It’s one of the best-preserved medieval villages in England, with car-harassing narrow streets set against a backdrop of the splendid castle.
Dunster sits just within the national park, and is deservedly the most visited small town in eastern Exmoor. It’s also one of the best-preserved medieval villages in England, with car-harassing narrow streets and the backdrop of a splendid castle and the folly-topped mound of Conygar Wood. Until 2011 the pavements comprised ancient cobblestones that looked lovely but made for painful and sometimes dangerous walking. Parts have now been replaced by paving slabs, which are less charming but easier on the feet.
The shops are tasteful, selling high-quality goods; the traffic is controlled; and there are lots of quality pubs, tea shops and snack bars. Among the shops is the excellent Deli, which sells a good selection of local crafts and a huge range of local beers and ciders.
It’s strange to think that in the 12th century Dunster Haven was a busy port. When the shore became land, the town switched its activities to the wool trade so successfully that the local cloth was known as ‘Dunsters’. The octagonal Yarn Market was built in 1609 to protect the wool traders from the Exmoor weather; it serves a similar purpose for damp tourists today.
Medieval towns like this often feel claustrophobic, but Dunster revels in open spaces and enclosed public gardens. Across one such space, the Village Garden, is the dovecot, which probably dates from the 14th century and still has the nest holes. It originally belonged to the priory but after the Dissolution of the Monasteries was sold to the Luttrells (the family that lived at Dunster Castle for 18 generations). Young pigeon, squab, was a luxury food, and until the 17th century only lords of the manor and parish priests were allowed to keep pigeons.
Near the dovecote is a lovely little church garden, and the red sandstone church of St George. First impressions are of a gloriously intricate wagon roof, some good bosses, and a font with a complicated cover. And the famous screen. Now, most old churches have screens, and many have screens as beautifully carved as this one, with fan vaulting to support the weight of the rood. But none, anywhere, has a screen this length, stretching across the full 54-foot width of the church.
A rural lane running alongside a stream leads to the Water Mill. Dating from the 17th century and grinding wheat daily to produce flour for its shop and local bakeries, it’s an interesting place to visit and the tea room serves very tasty light meals. Continue past the mill and you enter the spacious gardens of Dunster Castle.
This is the perfect approach to the castle: peaceful and uncrowded with, when I was there, only the sound of birdsong and the river. A path winds round to the main, steep entrance to the castle, which is also easily accessed from both West and High streets. Be warned, though; it is a very steep climb (Angina Hill, they call it) from the town or the castle car park so it’s not really suitable for visitors with health problems.