Exmoor - Dunster
Standing on the eastern fringes of Exmoor is the picturesque medieval town of Dunster, the most beautiful township on the moor and one of the showpiece small towns in all of England - out of season it is ‘olde' England in perfection. Dunster is one of those fortunate places that please the eye when viewed from any angle. It comprises a broad main street, dominated at one end by a huge Norman castle and balanced at the other by an attractive 16 th century octagonal yarn market with the 18 th century Coneygar Tower standing high in the woodlands behind it, a former landmark for shipping.
The main thoroughfare entices the visitor in, flanked on both sides by colour-washed cottages in rich creams, pale pinks and yellows and peppermint green, punctuated with little gift shops and tea-rooms. The open-sided Yarn Market, built about 1589 by George Luttrell, was used for displaying the smooth ‘Kersey' Somerset cloths manufactured locally, a relic of the days when Dunster was an important wool market. A cannon ball hole in one of the building's rafters dates from the siege of Dunster Castle, the final Somerset stronghold of the Royalists in the Civil War (1642-9); the Parliamentarians led by Robert Blake eventually prevailed after 160 Days. It was during this period of turmoil that the market was renovated in 1647.
The 14 th century Nunnery House in Church Street, attractively slate-hung, was never a nunnery but a priory guest-house belonging to the Abbots of Cleeve. In an adjacent garden is an ancient dovecote, once the property of the monks of Dunster Priory - the revolving ladder employed to reach the nesting boxes remains in place. The Luttrell Arms built about 1500 was originally the town residence for the Abbot of Cleeve, but had become a hostelry by 1651. Nearby is Dunster Castle Mill, standing on the site of a much older mill mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. The present mill is essentially 17 th cent, but was restored in 1979 to provide a rare glimpse of a working mill grinding flour for sale - it is approached along the narrow Mill Lane. Close by the mill, on the very edge of town, is the Gallox Bridge, a tiny packhorse bridge straddling a brook midst a cluster of enchanting thatched cottages - the bridge name is a grim reminder that a gallows pole once cast its dread shadow over the spot. On the other side of the stream is a deer-park, wherein is a wood crowned by the ancient ramparts of the Iron Age ‘Bats Castle', from the summit of which spectacular views of Dunster Castle may be had.
Sitting on the site of an earlier Saxon fort is Dunster Castle, built by William de Mohun in the Norman period. Unfortunately, all that remains of his castle today is the motte, for, having declared allegiance to Matilda in 1138 he suffered the wrath of King Stephen who laid siege to the castle, much of which was destroyed. The castle underwent two periods of wholesale rebuilding in the 17 th and the 19 th century, both carried out by the Luttrell family who acquired the estate in 1376 for the sum of 5000 marks - about £3500 today. Quite remarkably, Dunster Castle has been in the ownership of only two families throughout a 1000-year span - the de Mohuns and the Luttrells. Lt Colonel Walter Luttrell presented the castle, together with 30 acres of parkland, to the National Trust in 1976 it having remained in his family for 600 years.
The 17 th century work in the castle that survives to us today includes a carved elm staircase, its hand-rail embellished with oak scrolls and elm flowers, and an elaborate plasterwork ceiling that adorns the dining room. The Leather Gallery contains a unique set of 16 th century leather wall-hangings, probably of French or Flemish origin, depicting Antony's affair with Cleopatra. The extensive alterations made after 1867 by Anthony Salvin, the fashionable country-house architect of the day, provides a fine example of the living quarters of a Victorian aristocrat. Dark oak panelling lines the downstairs rooms, proportions are generous and there are wonderful views on all sides over town, garden and deer-park. The grounds incorporate superb terracing of sub-tropical plants and present a wide vista over the Bristol Channel in one direction and the moors in the other.
Dunster Church, once both Benedictine priory and parish church, is the largest and finest on Exmoor. Its sophisticated and partly Victorianised interior is chiefly memorable for the 15 th cent wagon roof and flat south-aisle roof, the medieval rood-screen said to be the longest in England, and a fine monument to Lady Elizabeth Luttrell who purchased the castle in 1376. Standing serene in the churchyard is an ancient yew tree, claimed to be a 1000-years old.