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Dunster is a pretty village on north east edge of Exmoor near the coast. The years have treated the village kindly and it is still unspoilt and possibly one of the best preserved medieval villages in England.


William the Conqueror granted the area to William de Mohun who built a motte and bailey castle here and asked monks from Bath Abbey to establish a priory. Little now is left of the Priory apart from the Priory Church, now the parish church (#2), the monks’ lodging, now a private house attached to the church, and two of the medieval gateways into the village.



Dunster’s wealth came from wool and the production of cloth. In the C12th, Dunster was on the coast at the mouth of the River Avill and was the main trading port for Exmoor. By the C17th the harbour had silted up and the sea had receded. Today this area is low lying marsh.

Gallox packhorse bridge crossed the River Avill on the main route from the south to Dunster. It was built in the C15th for packhorses carrying fleeces from Exmoor to Dunster.

The High Street runs the length of the village and is lined with C17th buildings and is the main shopping street.



The Yarn Market on High Street, was built in 1607. Before then, wool and cloth was traded in the street and very much subjected to the English weather. It is an octagonal building built around a central wooden post. The tiled roof has wide eaves which helped keep traders and goods dry. The windows helped light the interior. A bell at the top was rung to indicate the start of trading.


The Butter Cross was originally near the Yarn Market. Dating from the C14th or C15th, this was where farmer’s wives would sell their fresh produce, laid out on the steps of the cross. The cross was moved sometime in the early C19th to the edge of the village on Alcombe Road. All that is left is the base and part of the shaft.

The C14th Tithe Barn originally belonged to the Priory although it has been much altered since then and has recently been restored as a community hall and event venue. It is a massive stone building with a tiled roof and heavy oak doors.



Across the road is the Dovecote. This originally belonged to Dunster Priory and may have been built as early as the C14th. It has thick stone walls with 549 nesting holes. The pigeons were a source of meat throughout the year and particularly in winter when livestock were slaughtered for lack of feed.


In the C18th, the floor level and door were raised and the lower rows of holes were blocked as protection against brown rats which arrived in Britain in 1720 and had reached Somerset by 1760. A revolving ladder, known as a "potence", was installed to allow the pigeon keeper to reach the nest holes more easily. In the 19th century two feeding platforms were added to the axis of the revolving ladder.



Dunster Watermill is on the River Avill to the south of the village. A mill was recorded on this site in the Domeday Book. The present building dates from 1780 and has two overshot wheels. It has been restored by the National Trust and is used to grind wholemeal flour and oats.

Dunster Castle (#4) on a wooded site at the south end of the village. Still with its medieval gatehouse and ruined tower, this was converted into a lavish and very comfortable house in the late C19th. It was the home of the Luttrell family for over 600 years and is now in the care of the National Trust.


Conygar Tower stands on top of Conygar Hill to the north of the village. Built as a folly in the late C18th by Henry Luttrell it is tall enough to be seen from the Castle on the opposite hillside. It seems to have had no significant strategic or military function.

The railway arrived in Dunster in 1874 and brought tourists to the area. The station was a mile to the north of the village. The line was closed in 1971 but reopened in 1976 as the West Somerset Heritage Railway. At nearly 23 miles long, this is one of the longest standard gauge heritage railway in the United Kingdom, running between Minehead and Bishp’s Lydyard.

Dunster Museum on the High Street, has one of the largest collections of dolls in the country, as well as local artefacts.

The walled Village Gardens off Church Street were originally the kitchen garden for the Castle. They were bought by the village in 1980 and are now a pleasant amenity area to sit and enjoy the sunshine.


The Priory Gardens to the north of the church on the site of the cloisters were given by the Luttrell family as a war memorial. They are reached through a gateway in the wall and laid out with flower beds.


There are also two pubs and several cafes too!


leaflet and map

There are details of a walk around Dunster here.

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Dunster cont... Parish and Priory Church of St George

Set behind the main street, this is a large church and one of the few churches that still has a monastic Choir.

Christianity was brought to the area in the C6th by Welsh Missionaries, preaching from wooden crosses. There is evidence of a stump of an early preaching cross in the churchyard.

A small church was built here in the C11th when William I gave the land to the de Mohun family of Dunster Castle. Only the west door and part of the north wall of this church survive. The door is still used for special occasions.


At the end of the C11th, William de Mohun granted land to the monks of Bath to build a daughter house here. The church was rebuilt in the C13th. The majority of the present building dates from then although the top of the tower was rebuilt and heightened in the C15 and new side aisles were added. Chantry chapels were endowed by wealthy parishioners. There was a major restoration of the church in the late C19th.

It is large church and almost impossible to photograph the outside.


