Dunster Castle

Discover the Wonders of Dunster Castle

Introduction to Dunster Castle

Overview of Dunster Castle's Location and Significance

Dunster Castle, a magnificent fortified house nestled in the picturesque village of Dunster in Somerset, England, stands as a testament to the rich history and architectural splendour of the British Isles. This impressive structure, now under the care of the National Trust, has captivated visitors for centuries with its stunning facades, lush gardens, and fascinating stories. The castle's strategic location on a wooded hill overlooking the village and the Bristol Channel has played a significant role in its long and eventful history, making it a must-visit destination for history enthusiasts, architecture aficionados, and anyone seeking a delightful day out in the English countryside.

Brief Introduction to the Castle's Architecture and Layout

Dunster Castle's architecture is a fascinating blend of styles, reflecting the various periods of its construction and renovation. The earliest parts of the castle date back to the Norman era, with the iconic Great Gatehouse serving as a reminder of its medieval origins. Over the centuries, the castle has undergone significant transformations, incorporating elements of Gothic Revival and Victorian design. The castle's interior is equally impressive, featuring well-preserved rooms, stunning art collections, and intricate architectural details that showcase the opulence and grandeur of aristocratic life in centuries past. From the grand staircase to the atmospheric medieval kitchens, Dunster Castle offers visitors a captivating journey through time.

Dunster Castle

The History of Dunster Castle

Origins and Early History (11th-14th Centuries)

The history of Dunster Castle begins in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest in the 11th century. William de Mohun, a loyal supporter of William the Conqueror, was granted the manor of Dunster, and it was here that the initial structure, a classic Norman motte and bailey castle, was built on a strategic hilltop site to assert control over the surrounding area. This early fortification laid the foundation for the castle's development over the subsequent centuries.


In the 14th century, the de Mohun family began to transform the castle from a purely defensive structure into a more comfortable and luxurious residence. This period saw the construction of the iconic Great Gatehouse, which still stands as a striking feature of the castle's architecture. The gatehouse not only served as a formidable entrance to the castle but also housed grand chambers and reception rooms, reflecting the increasing importance of comfort and hospitality in medieval aristocratic life.

The Luttrell Family and the English Civil War (15th-17th Centuries)

The ownership of Dunster Castle passed to the Luttrell family in the 15th century through marriage. The Luttrells would hold sway over Dunster for the next 600 years, leaving an indelible mark on the castle's history and development. During their tenure, the castle underwent significant renovations and expansions, adapting to the changing tastes and needs of the times.


However, the castle's most tumultuous period came during the English Civil War in the 17th century. Dunster Castle found itself at the centre of the conflict, enduring sieges and changing hands between the Royalists and Parliamentarians. The Luttrell family, staunch supporters of the Royalist cause, eventually regained control of the castle, but not before it had suffered extensive damage. In the aftermath of the war, the Luttrells embarked on a major renovation project to repair the castle and modernise its interiors, ensuring that it would remain a comfortable and fashionable residence for generations to come.

Restoration and Transformation (18th-20th Centuries)

The 18th and 19th centuries saw further alterations to Dunster Castle, as the Luttrell family sought to keep pace with the changing fashions and tastes of the time. The castle's interiors were updated with elegant Georgian and Victorian furnishings, while the exterior was enhanced with the addition of picturesque Gothic Revival elements, such as the distinctive pointed arch windows and decorative battlements.


During this period, the castle's gardens also underwent a significant transformation, with the creation of formal terraces, a stunning orangery, and a series of picturesque walks and vistas. These gardens, designed in the fashionable Picturesque style, added a new dimension to the castle's charm, providing visitors with a delightful setting for leisurely strolls and outdoor enjoyment.


In the 20th century, the Luttrell family faced the challenges of maintaining such a vast and historic property in the face of changing social and economic circumstances. In 1976, the family made the difficult decision to donate Dunster Castle to the National Trust, ensuring that this remarkable piece of English heritage would be preserved and enjoyed by future generations. Today, under the expert care of the National Trust, Dunster Castle stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of the families who shaped its history, offering visitors a fascinating glimpse into the past and a chance to experience the timeless beauty of this iconic Somerset landmark.

