled in brown and partly whitewashed. There is a lovely 17th century gable with ball ornaments with a 17th century window incorporating a elegant classical arch. The doorway also looks to be of a similar age with its oak posts resting on stone supports. Another beautiful building which is well worth stopping to admire.
The most unusual of the listed buildings in the Parish is that of the tower in Combe Woods. This was built in early to mid 18th century by the Winter family as a gamekeepers cottage. It is constructed of red sandstone and rendered. The tower has been restored in the last 20years and is a privite house.
St Peter & St Pauls' Church
The church is quite small, consisting of a nave, porch and chancel. The private aisle on the north side is dedicated to The Virgin Mary. The building is built of rose-red stone similar to the stone used in the church at Bishops Lydeard which over the years has faded to a silvery rose.
The main architectural style is gothic. Inside the church are several memorials and one of the most striking is that of Sir John de Meriet and his two wives which can be seen in the north aisle, he died in 1327 at the beginning of the reign of King Edward 111 (who reigned from 1327 to 1377) the effigy of Sir John is wearing chain mail, and his crossed legs – (Crossed legs - was usually a symbol of a knight who had fought in the crusades which Sir John did not) rest on a lion, on each shoulder there are little shields ( ailettes) which were to protect the neck from sword cuts which is quite unusual, there are only 4 known examples on effigies in England which date the effigy to not later than 1280.
Sir John’s first wife Mary was the daughter of William de Mohum, died in 1300, she was only 18 she is thought to be the effigy nearest the wall, his second wife was Elizabeth the widow of a Philip Paynel she dies in 1334. It is quite likely that these effigies were ordered and made in a city like Bristol well before Sir John death. These effigies were moved during restoration work on the church in the 18th century, from recessed shrines in the north wall, during the move fragments of oyster shell were discovered which contained remains of the original pigments of colour that they had been painted with. On the floor near the organ there is a small brass which is a representation of Florence Francis who lived in the 15th century the image depicts her kneeling with two children wearing a butterfly head-dress, Florence husband dies in 1485 and she is known to have lived for 65 years after this date. The most unusual shrine is the empty heart shaped one in the north wall this is supposed to have held the heart of Maude de Meriet of Hestercombe who became a nun and lived in Cannington Priory “ Le Quer Dame Maud de Meriet nonayne de Cannington”
Reverend Sidney Smith 1771 to 1845
"On 22 February, 1845, a man whom many considered to be Britain's greatest wit died. From the highest in the land down to his most 'lowly' servants, all were plunged in grief at the news of his death. For the great families who had lionized him, and the servants and parishioners who had hung on his every word, the world had suddenly become a more serious place."
The most famous rector of Combe Florey was born in 1771 the second son of Merchant Robert Smith, his mother Maria Olier who was the daughter of an exiled Huguenot. He was a famous wit and founder of the Edinburgh Review, who did not really enjoy the country life he was more at home in London, he found life in the country somewhat boring, he enjoyed the finer things of life. He wrote from his home in Combe Florey “That flowers, green turf, birds, are not worth an hour of rational conversation” he found living in the country was “a kind of healthy grave”. He held what was for the time quite advanced liberal views especially on catholic emancipation and reform of rotten boroughs. In his sermon at the accession of Queen Victoria in St Paul’s Cathedral, he spoke about the importance of peace
“…The greatest curse which can be entailed upon mankind is the state of war. God is forgotten in war, every principle of Christian charity trampled upon, human labour destroyed -
you see the breaking of hearts.”
A message that can still be understood over a hundred years after the original sermon!
The Old Rectory where he lived is a beautiful example of Queen Anne architecture, the house is encircled by a stone wall, at the top of the village. In the grounds today you may be lucky to see a copper beech of great size which the Rector brought for a penny in the market at Taunton. He was a wealth man for the time and he spent over £2000 on repairs to the Old Rectory building, but he was another who was not impressed with the Somerset labourer’s work ethic,
“With the warm air and cider, they all become boozy!”
One of his eccentric tricks was to put donkeys fitted with deer antlers in his gardens so as to please a lady visitor who had said she was sad that he had no deer roaming his parkland.
Simith was a friend of many of the famous literary figures of the day, he corresponded with Charles Dickens, in one of his letters he wrote
"The Miss Berry's, now at Richmond, live only to become acquianted with you and have commissioned me to request you to dine with them Friday 29th or Monday the 1st July to meet a Canon of St Paul's, a rector of Combe Florey and the Vicar of Halberton (Smith himself who was all three)- all equally well known to you; to say nothing of other and better people.."
When he died in 1845 he was remembered with love by the villagers of Combe Florey for he did alot for the ordinary villagers. He was burried in London.
The old rectory where he lived House, was built about 1742, and enlarged early in the C19, probably the rebuilding of an earlier dwelling. The house today is rendered, with a slate roof, external stack on the left with large early C19 brick chimneys.To the right of the main block there is a service wing of 2-storeys plus attic. French windows on the first floor which open onto an 18th century wooden decorative porch with a fascinating Chinese Chippendale style balcony. The Gable end has plaque with date 1742 and inscription referring to rebuilding in that year.