With the growth of the wool trade and rapid population growth, there was pressure for the townsfolk to have their own church, resulting in the Priory Church being shared by the monks and the parishioners. The Priory were responsible for maintaining the Lady Chapel and north transept. The parish were responsible for the St Lawrence Chapel and the south transept. The tower was the responsibility of the Prior with contributions from the parish. By 1357, difficulties of sharing were beginning to emerge with disputes over the time of services, payment of fees and use of the bells. The Prior drew up an agreement setting out how the church was to be used by each group.

This worked for over 100 years but in 1498 trouble blew up again between priory and parish resulting in the townsfolk imprisoning the monks in the east end of the church. After arbitration in Glastonbury, agreement was reached, largely in favour of the town. This gave the priory the choir and chancel and the parish the nave and side aisles. A carved rood screen was constructed to separate the two with the parish using the area to the west and the monks the original chancel.

The Priory was dissolved in 1539 and its buildings and land passed into the hands of the Crown. They were then leased to John Luttrell of Priory Farm, the uncle of John Luttrell who had recently inherited the castle. The chancel previously used by the monks became a private chapel of the Luttrell family and their family mausoleum.

By the early C19th the priory end of the church was neglected and dirty with rain coming through the roof and windows. The nave used by the village was in slightly better condition. There was concern about unhealthy burials under the nave. There was a major restoration of the church at the end of the C19th. Carried out by GE Street, plaster was stripped from the walls, monuments moved and windows altered. The church was reroofed and ceilings removed. A new chancel was made under the tower.

The eastern part of the church is still the property of the Luttrells and is no longer used.

The cloister garden to the north of the church was given by the Luttrells as a war memorial, reached either from the north transept or by a side road by the priory dovecote.

The church is normally open during the day and entry to the church is either through the north transept from the cloister garden of through the south porch.


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Parish and Priory Church of St George cont...

On entering the church, the first impression is size.


The C15th rood screen cuts the church in two and, at 60’ long, is thought to be the longest in Europe. It divides the nave from the parochial choir and chancel under the tower. The enclosed monastic choir is beyond and is flanked by the Lady Chapel (now the vestry) to the north and St Lawrence Chapel (now the Luttrell Chapel) on the south.


The screen is beautifully carved and would originally have been painted and had a rood on the top.


The nave ceiling has a barrel roof with carved bosses.


Beyond the rood screen is the choir and chancel, set under the tower.


The massive oak beam tower roof has a trap door at the centre, used when the bells were removed and later replaced after being recast in the mid C20th.


The pews have carved ends; each one is different.


The carved stone pulpit is C19th and replaced an earlier wooden pulpit which now sits disused in the north transept.



The font at the back of the church dates from around 1530 and and is carved with the wounds of Christ and Instruments of the Passion. The tall wooden cover is C19th and is raised by weight above.


The Royal Coat of Arms of Charles II are on the north wall.


The organ is in the north transept and has been recently restored.


The south aisle has a flat ceiling with square ribs and carved bosses.


An archway in the south aisle contains part of the original Rood Screen, removed in the C15th when the church was divided.


Beyond this, in the south transept is a small shop and refreshment area. The original Norman stone font is here.


St Lawrence Chapel at the end of the south aisle is the Luttrell family mausoleum. It is dominated by a huge monument erected in 1613 to Thomas Luttrell who died in 1571 and his son George. Thomas and his wife are on the left. George lies next to the kneeling figure of his wife on the right.


On the floor is a grave slab to Dame Elizabeth Luttrell, who died in 1493.


There are three old strong chests in the Luttrell Chapel. One has a sloping lid and may also have been used as a writing desk.



The Luttrell Chapel leads into the now disused monastic choir, which is enclosed by wooden screens. It still has a small altar beneath the east window.



Hatchments of the Luttrell family hang on the walls.


By the altar is the Easter Sepulchre with the remains of an effigy of Sir Hugh Luttrell who died in 1428 and his wife, Catherine Beaumont who died a few years after him.


On the opposite wall is an effigy thought to be Christian de Mohun who married John de Mohan
and died around 1341.


To the north of the Monastic Choir is the former Holy Trinity Chapel, and is now the de Mohun Chantry. It is the only remaining chantry chapel and is now reserved for private prayer.


The stone altar still has the five consecration crosses representing the five wounds of Christ. The cross dates from the 1200s and has a very eroded Madonna and Child carved on it. It was originally the top of the churchyard cross.


It still has the original medieval tiles on the floor.


The church does feel very different inside with the disused Monastic choir feeling like a separate church within a church. There are many splendid monuments to the Luttrell Family.It is well worth visiting.
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Dunster Castle

Set above the village in the trees, there has been a castle at Dunster for over 1000 years

A Saxon stronghold became a Norman fortress and, over the years, was gradually turned from a draughty and uncomfortable castle into a as a comfortable family home with all modern conveniences.