Exploring the Interior of Dunster Castle

The Great Hall and Medieval Kitchens

Upon entering Dunster Castle, visitors are immediately transported back in time as they step into the magnificent Great Hall. This impressive space, with its soaring hammer-beam roof and exquisite oak panelling, serves as a stunning reminder of the castle's medieval origins. The hall is adorned with an impressive collection of arms and armour, including swords, shields, and suits of armour, which offer a fascinating glimpse into the martial history of the castle and its inhabitants.


Adjacent to the Great Hall lie the atmospheric medieval kitchens, where the castle's staff would have prepared elaborate feasts for the Luttrell family and their guests. The kitchens feature a massive fireplace, original bread ovens, and a collection of period cooking utensils and implements, providing visitors with a unique insight into the culinary practices of the past. As you explore these spaces, you can almost hear the clatter of pots and pans and smell the enticing aromas of roasting meats and baking bread, transporting you back to a time when the castle was a hub of activity and hospitality.

State Rooms and Family Apartments

As you ascend the grand staircase, a masterpiece of 17th-century craftsmanship, you'll find yourself in the opulent state rooms and family apartments of Dunster Castle. These beautifully furnished spaces showcase the wealth, taste, and lifestyle of the Luttrell family over the centuries, with each room offering a unique glimpse into a different period of the castle's history.


The drawing room, with its elegant Georgian furnishings and stunning views over the castle gardens, provides a perfect example of the refined social spaces in which the family would have entertained their guests. The library, housed in a magnificent oak-panelled room, boasts an impressive collection of rare books and manuscripts, including a 15th-century illuminated Bible and a first edition of Sir Walter Scott's novel "Ivanhoe."


As you move through the family apartments, you'll discover a series of beautifully appointed bedchambers, each with its own distinct character and style. From the sumptuous four-poster beds and intricate tapestries of the Victorian era to the more understated elegance of the Edwardian period, these rooms offer a fascinating insight into the changing fashions and tastes of the castle's inhabitants over the centuries.

The Art Collection and Chapel

One of the highlights of exploring the interior of Dunster Castle is the opportunity to view its remarkable art collection. The castle's walls are adorned with an array of fine paintings, including portraits of the Luttrell family and their associates, as well as stunning examples of English and European landscapes, still lifes, and historical scenes. These artworks, spanning several centuries and styles, provide a fascinating visual record of the castle's history and the evolving artistic tastes of its occupants.


Another hidden gem within the castle is the charming private chapel, nestled in a quiet corner of the building. This intimate space, with its intricate stained-glass windows and beautifully carved altar, served as a place of worship and contemplation for the Luttrell family over the generations. The chapel's serene atmosphere and exquisite architectural details offer visitors a moment of tranquillity and reflection amidst the grandeur of the castle's other rooms.


As you explore the interior of Dunster Castle, guided by the expert knowledge of the National Trust's staff and volunteers, you'll gain a profound appreciation for the skill, craftsmanship, and artistry that have shaped this remarkable building over the centuries. From the grandeur of the Great Hall to the intimacy of the family apartments, each space within the castle tells a unique story, inviting you to step back in time and experience the rich tapestry of English history and heritage.

Dunster Castle

The Gardens and Grounds of Dunster Castle

The South Terrace and Yew Tree Walk

Stepping outside into the enchanting gardens of Dunster Castle, visitors are greeted by the breathtaking South Terrace, an elegant outdoor space that offers stunning views over the village of Dunster and the distant Bristol Channel. This meticulously maintained terrace features a series of interconnected "rooms," each with its own distinct character and planting scheme, creating a delightful sensory experience for visitors as they stroll through the garden.


The centrepiece of the South Terrace is the magnificent Yew Tree Walk, a 200-year-old avenue of sculpted yew trees that draws the eye towards the distant hills. This impressive feature, carefully maintained by the skilled gardeners of the National Trust, is a testament to the enduring beauty and resilience of nature, as well as the creative vision of the castle's former inhabitants. As you walk beneath the gnarled branches of these ancient trees, you'll feel a sense of connection to the generations of people who have enjoyed this same experience over the centuries.

