Fairytale castle rich in legends and yarns
As part of our 2-for-1 offer Martin Hesp has been to magnificent Dunster Castle in West Somerset.
The view of Dunster Castle comes as a breathtaking surprise for the visiting motorist who exits a small cutting near Carhampton on the A39 heading towards Minehead. Suddenly there it is: the great fortification – hanging above Dunster Lawns like something from a fairytale.
And, in a way, the panorama sums up the old market town nestling in the hills betwixt castle and sea. It is a show-stopper.
There are half-a-dozen such places in the region, and Dunster is, arguably, doyen of the honeypots. Point a camera anywhere in this picturesque burg, and you'll capture a classic shot. The famous Yarn Market, which dominates the main street, must be one of the most photographed structures in the region.
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I am by no means the first person to sing Dunster's praises. In 1823 William Hazlitt recalled: "Eyeing it wistfully as it lay below us, contrasted with the woody scene around, it looked as clear, as pure, as embrowned and ideal as any landscape I have seen since..."
Walk around Dunster Castle gardens and you will undoubtedly agree with him.
Just over a century ago Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander was so impressed that she sat down on Grabbist, the steep shoulder of hill that is the backdrop of the village, and wrote the famous hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful. Dunkery Beacon, rising beyond the Avill Valley, might not be exactly a "purple headed mountain" – but the rest of her tuneful description is true enough.
But it is the great fortification – home of the De Mohuns and then the Luttrells for the best part of 1,000 years – that dominates the village. Everywhere you go – there it is, perched on its knoll. There's been some sort of fort on the Tor since 1067. There is something Gormenghastian about it. The castle seems to penetrate everything. It lurks, omnipotent, even on the darkest winter night – lording it over the empty, rain-swept, silent streets like something indeterminate in a dream.
I recall one old parish councillor referring to "His Lordship" even though the late, mild-mannered Colonel Sir Walter Luttrell was not a Lord – just the last in a line of Luttrells to live in the place stretching back hundreds of years. And there was nothing draconian about him – on the contrary, he gave the place to the National Trust in 1976 and moved to a big old house near the sea nearby.
But somehow a feeling of power still emanates from the great pile on the hill. You are left in no doubt that the lords who once lived there were masters of all they surveyed.
Actually, the Luttrell family had a good name as far as overlords go, but naturally they had the odd run-in with the grubby lot down below. Stories about the castle abound, but my favourite is the one concerning Dunster's own version of "Lady Godiva".
Lady Elizabeth de Mohun decided the family should show a little more in the way of largesse and she begged her husband to give some land to the commoners. He told her that he'd give them whatever land she could ride around at dawn. There was only one catch: she had to go naked.
She did just that, but the village-folk are said to have been so grateful, they averted their eyes. If they did – then men have changed a lot over the years...
That's just one yarn in a history rich in legend and anecdote. Soldiers from Agincourt have been called to serve the Mohuns; mediaeval masons have hammered at the soft sandstone to build the huge church and priory; Benedictine monks have filed silently past the old Nunnery; mariners, who sailed a ship called Leonard of Dunster and used the vanished port called Dunster Haven, have carved their footprints in the church's lead roof; Royalist and Parliamentarian soldiers have besieged and been besieged; even Charles II took refuge here as a young prince...
He didn't stay long. The 15-year-old youth was brought to Dunster to escape the plague, but he left when it was discovered the villagers were dying of it themselves.
You could fill books with Dunster's story. There were the packmen who frequented the Horse and Crook (now long gone) and quartered the county with their trains of horses, mules and donkeys – using the old pack-horse bridges like the one at Gallox on the edge of town.
There were the farmers' wives who span the Exmoor fleeces to make yarn for the clothiers. They, in turn, spent their lives doing deals under the eight-sided roof of Dunster's famous market building. The local weavers made broadcloths from the material they bought at the market – and so well-known did these garments become that they were called "dunsters".
We could hear of the wassailers and of Dunster's very own Hobby Horse – the sinister Black Horse whose followers once murdered a man who wouldn't give them alms.
Dunster and its famous castle have more in the way of annals of antiquity than dozens of other historic communities put together.