It has been the family home of the Luttrells since 1405, who also left their mark on the village and surrounding area.

Dramatically sited on top of a tor, a motte and bailey castle built on the site of a Saxon hillfort by William de Mohun after the Norman Conquest, as part of the pacification of Somerset. At the time, the sea reached the base of the ridge of cliffs and Dunster was an important inland port. The castle help guard the coast against the threat of any fresh sea-borne attack.

As the area became more settled, William founded a Benedictine Priory at Dunster in 1090.

A stone shell keep was built on the motte at the start of the C12th. In the late 1130s, England descended into a period of Anarchy between Stephen and Matilda fighting for control of the kingdom. Somerset was strongly behind Matilda and the castle successfully survived sieges by Stephen. William de Mohan's son (another William ) was made Earl of Somerset by a grateful Matilda.

In the C13th the castle was rebuilt and extended.

The castle was sold to the Luttrell family in 1376 after the death of the last childless John de Mohun. By then the castle was suffering from neglect and lack of investment. The Luttrell’s began an extensive programme of repair and improvements, including a new gatehouse. The sea had receded and the Luttrells created a deer park at the base of the castle, a sign of their status.

There was another major restoration in the C15th after the Wars of the Roses when the Luttrells had supported the unsuccessful Lancastrian side. By 1571, the castle was again dilapidated and the family much preferred to live in their house at East Quantoxhead, 11 miles away.

In 1617, George Luttrell inherited the castle and completely rebuilt it as a Jacobean mansion in the lower ward with a symmetrical front and square towers, set within the older castle walls and overlooked by the keep above. It was decorated in the latest fashion with ornamental plaster ceilings. Unfortunately the project ran well over budget.

During the English Civil war, the Luttrell’s initially supported the Parliamentarians, but changed sides in 1645. The castle was attacked and an honourable surrender negotiated. A Parliamentarian garrison was installed. In 1649, Parliament decided to slight (destroy) castles in key areas so they could no longer be used against them.

George Luttrell convinced the authorities to destroy only the medieval defensive walls, rather than the entire castle, leaving Dunster damaged from the recent siege but still habitable. After the Restoration of the Monarchy, Francis Luttrell married a wealthy Dorset heiress, and used her money to modernise the castle, including a splendid grand staircase carved with hunting scenes.

The C18th was a difficult time as the family faced many financial difficulties and at one point it was handed over into the control of a receiver. The family chose to live in London.

In 1867, George Luttrell inherited the castle. The agricultural boom had lead to considerable increase in income from the estates, allowing George to begin an ambitious building and modernisation programme. He employed the architect, Anthony Salvin, who had successfully worked on Alnwick and Windsor Castles, as well as other important stately homes, to redesign the castle and turn it into a comfortable Victorian family home.

Salvin aimed to create a castle that would appear to have grown 'organically' over time, but still appeal to Victorian aesthetic taste. Accordingly, a large, square tower was built on the west side of the castle and another smaller tower on the east, both creating additional space but also making the castle deliberately asymmetrical. He demolished the chapel at the rear of the castle, replacing it with another tower and a conservatory.

All mod cons were installed including gas lighting with a gas plant in the basement as well as heating. A large underground reservoir was built to provide water, not only for the castle but also the village. There was even a bathroom complete with hot running water.

During the Second World War, the castle was used as a convalescent home for injured naval and American officers.

When Alexandeer Luttrell died in 1944, the estate was liable for an enormous amount of death duty tax. His son Geoffrey had little option but to sell the castle and estate. The Luttrell family became tenants until 1954 when they were able to buy back the castle and grounds, opening them to the public. When Geoffrey died in 1957 his wife remained at the castle until her death in 1974. Her son, Walter Luttrell, who was not living in the castle, gave Dunster Castle and most of its contents to the National Trust.

Little remains of the medieval castle except for the Great Gatehouse and the remains of several towers in the Lower Ward. The castle is surrounded by attractive gardens and there are good views across the surrounding countryside from the south terrace.


Dunster castle plan.png


Dunster Castle cont...

It is a steep climb up to the Castle from the town. The C14th Gatehouse is now the main entrance to the castle.


Behind is the C13th gateway, with its massive wooden door, the only part of the C13th castle to survive.


Inside is the guard house which had an obliette dungeon beneath


Built alongside this is what is described as the Crypt, part of the servant’s quarters, which was used to store dry goods, meat and dairy products.


Through the gatehouse is the courtyard with the Jacobean castle which was turned into a comfortable home in the C19th


Up the stone steps is the entrance lobby which leads into the Outer Hall. Salvin created this as an impressive entrance from three smaller rooms, with panelling around the base of the walls and above the fireplace and a domed and plastered ceiling. The octagonal table top was originally the sounding board above a pulpit from Wells Cathedral.