The River Garden and Surrounding Parkland

As you venture further into the grounds of Dunster Castle, you'll discover the enchanting River Garden, where the gentle River Avill meanders through a picturesque landscape of wildflower meadows, wetlands, and ancient oak woodlands. This tranquil space, which feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of modern life, is a haven for wildlife and a perfect spot for visitors to relax, unwind, and enjoy the beauty of nature.


The River Garden is home to a diverse array of plant and animal life, from the colourful blooms of native wildflowers to the darting movements of dragonflies and the melodic songs of various bird species. As you follow the riverside path, you'll encounter charming wooden bridges, strategically placed benches, and informative signage that highlights the ecological importance of this unique habitat.


Beyond the River Garden lies the expansive parkland that surrounds Dunster Castle, a vast landscape of rolling hills, ancient forests, and open heathland that offers countless opportunities for exploration and discovery. Whether you choose to follow one of the well-marked walking trails or simply strike out on your own, you'll be rewarded with breathtaking views of the Somerset countryside and a chance to immerse yourself in the natural world.

The Victorian Orangery and Formal Gardens

Back within the castle's formal gardens, visitors will find themselves drawn to the impressive Victorian Orangery, a stunning glass-and-stone structure that houses a collection of exotic plants and citrus trees. This beautiful building, which dates back to the 19th century, is a testament to the Victorian fascination with horticulture and the desire to cultivate and display rare and unusual specimens from around the world.


As you step inside the Orangery, you'll be greeted by a lush, green oasis, filled with the heady scent of citrus blossoms and the vibrant colours of tropical foliage. The knowledgeable gardeners of the National Trust are always on hand to answer questions and share their passion for the plants in their care, making a visit to the Orangery both an educational and sensory delight.


Surrounding the Orangery are the immaculately maintained formal gardens of Dunster Castle, featuring geometric flower beds, manicured lawns, and expertly trimmed topiary. These gardens, which showcase the skill and dedication of the castle's horticultural team, provide a stunning backdrop for visitors to enjoy a picnic, read a book, or simply bask in the beauty of their surroundings.


From the grandeur of the South Terrace to the tranquillity of the River Garden and the exotic allure of the Victorian Orangery, the gardens and grounds of Dunster Castle offer a world of natural wonder and beauty that is sure to captivate and inspire visitors of all ages. As you explore these enchanting spaces, you'll gain a deeper appreciation for the artistry, skill, and vision that have shaped this remarkable landscape over the centuries, and the tireless efforts of the National Trust to preserve and share this incredible legacy with generations to come.

Dunster Castle

A stream in the gardens of Dunster Castle

Visiting Dunster Castle: Practical Information

Opening Times and Ticket Prices

When planning your visit to Dunster Castle, it's essential to be aware of the opening times and ticket prices to ensure a smooth and enjoyable experience. The castle is open to visitors throughout the year, with varying hours depending on the season. During the peak summer months, the castle typically welcomes guests from 10 am to 5 pm, while in the winter, the hours may be slightly reduced. It's always a good idea to check the National Trust website or contact the castle directly for the most up-to-date information on opening times.


Ticket prices for Dunster Castle vary depending on your individual circumstances and the type of ticket you require. National Trust members enjoy free admission to the castle and grounds, making membership an excellent option for those who plan to visit multiple National Trust properties throughout the year. For non-members, ticket prices are very reasonable, with options for individual, family, and group tickets available. Concession rates are also offered for seniors, students, and children, ensuring that the castle remains accessible to visitors of all ages and backgrounds.

Guided Tours and Audio Guides

To make the most of your visit to Dunster Castle, consider taking advantage of the expert-led guided tours or the informative audio guides available on site. The castle's knowledgeable and passionate tour guides offer a range of tours throughout the day, each focusing on different aspects of the castle's history, architecture, and collections. These tours provide a fascinating insight into the lives of the castle's former inhabitants and the major events that have shaped its development over the centuries.


