On a sunny Monday morning whilst everyone was driving to work, we were smugly packing a suitcase ready for a few days away. Only a couple of hours drive from Shaftesbury sits Dunster in Somerset, and dominating the scenery sits Dunster Castle. Sitting atop a 200ft high hill with an elevated view of all that surrounds it, Dunster is a large multi-turreted castle overlooking the Bristol channel coast. The first thing I noticed once we arrived in the area was the change in building materials. Unlike the soft creamy stone of Dorset, this areas historic building are constructed in a warm red sandstone which gives it a much different look and feel from the buildings we have been visiting in the past.
This region sits just within the boundary of the Exmoor National Park, an area of 267 square miles of heathland, ancient woodlands and coastline. A beautiful and temperate part of the country which supports more exotic fauna and flora than you would see further north, and with that comes a wealth of birds and animals, including, if you believe it, the Exmoor beast! Within the national park there are no less than 200 Grade II listed buildings and only two Grade I Dunster Castle being one of them. This property is also a scheduled monument and now managed by the National Trust having been handed to the Trust by the Luttrell family in 1976, including much of its contents.
There has been a castle at this location since the 11th century, the Luttrell family purchased the castle at the end of the 14th century and continued to occupy it until they handed it to the National Trust. That is not to say that they owned it all that time, there was a spell when they had to sell the castle and the estate to meet death taxes and only lived in the castle as tenants before purchasing it back in 1954.
We arrived relatively early at the castle, and leaving our cases in the car we parked up and went to the visitors entrance to sign in. Unfortunately we had taken my company car and not our car, so we did not have our National Trust sticker in the window, however we were assured by a very pleasant parking assistant that if we showed our membership cards at the entrance and gave them the registration number everything would be fine. Sometimes you get these pieces of information and they turn out to be a fabrication or ‘horse sh*t’ as Esra likes to say, but it was fine and when we returned to the car it was still there and still sans any kind of sticky notice attached to the windshield. If you aren’t a National Trust member the parking is pay and display so remember to take your change with you.
What we hadn’t realised was that it was the beginning of the Easter break and all the schools had closed for the holidays, so the castle was pretty busy. To be honest, it wouldn’t have changed a thing if we’d have known as we were intending to celebrate Esras birthday and we couldn’t really move that! however, I would say it was very inconvenient of his mother to give birth to him at such a popular holiday time, she could have only made it worse by leaving it until Christmas.
Children aside, we really enjoyed our visit to the castle. The interior is spectacular, housing beautiful pieces of antique furniture and huge glistening chandeliers. The staircase was most impressive with extraordinary carving to the balustrades, newel posts and spindles. The fabrics were sumptuous and the wallpaper thick and colourful, a huge dining table set with silverware and crystal and an enormous library filled with leather bound books. The ceilings must have been 12ft high and many ornately and intricately plastered with coving detail at the wall and ceiling junctions. You are led around the castle in a certain direction and you move from the old original parts to the more modern sections. The castle, as previously stated, was used as a family home right into the 20th century and as such there are a number of modern touches including an enormous snooker table sat in the centre of a bespoke games room. Despite the crowds we did manage to get some periods where there was no-one around and grab some photos for the blog and Instagram.
Once you have meandered through the castle and step out into the sunshine you have a large amount of grounds to explore. The gardens here are not as manicured or stunning as those at Sherborne Castle, they are nonetheless still pretty. Large borders filled with colourful spring flowers, winding paths and formal patios and a small stream which picks its way through the estate at the base of the hill. It is this stream where the watermill sits, and the watermill still works. It is, as you would expect, a very hilly walk around the castle with lots of ups and downs and I did her an older gentleman complain that he wouldn’t be able to make it back down the hill, so I would suggest that if you find it difficult to walk it may be a challenging visit. The watermill is only small but as mentioned still operational and you can purchase the flour and oats which have been ground there at the small shop adjacent the mill.
Being a National Trust property there is the obligatory gift shop and cafe, which is presumably how they make the majority of their funding for the sites they manage. We didn’t buy anything as the castle sits nicely on the edge of the village of Dunster, so when we had finished our wanderings and our tummies were rumbling we ventured into the village to find a local place to eat. There are a small number of quaint cafes to chose from and you probably can’t go wrong with any of them. We had smoked salmon and cream cheese on a warm cheese scone and a couple of vanilla cream sodas a very satisfying end to a lovely morning.