Off the Outer Hall is the Drawing Room with its elegant pale green walls and plaster ceiling. This was used to receive guests and where the family had afternoon tea. The room was originally lift by gas generated by a plant in the castle basement. The brass gasolier hanging from the ceiling was later converted to electricity. Beyond is the conservatory.



Returning to the Outer Hall, a double archway leads into the Inner Hall, which was originally the Great Hall of the C17th building. The plaster ceiling dates from then. The massive stone fireplace was the work of Salvin and has the coat of arms of Thomas and Margaret Luttrell who built the Jacobean House. The carved inscription comes from the Domesday entry for Dunster and translates as ‘land of William de Mohan’.


This leads into the Dining Room, which does feel dark with its floor to ceiling wood panelling and ceiling. This is a wonderful example of C17th decorative plasterwork.



Beyond is the Butler’s Pantry with a dumb waiter.



This leads into the 1960s Kitchen with its blue formica cupboards, replacing the earlier kitchen in the basements below.


The massive oak and elm Staircase leads up from the Inner Hall to the rooms on the first floor. This dates to the 1680s and was carved by Edward Pierce, one of the most accomplished sculptors of the time. Each panel is carved from a single plank of elm.


At the base of the stairs is a grand piano and a display case of objects collected by the family over the years.


At the top of the staircase is the Morning Room. When originally built, this was intended to be a grand reception room. It is plain compared with rooms downstairs and lacks the plaster ceiling. It seems that money ran out before it was completed. It was used as a breakfast room, although it was a long way from the kitchens. Salvin turned it into a morning room and it became the family sitting room.


A short flight of stairs leads to a corridor with the Wisteria Bedroom, which was one of the main guest bedrooms, with a four posted bed and fireplace providing heat on cold winter days.



Beyond it is the East Quantoxhead Bathroom. When it was installed in the 1870s, was the only bathroom in the castle. Previously, the family and guests would have washed in a portable hip bath or at a wash stand with ewer and basin. The cast iron bath with its mahogany surround and nickel taps is the original. The cupboard contains stone hot water bottles.


Next to it is the East Quantoxhead Bedroom. This was modernised in the 1930s with a wash basin.


The Leather Gallery was originally part of the Long Gallery of the C17th castle , although it became a Banqueting room in the C18th, with the leather tapestries on the walls. These were preferred to more traditional tapestries for dining rooms as they did not retain the smell of food as much. They tell the story of Anthony and Cleopatra and were rehung when Salvin remodelled the room.



Off the Leather Gallery is King Charles Bedroom. Charles II, when Prince of Wales, slept here in 1645 while trying to muster support for the Royalist cause in Somerset during the Civil War. In the wall opposite the chimney piece is a concealed passage with a ladder allowing a quick escape if needed. The future Edward VII also slept here when he came to hunt on Exmoor.

It is furnished with a C17th four poster bed. The suitably regal wall paper is a copy of the C19th design by Pugin.



The massive plaster over mantle depicts the judgement of Paris , when he was asked to choose which of the three goddesses was the most beautiful. Dating from 1620, it has been moved here from elsewhere in the castle.


An oak staircase leads back down to the ground floor. The first small room is the gun room with the family shotguns. Guests either brought their own guns, or borrowed them on arrival. It also has a collection of C17th muskets.

Beyond it is the Billiard Room which was created by Salvin from the original kitchens. He retained the original fireplace arch, placing a smaller fireplace within it.


Along the corridor in front of the Billiard Room is the small Muniment room, one of two in castle, which was used to store legal papers and other valuable documents of the Luttrell family. The room was installed during the Victorian remodelling of castle and were used in connection with the adjacent justice room, which was George Luttrell’s office when he was serving as a Justice of the peace.

The rolled documents were the work of children in 2016, celebrating 40 years of National Trust ownership.


At the end of the corridor is the Library, which was created out of three smaller rooms by Salvin. He was responsible for the Jacobean style plaster ceiling, bookcases and furnishings. It is hung with family portraits. It was a relaxed family room and guests wrote letters in here and read newspapers. Geoffrey Luttrell also met tenants and staff in here when he needed rto talk to them.



Another door from the Library leads into the Conservatory which also has a door leading into the Drawing Room, and also out onto the terrace.


On an outside wall of the Outer Hall is a small lemon house.


This is a very attractive house and some rooms still have the feel of a family home. There is a certain amount of information in each room along with knowledgeable room stewards. I was on a tight schedule and didn’t have as long as I would have liked to wait and take photographs without people in them. Some rooms were quite dark and light from windows also caused glare in many pictures.

There is an informative guide book with some nice pictures which is worth buying. It also gives information about the different owners as well life below the stairs in the C19th castle.
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