For those who prefer a more independent exploration of the castle, audio guides are available in multiple languages. These guides, which can be rented from the ticket office, offer a self-paced tour of the castle's interior and gardens, with detailed information on each room and feature, as well as intriguing stories and anecdotes about the castle's past. The audio guides are an excellent option for visitors who want the flexibility to explore at their own pace while still benefiting from the expert knowledge of the castle's curatorial team.

Accessibility and Facilities

Dunster Castle is committed to ensuring that all visitors, regardless of their mobility or accessibility requirements, can enjoy a comfortable and rewarding experience. The castle has made significant efforts to improve accessibility throughout the site, with ramps, lifts, and level access available in many areas of the building and gardens. Wheelchairs and mobility scooters are also available for loan, free of charge, from the ticket office.


In addition to accessibility features, Dunster Castle offers a range of facilities to enhance your visit. The on-site car park provides ample space for visitors arriving by car, with designated spots for disabled visitors and electric vehicle charging points available. The castle's gift shop, located in the visitor centre, offers a tempting selection of souvenirs, books, and locally crafted items, perfect for taking home a memento of your visit or finding a unique gift for a loved one.


For those in need of refreshment during their visit, the castle's café and tea room serve a delicious range of hot and cold drinks, light lunches, and snacks, all prepared using locally sourced ingredients wherever possible. The café's outdoor seating area, overlooking the stunning castle gardens, is a particularly popular spot for visitors to relax and recharge before continuing their exploration of the site.


Restroom facilities, including accessible toilets and baby changing areas, are located conveniently throughout the castle and grounds, ensuring that visitors of all ages and needs are well catered for during their time at Dunster Castle.


By providing a range of amenities, accessibility features, and expert-led tours, Dunster Castle aims to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for all visitors, allowing everyone to experience the magic and wonder of this incredible historic site at their own pace and in their own way.

Dunster Castle

Christmas at Dunster Castle

Festive Decorations and Illuminations

As the festive season approaches, Dunster Castle undergoes a magical transformation, with breathtaking Christmas decorations and illuminations that enchant visitors of all ages. The castle's grand interiors are adorned with twinkling lights, garlands, and beautifully decorated Christmas trees, creating a warm and inviting atmosphere that perfectly captures the spirit of the holidays.


In the Great Hall, an impressive 20-foot Christmas tree takes centre stage, decked out in traditional Victorian-style ornaments and surrounded by a charming array of vintage toys and games. The castle's state rooms are also given a festive makeover, with elegant table settings, roaring log fires, and opulent floral displays that evoke the grandeur and hospitality of Christmases past.


As night falls, the castle's exterior is illuminated by thousands of twinkling lights, transforming the building and its grounds into a winter wonderland. The iconic towers and battlements are outlined in glowing strings of lights, while the gardens and terraces are adorned with glittering displays that showcase the beauty and creativity of the castle's horticultural team. The illuminations create a truly enchanting atmosphere, inviting visitors to explore the castle and its surroundings in a whole new light.

Festive Events and Activities

Throughout the Christmas season, Dunster Castle hosts a packed programme of festive events and activities, offering visitors of all ages the chance to celebrate the holidays in a truly unique and memorable setting. One of the highlights of the festive calendar is the annual Christmas fair, which takes place in the castle's historic stables and courtyards. This lively event features a wide range of local craftsmen and artisans, selling everything from handmade Christmas decorations and gifts to delicious seasonal food and drink.


For younger visitors, a visit to Father Christmas in his enchanting grotto is an absolute must. Children can share their Christmas wishes with Santa, receive a special gift, and enjoy a magical storytelling session in a cosy, festively decorated setting. The castle also offers a range of Christmas-themed craft workshops and activities, where children can create their own decorations, cards, and gifts to take home.


Music plays a central role in the castle's Christmas celebrations, with regular carol concerts and performances by local choirs and musicians taking place throughout the festive period. The castle's stunning chapel provides the perfect setting for these intimate and atmospheric concerts, which offer a moment of peaceful reflection and joy amidst the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.

Christmas at Dunster Castle and the Local Community

Christmas at Dunster Castle is not just a celebration for visitors, but also an important event for the local community in Dunster and the surrounding area. The castle works closely with local businesses, craftspeople, and community groups to create a truly inclusive and engaging festive experience that benefits the entire region.


