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April, 2019

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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 which is now the “parish church”: and 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”: 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 just over 20 miles, this is one of the longest standard gauge heritage railway in the United Kingdom, running between Minehead and Bishp’s Lydyard.

“Dunster Museum and Doll Collection”: 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 is little parking in the village and visitors are advised to use one of the large car parks round the edge and walk. As well as exploring the village, which is delightful, there are several footpaths in the area.

“Map of Dunster and area”:


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