Spotlight on Dunster Castle
"History, scenery and some grisly goings on! "by Author
A castle has graced the hill at Dunster for over 1000 years. It has developed and adapted to the times, each time leaving part of its past intact. Incredibly it was held by the same family, the Luttrells, for 600 years until the final occupant moved out in 1976.
The castle is beautiful, intriguing and welcoming. Children are encouraged to bang the dinner gong and all visitors are invited to sit a while in the Morning Room and take in the daily papers.
Anyone who has driven along the A39 from Bridgewater to Minehead will know that view when you break through the trees and see the stunning vista of Dunster Castle sat high above.
If you have not been then you are in for a real treat, if you have, I would like to suggest you visit again. You may even see something you've not seen before.
The history of this castle dates back to Norman times. The Normans (from Normandy in France) brought with them their language, customs and their way of building castles. The experienced castle visitor will recognise the motte and bailey arrangement of the site.Those who do not, will not fail to notice the extremely steep ascent to the castle entrance. This siting of course was primarily for defence. The original castle, consisting of a keep (think White Tower within Tower of London only on a smaller scale) would have sat on the motte and the service buildings, in the surrounding bailey. The existing castle sits within the bailey but you can walk up to the top of the motte - with stunning views as your reward!
This was not our first visit however it was the first time we have joined the behind the scenes tours to see the servants working and living areas! These superb guided tours are free and take you to areas of the Castle not accessible to the general public. They each run 4 times a day, dependent on volunteer availability. Spaces are limited and you will need a ticket, which can be obtained from the information desk within the castle. I had to return the following day to get a look at the servants living quarters because I was a bit late to do both tours on my first day.
You cannot fail to fall in love with Dunster Castle. The castle itself bears evidence of each of its reincarnations through time. From the 13th century gatehouse (the oldest part of the castle) up to the Victorian reservoir built into the motte, there is so much to explore both inside and out. See the 'Must -See' section below to make sure you cover some of the less obvious places to visit.
The gatehouse, as well as being the oldest part of the castle is also the most grisly. The more macabre among us are always interested to find the dungeon and Dunster's dungeon is more disturbing that most. You can't get into it, a fact you should be glad of because it was built as a one way door to a long and painful death. The 'Oubliette' sits underneath your feet as you explore the gatehouse guards room. Accessible only by way of a trap door (no longer visible), it was 'bell-jar' shaped. Prisoners would be lowered in through the trap door and had no way out. The name 'Oubliette' comes from the French word, 'oublier' meaning ' to forget'. Prisoners who were put in here were left to die, forgotten to the world.
- Tour of the Victorian Kitchens - there's a lot going on behind the scenes of a Victorian country house to keep everyone fed and cared for.
- Tour of the Servants Living Quarters - see where the servants slept, washed and relaxed. Get there early or ring and pre book to guarantee your place on the 'Victorian Kitchen' and 'Attic' tours.
These superb guided tours are free and take you to places not accessible to the general public. They each run four times a day,dependent on volunteer availability. If you are going specifically for these tours make sure you ring ahead to avoid disappointment.
- Reservoir - the Victorian reservoir was built at the same time as the servant wing was added in order to provide water to the modern facilities.
- Leather Tapestries depicting the love story of Anthony and Cleopatra. These leather tapestries, a rare survivor and possibly one of the only places in the UK where you will see an example of leather tapestries. Leather was favoured for banqueting halls because they did not take on food smells.
Listen to the Dunster Podcast
Want to visit more places like Dunster Castle?
Dunster Castle features in the 'Upstairs Downstairs' History Travel Guides, which takes you on a virtual trip around some of the best examples of country and town houses where you can see both sides of life; that of the servants and those of the people they served.
Check out more photos from our visit to Dunster Castle on our Facebook page.