Many of the products sold at the castle's Christmas fair and gift shop are sourced from local suppliers, showcasing the talent and creativity of the area's artisans and producers. The castle also partners with local schools and charities, inviting them to participate in the festive celebrations and use the events as a platform to raise awareness and funds for their causes.


The highlight of the castle's community engagement during the festive season is the annual Dunster by Candlelight event, which sees the entire village illuminated by thousands of candles and filled with music, laughter, and festive cheer. During this magical evening, the castle opens its doors to the community, offering free admission and a range of special activities and performances that bring together residents and visitors alike in a spirit of celebration and togetherness.


Christmas at Dunster Castle is a truly enchanting experience that captures the warmth, joy, and magic of the festive season. Through its stunning decorations, engaging events, and strong community ties, the castle creates a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere that inspires visitors to celebrate the holidays in a unique and unforgettable setting, while also supporting and showcasing the best of the local area.

An archway in Dunster Castle

Special Events and Activities at Dunster Castle

Living History and Re-enactments

Dunster Castle is renowned for its captivating living history events and re-enactments, which transport visitors back in time and bring the castle's rich past to life. Throughout the year, the National Trust hosts a range of immersive events that showcase different periods of the castle's history, from medieval times to the Victorian era.


One of the most popular living history events is the Medieval Festival, which takes place in the castle grounds over a weekend in the summer. During this event, visitors can experience the sights, sounds, and smells of a medieval encampment, complete with authentic tents, cooking fires, and craft demonstrations. Re-enactors dressed in period costumes engage with visitors, sharing stories of life in the Middle Ages and demonstrating skills such as archery, swordsmanship, and falconry.


Other living history events throughout the year include Victorian Christmas celebrations, where the castle is decorated in authentic 19th-century style and visitors can enjoy traditional carols, storytelling, and festive crafts. The castle also hosts regular "Meet the Experts" days, where visitors can interact with historians, archaeologists, and conservators to learn about the work that goes into preserving and interpreting Dunster Castle's fascinating history.

Art Exhibitions and Cultural Events

In addition to its historical events, Dunster Castle also serves as a vibrant hub for art and culture in the local community. The castle's stunning interiors and gardens provide a unique and inspiring setting for a variety of exhibitions, performances, and workshops throughout the year.


The castle's exhibition space, located in the 17th-century stables, hosts regular displays of work by local artists and craftspeople, showcasing the creativity and talent of the region. These exhibitions cover a wide range of media and styles, from traditional painting and sculpture to contemporary installations and digital art.


Music and theatre also play a significant role in the castle's cultural programme, with regular concerts and performances taking place in the Great Hall and other historic spaces. From classical recitals and opera to jazz and folk music, the castle's diverse musical offerings attract visitors from far and wide.


During the summer months, the castle's beautiful gardens become the backdrop for open-air theatre productions, with local and national theatre companies staging classic plays and adaptations in the enchanting surroundings of the South Terrace and Yew Tree Walk.

Family-Friendly Activities and Workshops

Dunster Castle is committed to providing engaging and educational experiences for visitors of all ages, with a particular focus on families and young people. The castle offers a year-round programme of family-friendly activities and workshops, designed to spark curiosity, creativity, and a love of learning.


During school holidays, the castle hosts a range of themed events and activities, such as Easter egg hunts, Halloween trails, and summer nature walks. These events encourage children to explore the castle and its grounds, solving puzzles, completing challenges, and discovering the wonders of the natural world.


The castle also runs regular workshops and classes for children and adults, covering topics such as art and crafts, gardening, and historic cookery. These hands-on sessions provide a unique opportunity for visitors to learn new skills, meet like-minded people, and gain a deeper appreciation for the castle's history and traditions.


For families visiting the castle, there are plenty of opportunities for self-guided exploration and play. The castle's Adventure Playground, located in the grounds near the River Avill, offers a safe and stimulating environment for children to climb, swing, and let their imaginations run wild. The castle also provides family-friendly trails and activity packs, which encourage children to engage with the history and wildlife of the site in a fun and interactive way.


Through its diverse range of special events and activities, Dunster Castle aims to inspire and delight visitors of all ages, fostering a sense of connection to the past and a love of learning that will last a lifetime.

Cottages of Dunster Castle

Dunster Village and the Surrounding Area

Exploring the Historic Village of Dunster

A visit to Dunster Castle is incomplete without taking the time to explore the charming village of Dunster itself. This picturesque medieval settlement, nestled at the foot of the castle hill, is a treasure trove of history, architecture, and local character.


The village's main street, High Street, is lined with beautifully preserved historic buildings, many of which date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. The Yarn Market, a striking octagonal structure in the centre of the village, stands as a testament to Dunster's once-thriving wool trade. Built in the early 17th century, this unique building served as a covered market for the sale of locally produced cloth and yarn.


As you stroll through the village, you'll discover a variety of independent shops, galleries, and cafes, each with its own distinct character and charm. From traditional tea rooms serving homemade cakes and scones to artisan craft shops showcasing the work of local designers and makers, Dunster offers plenty of opportunities for browsing, shopping, and relaxation.


The village is also home to several historic landmarks, including the 15th-century Priory Church of St. George, which boasts a stunning fan-vaulted ceiling and an impressive collection of medieval tombs and monuments. The Dunster Working Watermill, located on the banks of the River Avill, offers a fascinating glimpse into the village's industrial past, with demonstrations of traditional milling techniques and a range of locally produced flour and baked goods for sale.

Scenic Walks and Outdoor Activities

The stunning natural beauty of the Somerset countryside surrounding Dunster Castle provides endless opportunities for outdoor exploration and adventure. Whether you're a seasoned hiker or simply enjoy a gentle stroll in nature, there are plenty of scenic walks and trails to suit all abilities and interests.


One of the most popular walks from the village is the Dunster to Dunkery Beacon hike, which takes you through the picturesque Avill Valley and up to the summit of Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on Exmoor. From this vantage point, you can enjoy breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, stretching all the way to the Bristol Channel and beyond.


For a more leisurely walk, the Tall Trees Trail in Nutcombe Bottom is a must-visit. This enchanting woodland walk takes you through a stunning valley, home to some of the tallest and oldest trees in England, including majestic Douglas firs and towering redwoods.


Other outdoor activities in the area include fishing on the River Avill, which is renowned for its excellent trout and salmon fishing, and cycling along the quiet country lanes and bridleways that crisscross the surrounding hills and valleys. The nearby Exmoor National Park also offers a wealth of opportunities for wildlife spotting, stargazing, and discovering the rich history and folklore of this enchanting region.

Local Festivals and Events

Throughout the year, Dunster and the surrounding area host a vibrant calendar of festivals and events, celebrating the region's rich heritage, culture, and community spirit. These events offer a wonderful opportunity for visitors to experience the warmth and hospitality of the local people and to immerse themselves in the unique traditions and customs of Somerset.


One of the highlights of the local calendar is the Dunster Show, a traditional agricultural show that takes place in August each year. This bustling event showcases the best of local farming, crafts, and produce, with livestock displays, horticultural competitions, and a range of family-friendly entertainment and activities.


In December, the village comes alive with the magic of the Dunster by Candlelight festival, a breathtaking spectacle that sees the streets and buildings illuminated by thousands of glowing candles. Visitors can enjoy carol singing, street performances, and a warm glass of mulled wine as they soak up the enchanting atmosphere of this beloved annual tradition.


Other notable events throughout the year include the Dunster Festival in May, which celebrates the village's rich musical and artistic heritage with a programme of concerts, workshops, and performances, and the Dunster Country Fair in July, a lively celebration of rural life and crafts, with demonstrations, stalls, and entertainment for all the family.


With its timeless charm, stunning natural beauty, and vibrant community life, Dunster and the surrounding area offer a wealth of experiences and adventures for visitors to enjoy, from the grandeur of Dunster Castle to the tranquil beauty of the Somerset countryside. Whether you're a history lover, an outdoor enthusiast, or simply seeking a taste of authentic English village life, this enchanting corner of the West Country is sure to captivate and delight you.

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